San Diego Research Facility Celebrates the Scientific Journey

Life science complex blends innovative laboratory and office space with environmentally sensitive design.

The design of the Spectrum IV facility, located in the heart of San Diego’s Torrey Pines research center, reflects the mission of the tenant, Vertex Pharmaceuticals, a global biotechnology company creating transformative medicines for people with serious and life-threatening diseases. The scientific journey served as an inspiration and a litmus test for all aspects of the design, which was developed in close collaboration with Vertex and developer Alexandria Real Estate Equities Inc.

Early in the design process, the site head of the future building was asked about his passion for science. “In science there is a constant thought,” said Paul Negulescu, senior vice president of Vertex. “You may stray from it, but you always come back to it; it grounds you and gives you focus. It remains with you through the process and beyond.” The design is intended to convey this scientific journey, from the visitor’s experience walking through the lobby with views into the secure laboratories to the meandering paths throughout the landscaping.

The new Spectrum IV consists of 170,500 square feet of laboratory and office space above underground parking. More than 70 percent of the new facility is dedicated to state-of-the-art lab and research space, including a 1,500-square-foot community learning lab for science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) education programs, expanding on Vertex and Alexandria’s commitment to the next generation of science leaders, and a 4,000-square-foot incubator suite for collaboration with external partners.

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The LEED Gold design opens the process to the outdoors while creating new ways for patients and their families to tour the facility and engage with researchers, without disturbing the secure laboratory environment. In addition to creating an acre of outdoor conferencing and amenity spaces, the V-shape building is strategically oriented on the bluff to allow for unobstructed mountain and canyon views. A landscaped buffer was created between the facility and canyon, using a palette of native and drought-tolerant plant species. To accommodate the site design, mature, 40-foot Torrey pine trees were salvaged and replanted into the outdoor amenity area.

Visitors are welcomed into the facility by a three-story glass entry, setting the stage for the rest of the building. The design provides natural light into 100 percent of the laboratory and office spaces, moderated by overhangs, fritted glass and vertical and horizontal louvers. Each façade reacts to its specific solar orientation, optimizing the shade through a continuous canopy that varies in length, based on sun exposure, with strategically-placed louvers and a feature wall of 62 custom-perforated aluminum fins. The fins bisect the two wings of the building in a manner reminiscent of the trachea and the lungs; a nod to the cystic fibrosis medications developed at the facility.

On the harshest sun-exposed façades, the curtain wall switches to ribbon window with fiber reinforced concrete rainscreen panels. These panels were factory manufactured and cut to minimize waste. At 8mm and with an estimated longevity of 50 years, “the panels required very little material to provide a durable water-shedding building envelope that is 100 percent recyclable,” said Chris Aeria, project architect of LPA’s San Diego studio.

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LPA engineers played a key role in the project. The design features column-free corners, beam fortifications and a series of hanger columns to deaden floor vibration and add flexibility in configuring floor layouts for the lifespan of the building. The column spacing is optimized for research and development, adaptable for general biology, chemistry or various light manufacturing needs in the future.

The design also reflects Vertex’s commitment to the wellness of its employees. The stairway that frames the three-story glass entry creates breakout areas for people to meet and congregate while encouraging people to walk the stairs rather than use the elevators. The cafeteria is equipped with partitioned glass walls that open up to allow for natural ventilation. The outside amenity area offers network connections and breakout areas that effectively double the conferencing area with staff outdoor work spaces. And the design included a bike pavilion with 40 long-term bicycle lockers to encourage employees to cycle to work.

The entire project was developed around sustainability and conservation, including an innovative stormwater design and water-efficient landscaping. The water cycle is celebrated in the landscape, with a network of bioswales flowing into two sizable bioretention basins that are encircled by walking paths with interpretive signage. To conserve water, the cooling towers and landscape were designed to utilize 100 percent reclaimed water. Planting material was selected to not only be native and drought-tolerant, but also to accommodate the high salinity content of San Diego’s reclaimed water supply.

The result is a facility that fits the site and the goals and values of the tenant. During the land entitlement process, the design received unanimous approval from the San Diego Planning Commission and City Council and high praise from the University Planning Group. Construction of the new building was completed on schedule in less than 18 months.

“I am confident that this will be one of the most architecturally significant life science facilities in San Diego,” said Jim Larsen of Vertex.

This story originally appeared in Catalyst Issue 2 2019. Subscribe today to receive Catalyst, a quarterly publication that takes a deep dive into design ideas, industry leaders and initiatives.