Renaissance 3 Architects P.C.
There was a familiar challenge Renaissance 3 Architects P.C. undertook in 2004 when it was tapped to lead the team that would redesign and renovate the landmark Chevron Science Center that housed the University of Pittsburgh’s chemistry department.
One of the largest chemistry teaching and research facilities at any American college or university, the 14-story Chevron tower was, for all practical purposes, a living building that wasn’t aging well and was due for an extensive renovation that over the course of the next dozen or so years would cost more than $40 million.
But its operations couldn’t be put on hold while architects, engineers and contractors went about their business. Faculty members, students and researchers were immersed in such highly sensitive functions as spectroscopy, protein biophysics, electrochemistry and nanoscience research. And with databases and infrastructure critical to their work, neither could there be any unexpected utility systems outages.
“This is a 24-hour building; it never sleeps,” says R3A principal James Sheehan, whose own sleeping schedule—as well as that of his associates—may have been altered by the necessity of arranging their work to suit the convenience of the folks in lab coats.
“The design of science and technology projects, that’s what really separates our firm from the rest of the pack.” – James Sheehan, R3A principal
Nevertheless, Sheehan says the challenge was within the capabilities of the architectural firm that long had handled projects for such “performance-critical facilities” as universities, hospitals and research centers—places that operate around the clock.
“The design of science and technology projects, that’s what really separates our firm from the rest of the pack,” says Sheehan, a Temple University undergraduate who holds a Master of Architecture from Carnegie Mellon University.
By early 2017, save for minor details, the renovation project, that circumstances made painstakingly long, was almost complete, with the old but improved Chevron Science Center boasting new undergraduate teaching facilities, research labs, an electronic reference library, a café called the Bunsen Brewer and a refurbished 40-by-30 foot porcelain enamel mural, “Science and Mankind,” by the late Virgil Cantini, the Italian-born sculptor who chaired the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Studio Arts.
Ideally, the department of chemistry would have preferred a new building, but Sheehan says a prospective site wasn’t available and building on the current location by shutting down the Chevron tower in the interim was out of the question—income from in-progress grants amounts to a major source of university revenue.
Scarcely a square foot would go untouched as R3A and its consultants and subcontractors satisfied Pitt’s demands for a state-of-the-art chemistry facility for the department that counts among its alumni the late Paul Christian Lauterbur, who shared the 2003 Nobel Prize for his work in magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI.
Working with Wilson Architects of Boston, R3A administered the construction phase of a $24.6 million, multi-level, 32,000 square-foot LEED Gold research lab annex, contiguous with two floors of the Chevron tower. Jerome Cochran, Pitt’s former executive vice chancellor, called the project critical for recruiting staff and students.
Less visible, but strategically important work, went on throughout the tower’s interior, with R3A and its consultant team redesigning a $3.2 million second floor of undergraduate general chemistry teaching facilities that included four 1,200-square-foot combination laboratory classrooms and a centralized chemical stock room.
On the fourth floor, as part of a $4.5 million upgrade, R3A’s work included designing labs for the organic chemistry department, with the selective demolition of outdated systems, and integrating the new functions into existing chases and shafts.
Then there was the $4.2 million project for the 14th floor that called for a demolition that left just the concrete frame in place prior to the construction of modern research and faculty space.
“It was complex; every floor had to be comprehensively redone, the undergraduate teaching labs, the research labs and all the ancillary areas—the libraries, the commons,” Sheehan says. “The pre-design planning required that the renovations be incremental. By 2017, we’re about done.”
In the process, R3A’s work on the Chevron Science Center won the firm numerous awards from such prestigious organizations as AIA Pittsburgh, the Boston Society of Architects and the Society for College and University Planning.
“These construction projects are so extensive that the word ‘renovation’ does not capture what is happening—these are complete rebuilds,” Professor Craig Wilcox, the chemistry chairman, remarked in the department’s 2014 newsletter.
More than a passing grade
A firm’s reputation spreads fast among universities, and Sheehan takes pride in R3A services being used at institutions of higher learning, including Carnegie Mellon University, Penn State, Duquesne and many smaller private and public schools throughout Pennsylvania.
Lessons learned in the design of such research facilities are readily applicable to other complex manufacturing operations, Sheehan says.
During the Great Recession, Universal Electric Corp., which makes customized power-distribution systems in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, had put its expansion plans on hold, but as business improved, it sought R3A to design a manufacturing wing and new administrative offices.
“Manufacturing today relies on sophisticated equipment and instrumentation of tools; today’s manufacturing floor is more like a hi-tech physics lab,” Sheehan says. “The lessons we learned building labs helped us immensely with UEC in the design of flexible, easily reconfigurable floor plates and plug and play utility access.”
Partnering with Mascaro Construction Co., R3A almost doubled UEC’s 89,000 square-foot manufacturing facilities.
Familiar with R3A’s work with the Chevron Science Center, a Pittsburgh company, Precision Therapeutics, approached Sheehan to design a 17,000 square-foot Biosafety Lab-2 lab facility that over time could reduce personnel costs while keeping the company at the biotech forefront with automated equipment.
“We designed the facility and its infrastructure systems so it could function with fewer people and more robotics,” says Sheehan.
With the architectural industry under constant challenge to keep pace with cutting-edge technology and construction techniques, sustaining a reputation is a challenge, he says.
“We’re always looking to the future,” Sheehan says. “We’ve got to keep up; as is the case in any specialized industry, six months from now you could be behind the curve if you haven’t been attending the conferences and supplementing your knowledge with reading and webinars and communicating with peers. We don’t let that happen.”
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