Electrifying and Lighting The Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego
If you read about projects completed by Robert Fagnant, Syska associate partner and lighting designer, you’ll discover a recurring theme: The ability to work creatively within considerable limitations, whether they’re spatial, budgetary, or programmatic. He managed to hide lighting fixtures in 550-square-foot prayer chapel that lacked cavity walls or ceilings. He designed special lighting to soothe people on the autism spectrum. And he used locomotive headlamps as a lighting source to make the Neurosciences Institute at the University of California, San Diego, stand out from the crowd.
Rendering courtesy of Safdie Rabines Architects.
UC San Diego is also the site of what might be his most challenging project to date: The Marine Conservation & Facility (MCTF), Scripps Institution of Oceanography, for which Robert oversaw the design of architectural lighting and electrical systems.
The project involves the retrofit of the former Southwest Fisheries Science Center, which comprises 56,000 square feet and will house the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation (CMBC). Key components include the largest saltwater research aquarium facility in the US, laboratories and offices, a café to serve students, faculty and staff and visitors, terraces for relaxing and academic events, and classrooms.
In developing the design, the Syska team faced numerous obstacles. One was the need to fit everything within the existing parameters of the 1963 building, which Robert describes as an example of “concrete brutalist architecture.” First on the agenda was replacement of the existing 60s-era service from San Diego Gas & Electric with UC San Diego’s internal kV system. Yet the concrete walls, combined with a hillside that “hemmed in” the building, prevented the construction of new electrical rooms or mechanical spaces. Nor did the team wish to ruin the aesthetics of the space, which features newly exposed ceilings and piping, by installing obtrusive conduits. Placement around beams or mechanical equipment could have made the space “ugly as heck,” in Robert’s euphemistic terms.
In developing the design, the Syska team faced numerous obstacles. One was the need to fit everything within the existing parameters of the 1963 building, which Robert describes as an example of “concrete brutalist architecture.”
Revit came to the rescue. Syska obtained a three-dimensional model from the structural engineer and the architect and added to it Revit families from the manufacturers of electrical switch gear and of electrical components. The next step was virtual placement of lab benches, mechanical piping, duct work, and equipment. “It all started to come together,” Robert recalls, noting that such intensive collaboration with project partners enabled Syska to ensure function without sacrificing aesthetics.
Fitting everything in the building was one challenge; routing equipment to the building was another. MCTF has large Torrey pine trees on the southwest side, an endangered species. Because of the risk of damage to the trees, the team couldn’t install the conduits and duct banks underground using a backhoe. Instead, men with shovels and small mechanical tools dug the pathways.
MCTF has large Torrey pine trees on the southwest side, an endangered species.
“You feel like you’re in a forest,” says Robert. “But a forest where you won’t get lost.”
The need for emergency power in the saltwater research aquarium (essentially a vivarium) presented another hurdle. To provide adequate redundancy for life-safety systems for the organisms, the team added extra UPS power to the campus generator system, ultimately designing multiple layers of backup through two redundant levels of 12kV service, which supplement an internal UPS system within the building. That’s good news for aquarium occupants, such as fish, sea urchins and sea weeds.
Challenges on the lighting front centered on preservation of ocean views. “We wanted to make sure that the lighting control systems played well with the outdoor environment,” says Robert. Nighttime lighting was especially complex: The California Coastal Commission stipulated that the lighting had to allow for efficient wayfinding and enable users and visitors to enjoy the night view, but not at levels that would affect adjacent coastal sage habitat and the animals who live there, nesting sites, and the views from neighboring homes. Robert accomplished this with low-level illumination, using lighting poles on pathways through the Torrey pines. “You feel like you’re in a forest,” says Robert. “But a forest where you won’t get lost.”