Higher Ed’s facility arms race continues unabated, but is it sustainable?
University of Pennsylvania has added a new gateway building on the eastern edge of campus known as the Krishna P. Singh Center for Nanotechnology. This 78,000 SF $91.5 million dollar research tour-de-force is designed by the Manhattan firm of Weiss/Manfredi and shepherded from idea to reality by the school’s Dean Eduardo Glandt. The gateway is formed at the street level by a pocket park created by the building’s set back from the street and three dimensionally by the transparent, dynamic geometries that open the engineering department to the city. In fact one of Dean Glandt’s stated objectives was to make science visible to the university and community instead of being hidden in closed and opaque buildings.
There are background buildings that fit contextually into place and there are signature buildings designed to make a statement. The Singh Center with its cantilevered form, transparent frit patterned glass curtain wall and intersecting geometric forms creates a dynamic signature building that fits into the fabric of the urban grid. Yet the building is unique enough that the Inquirer’s architectural critic named it the best Philadelphia building since the Barnes. Some of the unique features include openings in the landscape plaza allow light to filter into the lower levels of the building where the most vibration sensitive equipment is placed on bedrock. Orange glass walls separate the labs from the day-lit filled transparent corridors allowing for daylight into the labs while projecting this orange glow at night into the courtyard. A seemingly obligatory – these days, roof top garden allows for views to the campus to the west.
Bottom Line: The University has taken a page out of the business playbook by using design to differentiate their product, in effect branding their departments, colleges and campuses. And just as businesses compete with one another and use design to differentiate their products: think Braun, Beats and Bose. Colleges from Ivy League private schools to Land Grant public institutions are using high-design state-of-art facilities to recruit research staff, attract students, and promote their departments. As in all arms races, this ratchets up the design, and cost for all colleges across the board perpetuating the arms race.
Certainly universities have the right to spend their money, and their donor’s money however they choose. But the Nano-tech Laboratory is built with both private and public money. Singh, the named donor gave $20 million, the state of Pennsylvania $25 million and the remaining funds from private donors and Penn. At $1,200 per SF, almost 35% higher than the cost of comparable nanotechnology laboratory structures there was no expense spared in the structure. The single loaded extra wide corridors, cantilevered ‘event’ room and an ‘L’ shaped plan with complex geometries all raise the cost of the building. Michael Manfredi the labs architect stated the “usual lab maze of dim hallways lined with closed doors isn’t enough in today’s innovation-driven and collaborative research environment”, he’s right. But it’s not a license for an unlimited budget at the taxpayers’ expense. It’s one thing if the building is good, and the university has a market position, pricing advantage, and branding story that Penn indeed has; However it’s another story if it’s a poorly executed building at a public university, see my post on Penn State’s Nano-Technology Laboratory that was a white elephant building when it opened and will end up saddling the university with an enormously expensive building to maintain over time.