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Lab Design and Furnishings

Project Profile: Memorial University of Newfoundland

How do you get a blue whale skeleton into a research building?

MaryBeth DiDonna

Lab Manager spoke to Jeff Churchill, Regional Leader of Science+Technology with HOK, about the Memorial University of Newfoundland Core Science Facility, St John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. 

Memorial University of Newfoundland Core Science Facility by HOK
Memorial University of Newfoundland Core Science Facility

The 475,000 sf (44,210 sm) project was completed in September 2021, with a $260 million construction budget. The project team was HOK, design architect and architect of record; Hearn/Fougere Architecture, associate architect; TTN in association with RG Vanderweil, MEP engineer; DBA in association with Entuitive, structural engineer; and MARCO, general contractor/construction manager. 

Q: What was the need for this facility? Is it replacing an outdated existing facility or accommodating new research/ a new program? 

A: HOK designed this sophisticated research and teaching building to help enable Memorial University to increase its enrollment and provide a state-of-the-art research facility. As the first major project on MUN campus since 1961, the Core Sciences Facility provides facilities to support the critical and timely research in the Newfoundland area and establishes MUN Science and Engineering on the world stage. The design, with its bright, open laboratories, classrooms, collaboration spaces, and amenities, will attract and retain top students and faculty members to the St. John’s campus.

Q: What kinds of sustainability initiatives have been included in the design plan? Is the facility pursuing LEED certification or something similar?

A: The design team included a variety of strategies: building massing analysis focusing on opportunities for daylight and optimizing solar heat gain, transit availability and cycling programs, aggressive energy consumption targets, and local low water planting in the landscaping. The primary focus was to address energy costs with good engineering practices.  The design team explored many options to achieve an aggressive energy reduction within the high-energy-use building type. The final solution includes chilled beams and a heat recovery wheel, reducing the building’s energy use by 40 percent compared to a conventional design.

MUN’s commitment to sustainability extends into its programing of the Core Science Facility (CSF). MUN’s unique location, adjacent to the intersection of the Arctic and Atlantic Ocean, ideally positions the CSF to support the investigation of aquatic environmental impacts on an area known as the ‘earth’s lungs.’ As part of the Ocean Frontier Institute, much of the research being done in the labs at CSF will be focused on oceanography study of this area and the aquatic life, carbon impacts, global warming, and climate change. CSF labs also supports research in solar and wind energy.    

blue whale skeleton
An 82-foot-long blue whale skeleton in the atrium is a nod to the university’s ocean-related science expertise.

Q: Is there anything particularly unique or groundbreaking about your facility or the design plan?

A: The planning and organization of the laboratories that offers the research programs some of the most valuable innovations. How the building is organized enables better opportunities to get research funded, develop collaborative and creative collisions, and retain and attract students, researchers, and faculty members. 

Two tall vertical atria link the facility’s three tower block pavilions, which promotes the type of ‘creative collisions’ that drive research discoveries. The atria host events, facilitate academic research fairs, and provide gather space for impromptu learning and collaboration opportunities. Co-locating teaching and research labs enable research to ‘spill over’ into underutilized teaching labs in non-peak times, while exposing undergraduate students to post-graduate research during school hours, enhancing the student experience and leading to greater retention of students. 

Because of the flexibility in lab design and proximity to amenities for every laboratory space, researchers from different departments are co-mingling the setup of their labs within the lab neighborhoods, providing unprecedented exposure to areas of investigation that are normally separate. Windows into these lab and studio spaces put research on display on all five floors. The addition of leasable spaces for private industry has taken the collaborative learning and research out to the marketplace, creating new opportunities for students, faculty members, the university, and the private sector. 

All these research and teaching labs sits atop the main floor platform, which consists of a vibrant social hub and gathering place for cross-disciplinary interaction. The ground floor houses aquatics labs, classrooms, major shared equipment facilities, specialty labs, and meeting space called Core Research Equipment and Instrument Training (CREAIT) Network. The main floor is a repository of amenities that give researcher access to resources that are not normally available, and can be funded on a project-by-project basis or by any singular funding grant. 

Perhaps the most unexpected element in the CSF is an 82-foot-long blue whale skeleton, suspended in the west atrium. Two blue whales washed ashore nearby, with one being donated to the university for display. The whale has become a major identifier emerging as an immediate cultural icon within the research community. Led by a naming competition with an accompaniment of merchandise, including a brand of beer, the whale has become a major symbol that reminds students and faculty members of the critical nature of their research, inspires reflection on the University’s ocean-related expertise and provokes future scientists and researchers!

[Watch this time-lapse video from Memorial University of Newfoundland, showing the blue whale’s skeleton being installed in the atrium.]  

chem lab
Students at work in the Chemistry Teaching Lab.

Q: What sorts of challenges did you encounter during the design/build process, and how did you overcome them? 

A: As a relatively remote island community, proximity to material, labor, and expertise was limited, requiring forethought and keen understanding of the market. Also, as the most eastern peninsula of the North American continent, the weather conditions drove many design decisions. St. John’s is known for its foggy and rainy weather, which necessitated a large, glazed atria with layers of interior windows to drive light deep into the lab floors. The use of modular precast panels provided a durable envelope that would counteract the high horizontal winds and rain that come off the ocean. The precast panels were fabricated off-site on the mainland where labor and expertise were more readily available. On-site, the precast was a quick and easy envelope to assemble.       

Q: If a similar facility or program were to look at your lab for inspiration, what do you think they will take away as an example of what they should also implement in their own lab?

A: The true takeaway from CSF is that investment in infrastructure, strategic planning, clear vision, and quality design opens up a world of possibilities in research and teaching for an institution.