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August 30, 2018

UW Life Sciences Building: giant firs and bird songs offer a one-of-a-kind elevator ride

  • A specially assembled timber facade greets passengers, who are serenaded by a different bird song on each floor.
    Skanska Building


    About one-third of all bachelors’ degrees conferred by U.S. colleges and universities between 2000 and 2012 were in science and engineering fields, according to the National Science Foundation.

    At the University of Washington, biology is the most popular STEM major at the Seattle campus, with more than 600 bachelors’ degrees awarded annually. A UW biology degree is a portal to careers in the health care professions, allied health sciences, biotechnology, bioenergy, environmental sciences and biology teaching.

    Starting this September, students and faculty will enjoy the newly completed Life Sciences Building, a complex that includes seven floors and 207,000 square feet designed to foster team-oriented science. The building encompasses a 187,000-square-foot research and teaching facility and a 20,000-square-foot research greenhouse with UW plant collections.

    The Life Sciences Building will catalyze the growth of the Department of Biology to meet student demand and transform the fundamental discovery mission by promoting collaborative, interdisciplinary research and innovation among faculty, students and staff.

    UW’s biology department takes an integrative, collaborative approach to understanding the living world. Following the similar collaborative philosophy that inspired the building, the project team worked closely to mitigate construction challenges and prioritized frequent communication to ensure the best possible outcomes.

    Harvesting trees

    Photos by Kevin Scott [enlarge]
    The Life Sciences Building includes 187,000 square feet of teaching and research space, and a 20,000-square-foot greenhouse.

    An anecdote about one of the building’s marquee features, the elevator lobby facades, perfectly illustrates the deep and engaged cooperation among project partners.

    There are many symbols of the Pacific Northwest, and the Douglas fir tree is chief among them. Second only to redwoods when it comes to average height, the trees are as much a symbol of the region as they are a driver for a thriving sustainable timber industry. It’s not unusual for buildings to incorporate timber into their designs, but when designs for the Life Sciences Building called for wood to be the facing of the facility’s elevator core, the seed of a good idea took root.

    UW biology professor Scott Freeman and his wife, Susan Leopold Freeman, donated trees from their conservation property on the Olympic peninsula for use in the building design. Susan is the granddaughter of Aldo Leopold, one of the founders of the science of wildlife management, and she continues her family’s legacy as conservationists. A small grove of older trees on the Freemans’ property required thinning to strengthen their long-term root structure and prevent the loss of the trees in windstorms.

    In 2016, our team from Skanska, the Freemans, UW biology department and Perkins+Will traveled to the community of Quilcene at the foot of the Olympic Mountains. There, we hand-selected the nine trees to harvest and mill to the specifications needed for the project. Each tree stood 150 feet tall, which matched the elevator core and full six stories of building height.

    I’ll never forget the day we hiked the Freemans’ 160-acre forest and learned about the life-cycle of birch and alder trees, which after reaching 85 feet can no longer send water to their tops and die. They become nurse logs on the forest floor fueling the mighty Douglas fir and cedar trees.

    Solar glass fins shade offices while generating electricity.

    After flagging the trees to be harvested, we ended the day outside the Freemans’ humble cabin, sitting in a circle over some simple cheese and crackers, sharing all our ideas. It put the entire project into perspective and had a huge impact on me.

    Careful reassembly

    How the trees were installed in the elevator is what’s truly special. Each tree has been carefully labeled through harvesting and milling of their center cores to ensure we could later line up the individual pieces along the height of the elevator core.

    Essentially, the core of each tree was put back in place in the building on the elevator lobby facade exactly as the tree stood in the forest. From top to bottom, the trees were reassembled. Additionally, adjacent sides of the elevator cores utilized the outer shells of the trees, depicting the sides of each tree in the forest.

    A mock-up of the elevator core was useful in the early coordination of this unique feature, as it flushed out numerous detailing and coordination challenges. It provided opportunity to solve the challenges before they found their way into the field, allowing subcontractors to learn how to build this one-of-a-kind feature prior to actual installation.

    Incorporating these Douglas firs into the elevator experiences speaks to the customer commitment for this project. There is no shortage of places that can source this wood. Instead, though, we created something with someone who will work in the building.

    Elevator music

    The ingenuity and massive attention to details characterizes much of the construction of the Life Sciences Building.

    The building is designed to meet LEED gold criteria and includes innovative sustainable features such as water that’s reused for greenhouse irrigation and solar glass fins that shade the offices and generate electricity — a first-of-its-kind installation.

    A unique feature in the elevators is the incorporation of bird songs, where the elevator ring for each floor is assigned a specific bird song.

    The idea to incorporate bird songs was brought to Skanska by UW biology faculty. Emeritus professor Sievert Rohwer worked with Mike Webster and Matt Young of Cornell University’s Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds to identify bird species that live from the top to the lower levels of the forest.

    As a result, 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.

    Life sciences are the branches of science that involve the study of organisms, such as microorganisms, plants and animals, including human beings. It is this synergy that the Life Sciences Building intertwines with Douglas firs from the natural world as a visual focal point.

    The new building ensures that the Department of Biology will continue to lead the transformation in how biology is practiced. The design is open, flexible and modular, allowing for adaptation of the space when emerging research questions require novel methods and newly developed instrumentation. Undergraduate teaching labs and an active learning classroom will allow faculty to engage all students in hands-on, dynamic learning and discovery.

    Our team is thrilled that students, faculty and staff will experience the legacy of collaboration in the design and construction process for years to come.

    Kirk Brewer is a senior project manager at Skanska Building.

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