When Joy Bergelson was planning the new field station here for the University of Chicago’s department of ecology and evolution, she wanted it to be environmentally responsible. She just wasn’t sure exactly what that meant.
Concepts like “natural solar gain” and “super insulation,” which are familiar to those involved in passive house design and all but eliminate reliance on fossil fuels, were foreign to her.
But Dr. Bergelson, 52, is an evolutionary biologist and a quick study. And she knows how to surround herself with the right people.
To design the 2,131-square-foot facility, she chose GO Logic, a design-build firm in Maine that had done a number of passive house projects. Of course, in addition to the classroom and residence for research scientists, this project also had a significant laboratory component, and the architects didn’t have much experience with that — because this would be the first passive-house-certified laboratory in the country.
Offsetting the heat generated by the laboratory proved to be the biggest challenge. Timothy Lock, one of the architects, conferred with thePassivhaus Institut in Germany and arrived at a solution: segregating the lab on the north side of the building and sealing it off from the rest of the space (“so we can control the heat it generates in a very specific way,” Mr. Lock said) and making sure it had as few windows as possible and a generous exterior overhang to limit solar gain.
Negotiating with the community was also a little tricky.
The site, which Dr. Bergelson had selected for its varied terrain, sandy soil and botanical diversity, is 70 miles from campus, part of a 42-acre property bordering on Warren Woods State Park that the university had purchased in 2010 for her field research. And some of the neighbors didn’t like the idea of having a biological laboratory in that setting.
As Tim Morton, a lab manager, speculated, “They had been watching too many episodes
of ‘Breaking Bad.’ ”
The architects sidestepped this obstacle with a surprisingly simple strategy: In their public presentations, they simply avoided using the word “laboratory” whenever possible.
The building, which was completed this summer, came in at under $1 million (not including the site preparation and all the expensive lab equipment). And the summer went well, with internal temperatures a consistent 70 degrees, even when it was in the 80s outside, thanks in part to the concrete floors and the large metal screens on the external doors and windows, which can be closed to limit solar gain. (The architects were frustrated, however, that building codes required the installation of two large electrical cooling systems for the hottest days, in a deviation from the passive ideal, adding cost and what they considered superfluous mechanical systems.)
Now everyone is curious to see how the building performs during its first winter.
So far, so good. One snowy day last week, when it was 19 degrees outside, the temperature inside was a comfortable 68. (Backup electrical heaters have been installed for days when it gets colder than 5 degrees below zero, but the architects are convinced they won’t be needed.)
There was a quiet calm to the soaring industrial space, possibly because the building isn’t fully occupied yet. But once word gets out about its proximity to Lake Michigan, 100-inch video display screen, rough-hewed sleeping cabins and general camp-like atmosphere, that is sure to change.
With beds enough for a dozen or so overnight visitors but only a modest kitchen, there may need to be some house rules.
“We haven’t figured out all the rules,” Dr. Bergelson admitted. “It will have to evolve over time.”
She added: “It’s not like people are going to be camping out here all summer. Mostly we have to make sure they don’t harm each other’s experiments.”