Science complex construction requires unique and creative solutions

University Park, Pa. — Penn State's new Millennium Science Complex, the most comprehensive laboratory facility to be built at the University, is scheduled to open in 2011 and has already spawned a tremendous amount of innovation as it takes shape on a prominent corner of campus.

As the epicenter of study and work for the Materials Research Institute and the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, the Millennium Science Complex promises to be home to groundbreaking research.

Life sciences research in the building will include work in such cutting-edge areas as neuroengineering, molecular biology, genomics and infectious diseases. Materials research will include emerging areas like nanotechnology and biotechnology, and other important fields such as electronic materials and ceramics.

That research, however, comes with unique needs, which have led to unique solutions in the building's design and construction.

For photos detailing the construction process for the unique needs and features of building, visit

In addition to its immense scope, the 292,000-square-feet, L-shaped structure undoubtedly will be noted most for the cantilever, which spans 150 feet above an open plaza at the northwest corner of the building, where the life sciences and materials sciences wings join together.

"The cantilever is unique and was a real challenge to build," said Scott McMahon, vice president of Whiting Turner Construction, the general contractor for the complex. "A lot of buildings might have cantilevers, but they're usually much smaller. This is much larger and deeper than normal.

"The engineer had to calculate the deflection [the degree to which a structural element is displaced under a load] it would experience as you build each piece of the structure. As loads are added, like steel and precast concrete panels, the deflection is increased," McMahon said. "We then measured that in the field. We had to erect the precast concrete panels in a certain sequence because of the load it added, to even it out as we built it."

Besides being the signature architectural feature, the cantilever also provides an important function in helping to keep the laboratories beneath it "quiet," or free from vibration. 

"Quiet labs are placed in that corner in the basement to ensure that no vibration from footfalls or noise of the building generated by machinery is carried down to the quiet labs," said Dick Tennent, Office of the Physical Plant project manager for the Millennium Science Complex. "The space above it is cantilevered so that no structure is carried down onto the areas around the quiet labs.

"It also makes for an 'a-ha' moment in architecture."

Much of the work in those quiet labs will involve nanotechnology research and the use of ultrasensitive electron microscopes, which focus beams of electrons using magnetic lenses. Electricity and vibration are easily detected and can disrupt the examination of particles on a very fine scale.  No current building at Penn State can support the newest and most sensitive of electron microscopes.

The cantilever is far from the only vibration-elimination element in place in the new building.

Tennent said the structure was sited so that labs could be on the northwest corner near the Life Sciences building (which connects to the complex via tunnel) where the transmission of vibration through the earth and rocks below would be least likely. The 16 labs sit on two-feet thick concrete slabs, whereas the rest of the building is on eight-inch slabs. Above it, in addition to the cantilever over an open plaza, each lab has an independent roof system, as well as an independent structural slab spanning the entire lab complex. The labs have double wall systems with two-inch isolation joints to reduce airborne noise, and utilities are isolated before they are brought to each room through special penetrations with a sleeve filled with sand so that noise and vibration are not transmitted through pipes.

"The quiet labs are isolated like I've never seen in a building before," McMahon said.

The structure of the entire complex is stiffened by two-feet thick, U-shaped shear walls made of braced panels running from the basement to the top of the building to support the load of the cantilever and to absorb vibration from machinery within the building, which is necessary for all labs throughout the complex.

The labs also need to be protected from electromagnetic forces, so significant efforts are used to shield them from electromagnetic fields. Electric rooms have quarter-inch aluminum plating on the floors, ceilings and walls. The plating also is used around electrical panels and conduits, McMahon said.

At the heart of the complex, meanwhile, is a clean room, which is intended to have a very low, controlled level of environmental pollutants and particles.  The clean room is necessary in materials sciences like fabrication and an array of life sciences research. It has a dedicated tunnel from the building's loading dock for deliveries and special exhaust systems coated in stainless steel separate from others in the complex.

"We have things close to this on campus, but nothing as elaborate as what we are doing in this research complex," Tennent said. "The nature of materials science and life sciences research is so precise and complex that putting this work together in a new facility means finding ways in your construction to meet some very special needs."

Following a University priority to make buildings as energy-efficient and environmentally friendly as possible, the construction of the Millennium Science Complex implements a number of measures to reduce energy use, such as several heat recovery wheels in the building to recycle air and absorb energy.

Deep-set windows are treated with an etching that reduces heat gain and loss, and are fitted with louvers to reduce heat gain in the summer and allow the sun in during the winter.

Green roof technology is being used to retain or dissipate heat, Tennent added. The design of the building creates several roofs on the structure. Those with green roofs retain stormwater and reduce temperature variation. Green roofs are grown to hold more moisture than normal earth, with slow-growing ground cover that can withstand drier and hotter environments and need little maintenance, Tennent explained.

"It's not necessarily a garden-type roof, although it is certainly more pleasant to look out on a green roof than a typical black four-ply roof," he added.

The penthouse roofs are not green roofs, Tennent said, but they hold overhangs with planted materials underneath to recycle stormwater.

Architect Rafael Vinoly, who previously designed the Information Sciences and Technology Building on campus -- a unique structure that bridges over a busy State College thoroughfare -- designed the Millennium Science Complex. In addition to the building's striking geometry and innovative blend of form and function, Vinoly also designed the large complex to be more comprehensible to the human eye.

"He's done that with an obvious horizontality," Tennent said. "Everything is very linear when you see the building, which tends to bring the height down. He's really emphasized that. The roofs are extended beyond the ends of the building in a trellis-like manner to extend that length and try to bring it down to a more human scale."

Tennent has managed a number of notable construction projects at the University in recent years, including the IST Building, Lewis Katz Building for the Penn State School of Law and additions to East Campus. He said the Millennium Science Complex in some ways is very traditional, while at the same time new and innovative.

"This is a classical, pure research building," Tennent said. "At Penn State we have a lot of buildings like that. What is unique about this is the solution."


For photos from the construction of the Millennium Science Complex, click on the above image. Credit: Geoff Rushton / Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated August 10, 2015