A Site to Behold

Winter 2011

A new UCSF research building overcame extensive site constraints to become an award-winning example of innovation and collaboration.

When Michael Saks first saw the building site for a new medical research facility to be constructed on a hillside on the Parnassus campus of the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF), his first thought was, “How are we going to build this without someone getting hurt?” His next thought: “How in the world am I going to get materials and access to the site?”

Indeed, the new Ray and Dagmar Dolby Regeneration Medicine Building’s (RMB) 60-degree site slope and serpentine design posed an extraordinary number of logistical challenges for Saks, project executive at DPR Construction and project manager for the research facility. Plus funding for the project was dependent on a strict two-year design and completion window. With all those hurdles to overcome, RMB looked like a nearly impossible task.

But the design-build team of DPR, SmithGroup Architects and Forell/Elsesser Engineers Inc. tackled those challenges head-on to complete a visually stunning and progressively functional facility. Complete collaboration and quick adaptations to the obstacles at the building site allowed the team to not only complete the project on time, but make significant improvements along the way.

The $123 million, 68,500-square-foot RMB is 660 feet long, with four split-level floors, open interior spaces and terraced grass roofs that were not only designed to foster collaboration among scientists, but also earned the building LEED Gold certification. Due to the slope of the building site, RMB sits on a structural framework of steel trusses set in concrete piers that ranges from roughly 40 to 70 feet off the ground. Construction began in August 2008 and was completed in October 2010.

Because grant funding for the project depended on the facility being completed in two years, one of the university’s first challenges was to focus on ways to speed the project along.

While the initial design was prepared by Rafael Viñoly Architects, Michael Bade, assistant vice chancellor of capital programs and campus architect for UCSF, says that he deliberately chose the design-build delivery model to save time.

“We knew that we were going to have to overlap design and construction in order to complete a major building in a two-year time frame,” he says. “Levelings are complicated, and it takes time to work them out, so we were going to have to start on site and be working it out at the same time. Design-build allowed us to do that.”

An Uphill Battle

While the hillside was not ideal for the building, Bade says it was essentially the only spot available for a project with such strict time constraints.

“There was one other site studied, but it would have required an extension of campus utility piping that would have prohibited the project from being completed in the necessary time frame,” he says.

Of course, the site presented numerous logistical difficulties for every member of the team. With such steep slopes, varying elevations and rough terrain, simply gaining access was a major feat. Steve Marusich, project manager and senior associate for structural engineer Forell/Elsesser Engineers Inc., says the building’s drilled pier foundations posed an especially tough problem.

“Trying to get any kind of drill rig out there was a major challenge,” Marusich says. “A 10 percent slope was the maximum that the drill rig could attain.”

The team worked together to build an access road that was flat enough that the drill rigs could navigate, including a soil nail wall that allowed the team safe access to begin working.

“The soil wall acted as stabilization for the hillside while also giving access to create the foundations for the building,” Marusich says.

However the road ended up becoming an obstacle once construction began because time and cost restraints dictated that it dead end on site. That meant every truck and piece of equipment had to turn around at the far end of the site; so deliveries had to be monitored closely.

“It was very important to have on-time delivery of materials because that was the only way everyone could fit on the site and then get off the road,” Marusich says.

Once building construction ramped up, the constraints of such a narrow site and building also became problematic. According to DPR Project Manager Michael Saks, the amount of space available for lay-down and access was extremely limited. But lean construction techniques and strict operational protocols helped DPR keep work flow running relatively smoothly. For example, DPR instituted a rule that no one could bring anything to the site that couldn’t be installed in two days or less.

“That gave people room to work and made things safer,” Saks says. “If you overload a floor where people are working, it creates an unsafe environment.”

With all of these site constraints, it’s no surprise that executing the bridging documents as specified was an ongoing struggle as the team made its way through construction.

Marianne O’Brien, principal in the San Francisco office of SmithGroup, architect of record for the project, says there was a lot of scrambling to make things work. For instance, the design-build team realized that the original survey was inaccurate just as it was about to land a primary column for the bridge that leads into the building. Had the team not discovered the error, the column would have landed on—and disrupted—the main campus electrical feed.

“We quickly redesigned to pull the elevator over 20 feet and redesigned the whole connection loading dock area to avoid that electrical feed,” she says. “The design-build process allowed us to carry design parallel with construction to overcome that problem effectively.”

Doors and clearances were another problem in such a narrow building. O’Brien says back-and-forth collaboration was essential to overcome them.

“We had one set of doors that was problematic and it took two weeks and strategy after strategy to get them to work,” she says. “It went from putting side-lights in to needing to temper the side-light. Then we had to bury that in the wall, and then we had to pull it back. It was just a lot of back and forth like that.”

Holding Firm

“Back and forth” was also a consideration in the significant seismic work that had to be incorporated in case of an earthquake. O’Brien says that because the RMB is balanced on a hillside, the building needs to stay in place and move at the same time.

“We had to come up with a way to hold the building down on the uphill side, but allow it to move in all these other directions,” she says.

The structural framework includes seismic base isolators to absorb the effects of an earthquake while holding the building in place. O’Brien says that it moves 23 inches in any direction, adding that because the building moves, all of the utility connections and railings have to move as well.

“The railings are on pivots on both ends, and they’re able to pivot in and out and accommodate movement, so even those connections stay intact. All the utility feeds should stay intact. The building should see virtually no damage,” she says.

It’s creative solutions such as those that O’Brien says were integral to the success of a project with many unusual challenges and constraints.

“The one thing I never heard on this project was, ‘That’s a silly idea. We can’t do that,’” she says. “Because no matter how ridiculous an idea might seem initially, it almost always led to a solution somewhere along the line. That spirit of innovation and collaboration was the key to making the whole building work.”