Text description provided by the architects. The Dr. Orrin H. Pilkey Research Laboratory is a new state-of-the-art, LEED Gold marine science research building for Duke University Marine Laboratory on Pivers Island. The Duke University Marine Laboratory coastal campus is a unique ‘window on the sea’, providing experiential learning that combines the classroom context with fieldwork, theory with practice, and encourages wise, local land management and protection of natural resources due to engagement in the field. For the new research laboratory, every design decision reinforced the concept of providing a window on the sea, both figuratively and literally.
Designed to stringent environmental and sustainable standards, it incorporates design solutions to address hurricane force winds, sea level rise, and storm surge concerns. The building form is a metaphor for sea-level rise (SLR), in which the laboratory containing mission-critical equipment and irreplaceable specimens is elevated well above projected SLR and storm-surge levels. The building structure and envelope use wood-framed construction and concrete masonry foundations in response to dominant local construction techniques. Material transitions are introduced at critical heights as protection from potential water damage.
The building’s solid expression was dual purpose – maximize wall space for equipment and storage while considering hurricane protection. The ground floor is concentrated around social spaces. Coined by then Marine Lab Director, Cindy L Van Dover as the ‘Collisional Commons’, it is where ideas from the entire marine lab community collide informally. Visually and spatially porous, it opens to outdoor porches protected from seasonally shifting winds all times of day. The ‘Collisional Commons’ is surrounded by faculty offices, a PhD bullpen, teaching lab and service spaces in separate boxes. The jagged footprint is better equipped than a flat façade to reduce storm-surge velocity. Surrounding landscape berms create higher ground to minimize scour along the building’s edges, and the need for hard stormwater structures is removed through the promotion of infiltration at scupper discharge locations. Clad in wood and large expanses of glass, it reflects the architecture of the original campus quad built in the 1930s, while opening up dramatic views to the coast.
The second floor is a ‘laboratory loft’ that houses equipment-intensive research spaces, and features an elevated deck with views to downtown Beaufort, North Carolina, and the surrounding islands. Research faculty required maximizing real estate for equipment and storage, resulting in the strategic placement of windows at desk height to create unexpected framed ‘windows to the sea’ without sacrificing the program. Protected by a modern panelized system, it conveys the scientific and forward-thinking research taking place within.
Developed on the heels of the 2008 economic crisis, the budget was fixed and modest, which made the Architect-Led Design–Build (ALDB) process critical to addressing budget and program incompatibility. ALDB relies on access to subcontractors during the design period to obtain market feedback, and to allow early redesign without program loss by reshaping the building and making the design better. Through this back-and-forth process, the architecture team realized that the spaces in-between and not the overall building form defined the essence of the design. This was only discovered through the ALDB process. The building visually and conceptually became not only about SLR, but about the collisional and collaborative nature of research. Construction knowledge, largely obtained via direct interaction with local subcontractors, honed the design.