New Life Science Building at University of Washington Is Described as "Hyper-Sustainable"

© Kevin Scott. Kevin Scott

Or is it a missed opportunity?

"Biology is the study of the natural world, and what better to serve as inspiration for the design of the new state-of-the-art and highly sustainable Life Sciences Building created by Perkins+Will for the University of Washington."

That's the pitch about this new building. The feature that most attracted me was actually the big open stair behind a giant glass wall. We love a good stair, encouraging people to get exercise and natural light.


© Kevin Scott/ Interior stair

To encourage impromptu encounters, the interior features a suspended staircase with oversized landing areas; the exterior features a courtyard with cascading stairs and reclaimed wood benches along with a rooftop deck with seating adjacent to a cafe.

The stair drew me in, but there is a lot more going on.

Solar fins on exterior

© University of Washington

There is some great gizmo green happening here, with photovoltaic fins on the windows that generate enough power to light 12,400 square feet of office while shading the windows. The website claims that the amount of electricity generated by the fins is 12,260 kWh [sic] and that they are made of amorphous silicone [sic].

green details in section

© University of Washington

There are also very cool chilled beams and radiant floors, water reclamation and recirculation, and natural ventilation. It's got heat recovery and other measures that result in a 57 percent energy reduction.

Inside fins

© Kevin Scott/ solar fins viewed from inside

“Biology takes an integrative approach to understanding the natural world,” said Devin Kleiner, project architect and senior associate with Perkins+Will. “Inspired by that philosophy, the design combines elements of nature as the visual focal points with innovative and sustainable design features.”
douglas fir on elevartors

© Kevin Scott/ Douglas Fir on elevators

And that big visual focal point is a wrapping of the elevator core with a bunch of Douglas fir slabs.

One of the design’s most unique elements is the elevator core, wrapped in custom-milled slabs from 200-foot Douglas fir trees. Designed to mimic the way the trees appeared in the woods, the wide base of the trees on the first floor progressively narrows and tapers as it rises to the floors above. The nine trees from a forest in the Olympic Peninsula were donated by Leopold-Freeman Forests, LLC, as part of Scott and Susan Freeman’s watershed restoration efforts described in the book Saving Tarboo Creek.

The building elevators also play bird songs. According to Dave Brewer of Skanska:

Each floor’s elevator ring has a specific bird song associated with it, including a Swainson’s thrush, red-breasted sapsucker, varied thrush, red-breasted nuthatch, western tanager, Townsend’s warbler and olive-sided flycatcher. This was another fun way to showcase the department’s broad-based work and research of all living things.
south face

© Kevin Scott

Buildings like this are on the boards for a long time, and I suspect that if it was being designed today, it would be built of mass timber, now legal for buildings this tall in the state of Washington. Instead of LEED Gold, it would have been interesting and fitting if it had gone for the Living Building Challenge certification, which looks at buildings as if they are biological creatures, and has biophilia as a major component.

In some ways, particularly for a building dedicated to biology, this building seems like a missed opportunity, a throwback to the Gizmo Green days where you just add stuff on top (and nail wood to the elevators) instead of being sustainable to the very core.

Perhaps I am being too critical. Perhaps I expect too much. Perkins + Will know their stuff. But I am stuck on the bird songs and Douglas fir wallpaper.