How To Build a Cutting-Edge Research Center

Principals involved in designing and constructing a state-of- the-art university research center will discuss their combined efforts at a June 15 event hosted by Microdesk at the School of the Art Institute Ballroom, 116 S. Michigan Ave., in downtown Chicago.




The William Eckhardt Research Center is a multi-disciplinary, $225-million research facility on the Hyde Park campus of the University of Chicago (UofC) that houses several Nobel Prize-winning physical sciences research groups, encompassing seven floors and 277,000 sq ft. Doors opened in September. By serving as home for several of the university’s most prestigious departments — the department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics, the Institute for Molecular Engineering and the Dean’s Office of Physical Sciences — the building was specifically designed to foster collaborations between the disciplines in order to drive future breakthroughs.

Microdesk, a global technology consultancy that assists architecture, engineering, construction, owner/operators and GIS firms, is bringing together project leaders involved in the facility, including: Mickey Collins, VP at architect HOK; John Ekholm, senior project manager at the UofC; Helen Torres, VP at structural engineer Thornton Tomasetti; and Lou Reiner, SVP at general contractor W.E. O’Neil.

Critical to the building’s design was the use of light. HOK heeded the requests of the physicists to create generous spaces that consumed light in ways they invited people to gather, converse, and hopefully collaborate. Each floor was considered a neighborhood unique to each discipline, with the top floor hosting an open balcony with a view of the downtown skyline to the north. Corner spaces on each floor were designed to draw and shape light through glass fins and a series of angled bays, allowing a unique and ever- changing experience for the people gathered there. These spaces also incorporated chalkboards for easy collaboration among physicists.

Another aspect of the building that will be discussed at next week’s event is how structural engineers developed exact specifications to create heavy reinforced concrete slurry walls and other features to accommodate highly sensitive research involving lasers and electron microscopes. The team led by Torres, who will be speaking at the event, was forced to dig a 60-ft-deep trench and fill it with slurry to mitigate the high water table in the area and stabilize the heavy walls.

Finally, the June 15 program will also explore one of the most complicated aspects of the facility: the double basement. Two of the seven floors are below grade, which was intended to accommodate highly sensitive research that needed protection from vibration and electromagnetic interference. Physicists needed to work as deep as 50-feet below ground, which required creating a space that would become one of the highest performing in the U.S. with respect to vibration control. As the facility is located in a tight space in a dense urban environment, with some neighboring buildings located just 30 inches away, that required innovations in structural engineering that were not just unique to the area, but also in the field.

Sign up now for this free event today before space fills up! Hor’dourves and beverages will be provided.