Science project

The new Eckhardt Center’s design facilitates research from molecular engineering to astrophysics.

By Jason Kelly
Rendering courtesy HOK/JCDA/AJSNY

When it opens in 2015, the Eckhardt Center will be a hub for diverse scientific research.

“Think of it as a people collider,” University architect Steve Wiesenthal says about the William Eckhardt Research Center. When it opens in 2015, the $215 million building will house the University’s new Institute for Molecular Engineering; parts of the Kavli, Fermi, and Franck Institutes; and the astronomy and astrophysics department—science from the smallest scale possible to the largest imaginable. “The design of the building is going to be a very interesting meeting ground between scientists at vastly different scales,” Wiesenthal says. Almost 250 faculty members, including 24 in molecular engineering, plus students and support staff, will have offices and labs there.

Accommodating divergent needs presented challenges for the architecture firm HOK. Replacing the Research Institutes building on Ellis Avenue and 57th Street, the center will burrow 50 feet. “Almost as deep as Mansueto Library across the street,” Wiesenthal notes, “to minimize the vibration.” Sitting on a four-foot concrete mat slab will render the structure “basically immovable,” allowing delicate work in nanoscale laboratories on two subterranean levels. Five stories above ground will culminate, Wiesenthal says, in “a rooftop experimentation terrace to reach to the stars.”

In between those scientific extremes, plans call for the 265,000-square-foot Eckhardt Center—named to commemorate a $20 million gift to support advanced science from Chicago futures trader William Eckhardt, SM’70—to integrate the researchers, with offices interspersed rather than divided by department. Collaboration will be especially important in molecular engineering. The specific focus of the new institute will be defined later this year after the University hires a director, a position funded with a $10 million gift from the Pritzker Foundation.

The key principles of molecular engineering blur the lines between biology, chemistry, and physics, creating a confluence of scientific knowledge that could lead to major medical or technological breakthroughs. Recommended by a faculty committee in 2009, the institute, in partnership with Argonne National Laboratory, could pursue research on topics such as public health, homeland security, or energy efficiency.

Energy efficiency is a major factor in the building’s design and construction, Wiesenthal says. The University will maintain more than 75 percent of the material from the Research Institutes’ demolition for reuse and will pursue LEED Gold certification from the US Green Building Council, an ambitious aspiration for any laboratory building. To help achieve that goal, chilled beams will cool the center using water instead of a less-efficient forced-air system, and heat from exhaust will be captured and recirculated. High-efficiency plumbing will reduce water use. Plans also include bike racks and showers to encourage alternative transportation.

The center strives to create a welcoming environment along Ellis, which Wiesenthal envisions as a campus main street. “There’s also food,” he says, referring to a café that will be visible and accessible from Ellis. “Always a great gathering magnet.”

Intended to draw people in, the building’s design also connects to the outside. Artist and architect Jamie Carpenter collaborated with HOK. Carpenter—who designed the new 40-foot “light bridges” crossing the Midway at Ellis and Woodlawn Avenues—has used light and glass to give the Eckhardt Center a sense of opening out to the campus while reflecting natural illumination into the building.

Incorporating natural light was an essential element from the first design discussions, both for its importance to sustainability and for the bright, open aesthetic it creates, says Wiesenthal. The original vision statement quoted midcentury architect Louis Kahn: “All material in nature, the mountains and the streams and the air and we, are made of Light which has been spent, and this crumpled mass called material casts a shadow, and the shadow belongs to Light.”



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