Innovative design for laboratory complex

Lucy Nordberg
Monday 31 Oct 2016

Morphosis and Albert Kahn Associates developed new techniques in the design process for the newly-opened A. Alfred Taubman Engineering, Architecture, and Life Sciences Complex

The Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, MI is undergoing a major expansion and renovation effort led by Morphosis and Albert Kahn Associates,. This will add new campus regions, buildings, and amenities to serve the university’s growing student population. At 36,700 sq ft, the newly-opened Taubman complex is among the first buildings constructed under this programme. It offers advanced facilities for robotics engineering, biomedical engineering, life sciences and related subjects. Fittingly, this centre of scientific innovation has itself been constructed using new techniques.

The design evolved around opportunities to enhance connectivity at multiple scales – between the school’s various engineering and design disciplines, previously housed in separate buildings, as well as within existing and future regions of the campus. To support this effort, the Complex is designed as an extrudable section that can be enlarged in phases. The spine of the section is formed by two floors of laboratories, which look out into an open flex space running the length of the building. This flex space is the collaborative heart of the Complex, providing an expansive and re-configurable hall for informal discussions and lectures. Clerestory glazing fills the flex space with light diffused through an ETFE (ethylene tetrafluoroethylene) scrim along the east and west facades; in the evening, this scrim becomes illuminated by back lighting.

Opportunities were identified to use the form of the building to establish a new axis for the school that would enhance links between existing buildings and act as a bridge to future regions of the campus. The bridge-like form of the building defines the campus periphery and enhances the view of the University from the adjacent road. The Complex is linked to neighbouring buildings by lifted bridges, framing a new entrance and gateway to the University. 

Breaching the linear form of the building, a carbon fibre circulation “orb” contains the main staircase and marks the entrance, while creating a focal point for the University quad. The orb is capped at both ends by circular skylights that allow sunlight to stream through the translucent floors of the stairwell and cast reflections onto the water below. 

The team of Morphosis and Albert Kahn Associates have an interest in the development of new materials and the integration of unique forms. Underscoring the Taubman Complex’s mission to serve as an incubator for science-learning and experimentation, the orb is sheathed in a black matte-finished carbon fibre composite that is innovative in both its formulation and application. Typically encountered in architecture as an add-on non-structural material, the carbon fibre panels were instead specifically formulated to simultaneously serve structural, performance, and aesthetic functions in a material application that could have implications for the future use of composites in architectural design. 

Kahn, the Architect and Engineer of Record, has a reputation for creating solutions for structures in extreme conditions, and embraced the challenge to merge architecture and engineering solutions when designing the 44 foot-high compound curved structure. The material was tested for mechanical properties, including tensile, compressive and flexural strength. The carbon fibre is layered in wedge shapes, similar to a football, which allows the orb to maintain structural integrity as it connects with the cantilevered stair. Alan Cobb, FAIA Executive Architect for the project, claims: “The future is now wide open to use the product in similar architectural applications and our team is ready to create new possibilities.”

Lucy Nordberg

Business Information Specialist

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