Set among eucalyptus trees and fog, the University of California at San Francisco's (UCSF) Parnassus campus clings precariously to the slope of San Francisco’s Mount Sutro. At its center is the Health Sciences core, a pair of bland 16-story buildings constructed in the early 1960s that now also act as the front door to the UCSF Medical Center’s newest laboratory: the Ray and Dagmar Dolby Regeneration Medicine Building (RMB), designed by Rafael Viñoly Architects. An elevator ride to the ninth floor of either of the old buildings and a walk down a nondescript corridor leads eventually to a gleaming steel and glass bridge—a vertiginous entry to the new labs.

Viñoly won the commission in 2005 with an unlikely horizontal scheme. The 660-foot-long RMB stretches ribbonlike across the hillside, improbably balanced on steel space trusses and seismic base isolators. Specific criteria in the funding required the project to be fast-tracked, so a design/build team was created. The New York–based practice collaborated with DPR Construction and the local office of architect-of-record SmithGroup, a firm known for its institutional portfolio and for its forward-thinking use of integrated project delivery (IPD). According the collaborating firms, using IPD shaved anywhere from 12 to 24 months off of the project’s construction time.

The research center is tucked behind UCSF’s hospital on a sliver of ground so steep that constructing anything on it seems like impossible folly. “It is a site that essentially doesn’t exist,” Rafael Viñoly, FAIA, says. The two tall Health Sciences buildings, several loading docks, and utility plants encroach on one side, and a winding road leading through the eucalyptus trees to the top of Mount Sutro edges the other. The location was chosen because it was the last piece of available land on the dense urban campus. But for Viñoly, the site offered some intrigue. The RMB supports the kind of human embryonic stem cell (HESC) research that is nonfederally funded and required to be clearly restricted from other research. “We started the design in 2005, under the Bush administration. At that time, California was [one of] the only states pursuing stem cell research,” Viñoly recalls. “I loved this idea of a conspiracy theory—that the building was placed there as if it was hiding behind the Parnassus campus.” As such, when viewed from Golden Gate Park, the corrugated-metal-clad research center merely peeks out from the tree line.

However, the facility’s form is an outgrowth of site constraints and programmatic requirement. The south façade hugs the curving topography, accounting for the sinuous floor plan. Viñoly’s experience with science buildings led him to reject a vertical scheme where research groups would stack one on top of each other. He thought that placing the laboratory on a single level would foster more communication between teams. “Biological research is a completely unique environment; there is interactivity between groups and casual lines of development between subject areas,” Viñoly says. “A successful design is measured in having contributed to an integrated environment for the scientists.”

At RMB, four research areas step gently up the grade, one half-story at a time, following the road. Break areas, offices, and conference rooms occur at each level change. These are split-level moments where the various research groups can mingle and, since walls in the conference rooms and break areas are finished in erasable white board, exchange ideas. Flexible open-plan laboratories—18,367 square feet worth—are equipped with reconfigurable casework systems and quick-disconnect utilities, and complemented by another 15,539 square feet of equipment and support space. Large windows in the labs face south onto the hillside and a dense eucalyptus grove. The trees modulate direct daylight exposure, which contributed points to the building’s targeted LEED Gold certification.

Suspended from the north façade are exterior ramps and staircases; navigating from half-level to half-level, they are the reason that there are few windows on this side of the building. Spectacular views of Golden Gate Park, downtown, and the Pacific Ocean transform the pedestrian walkways into dramatic overlooks. Steel-cable handrails set extra-high at 48-inches—6 inches above code—provide security without sacrificing openness. At the westernmost end of the building, offices and a large conference room hover over the city.

Roof terraces landscaped with native plantings top each of the laboratories. Like the exterior circulation, the gardens offer sweeping views, but according to Viñoly, they also provide more intimate gathering areas for the scientists. “There’s functional continuity between all the principal investigation areas, but in contrast, each of the roughly 6,000-square-foot gardens becomes an individualized space, where each research group can recover some level of identity,” he explains. UCSF scientists are already personalizing the terraces, which are accessible via the outdoor walkways. Humbly potted lemon trees and herbs have cropped up near tomato-red outdoor furniture. “The building is not just a machine,” Viñoly remarks. “It adds to day-to-day life.”

Project Credits

Project  University of California San Francisco Ray and Dagmar Dolby Regeneration Medicine Building, San Francisco
Client  Regents of the University of California, UCSF— Michael Bade, AIA, (interim vice chancellor and campus architect); Michael Toporkoff (project manager)
Design Architect  Rafael Viñoly Architects, New York—Rafael Viñoly, FAIA (project designer); Jay Bargmann, AIA (project administrator); Chan-li Lin, AIA (project director); Josh Schroeder, AIA (project manager); Changhak Choi, Bethany Lundell Garver, Assoc. AIA, Frank Nan, AIA, Cory Wouk (project team)
Architect of Record  SmithGroup, San Francisco—Bill Diefenbach, FAIA (principal-in-charge); Marianne O’Brien, AIA (project manager); Barbara Abecassis, Ryan Connolly, Michael Grage, Jeremy Holen, Jeff Miersch, Dawne David Pierre, Ray Sanchez, Nick Woodard (project team)
Interior Designer  Rafael Viñoly Architects and SmithGroup
Mechanical/Plumbing Engineer  Gayner Engineers (Design); ACCO Engineered Systems (of Record)
Structural Engineer  Nabih Youssef Associates (Design); Forell/Elsesser Engineers (of Record)
Electrical Engineer  Cammisa and Wipf Consulting Engineers (Design); Cupertino Electric (of Record)
Civil Engineer  Sandis (Design); Creegan & D’Angelo (of Record)
Landscape Architect  CMG Landscape Architecture (Design); Carducci & Associates (of Record)
Laboratory Planner  Jacobs Consultancy
Fire Protection  Cosco Fire Protection
Acoustics & Vibration  Papadimos Group (Design); Colin Gordon & Associates (of Record)
Waterproofing  Applied Materials & Engineering
Energy Modeling  ACCO Engineered Systems
Design/Build Contractor  DPR Construction—Michael Saks (project executive); Mark Sweat, Martin Vegas, Forrest Rassmussen (superintendents); Alec Pesant, Scott Chappelle, Kaitlin Muchison, Pat McDowell (project engineers)
Construction Manager  Nova Partners—Dennis McCoy, Toon Jordan, Andy Springer
Estimating  Cumming Corp., DPR Construction
Size  68,500 square feet
Cost  $91 million

Materials and Sources

Adhesives, Coatings, and Sealants  Pecora Corp.; Tremco; Sika
Carpet  Mohawk Industries
Ceilings  Armstrong
Concrete  DPR Construction
Exterior Wall Systems  Cold-formed studs; Morin (metal panels)
Furniture, Fabrics, and Finishes  Steelcase; Haworth
Flooring  Daltile (ceramic tile); Mannington Mills (VCT)
Elevator  ThyssenKrupp; Otis Elevator Co.
Glass  Viracon
Gypsum  USG Corp.
Insulation  Johns Manville; Dow Chemical Co.
Lab Casework  Thermo Fisher Scientific (Hamilton Lab Furniture)
Lighting Control Systems  Lutron Electronics Co.
Lighting  Cree; Philips Day-Brite; Philips Gardco Lighting; IRL; Lithonia Lighting; Lutron Electronics Co.; Philips Morlite; Paramount Industries; Philips McPhilben; Philips Omega
Metal  C.E. Toland & Son
Millwork  Mission Bell Mfg.
Paints and Finishes  Glidden
Roofing  American Hydrotech (living roof); Johns Manville (built-up)
Exterior Seating  Coalesse (EMU)
Site and Landscape Products  Shooter & Butts
Structural System  Schuff Steel Co.
Wayfinding  Weidner Architectural Signage
Windows, Curtainwalls, and Doors  Kawneer