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Brutalist Icon Finds New Life as Incubator Lab

Lab Manager | February 28, 2023 by Marybeth DiDonna


The University of California, Berkeley found itself in need of an incubator space for aspiring STEM entrepreneurs. As it turned out, they didn’t need to look far.


To meet the needs of the life science incubator, a delicate glass “jewel box” addition slides out from the heavy concrete masses of the original building, juxtaposing the brutalist icon designed by Mario Ciampi.

The former Berkeley Art Museum, completed in 1970, was originally designed by Mario Ciampi. The brutalist structure was deemed seismically unsafe in 1997, and temporary steel braces were added so that the museum could continue to operate while other options were explored. The museum eventually moved out in 2014, and the facility remained vacant for several years after other programs proved to be a poor fit for the space, and the threat of demolition loomed. MBH Architects was hired in 2016 to perform a feasibility study to determine if the building could be transformed into a life science incubator lab. After an extensive analysis, the team concluded that the renovation was possible, and set to work. After two years of construction, the Bakar BioEnginuity Hub was ready to open its doors to Berkeley students and researchers. The building accommodates labs, offices, equipment, and shared collaborative spaces for those looking to solve global challenges such as the climate change crisis, food insecurity, and disease prevention. “Life science entrepreneurs are often faced with a prohibitive cost of entry given the high price-tag associated with equipment and space as well as a competitive environment for access to capital,” says Ken Lidicker, senior associate and studio director at MBH Architects. “Seeing the need, QB3 (the University of California’s hub for innovation and entrepreneurship in life science) and Bakar Labs created the incubator to empower UC researchers and life science startups providing rentable laboratory space equipped with shared state-of-the-art equipment and workplace community.”


Wanting to challenge the often sterile-looking design of lab spaces, the team infused the labs with liveliness using brightly colored walls and natural light by uncovering and replacing skylights that had been covered to protect artwork from UV damage under the museum-use.

The Bakar BioEnginuity Hub, a four-story, 94,000 sq. ft. structure, was completed in January 2022. MBH Architects served as both architect and interior designer on the project, along with lighting designer. Forell | Elsesser Structural Engineers was the structural engineer, while PAE was in charge of mechanical/electrical/plumbing, and Luk & Associates was the civil engineer. Consultants included Page & Turnbull (historical consultant), Jett Landscape Architecture + Design (landscape architect), ZGF Architects (lab planner), Salter (acoustical, as well as audiovisual, security, and telecom engineer), Syska Hennessy (vertical transportation), and Simpson Gumpertz & Heger (waterproofing consultant). The general contractor was Plant Construction Company, L.P. The building is currently undergoing LEED Gold certification. In order to make the facility more sustainable, the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing infrastructure was overhauled, including the replacement of existing gas service with all-electric systems. This allows the project to achieve low EUI, operational carbon neutrality and Net-Zero HVAC water-use. The new system allows the building to operate 20 percent more efficiently than required by the California Energy Code.

“The building is highly irregular and unique,” says Lidicker. “[It fans] out like a hand of cards, with existing floor levels that are at a multitude of elevations and have irregular angles. The plan of this building is a complicated jigsaw puzzle and required a lot of creativity. We converted the former museum’s top upper galleries into glass-fronted labs that overlook dramatic cantilevered ramps hanging within a sky-lit double height space, allowing scientists long sightlines into the dramatic and inspiring center core of the building. The switch-back system of ramps that connect the labs are part of the Museum’s circulation system that once led visitors from gallery to gallery and are now used to create places for spontaneous interactions between the buildings scientist-occupants to promote collaboration among people and groups that may not otherwise meet.”


The Bakar BioEnginuity Hub’s floor plan fans out like a house of cards, with existing floor levels that are at a multitude of elevations and have irregular angles. The plan of this building is a complicated jigsaw puzzle and required a lot of creativity.

The laboratory space includes wet and dry open labs with rentable benches, and private labs for individual companies which require more dedicated space. The major equipment is provided and maintained by QB3. Incubating companies will have use of shared fume hoods, biosafety cabinets, deep freezers, ovens, incubators, tissue culture rooms, autoclave and glass-wash service, and a robust library of large-scale analytic equipment. All laboratory areas contain a house vacuum system, along with highly polished water. The office spaces are a mix of open cubicle office areas, private offices, and conference rooms. “Since QB3 fosters a community with a focus on collaboration between colleagues, common spaces allowing for both casual professional and social interaction are provided. These common spaces double as areas for all-hands meetings, lectures, and after-hours social functions,” says Lidicker. A break space adjoins to a protected exterior courtyard, in order to facilitate workplace interaction that isn’t able to take place at a dedicated desk space. The eastern wing of the building holds utility, storage, and other back of house areas. “During our conceptual space planning for the existing building, it became clear that due to the irregular shape of the existing structure, additional square footage would be required for the program to be feasible. The expansion, which totals approximately 6,600 square feet of new area, sits below the cantilevered mass of the Upper Galleries. It is designed to be visually distinct from the original concrete form of the building per Secretary of the Interior standards for the treatment of historic properties. The expansion façade is [composed] entirely of glass and metal and is intended to feel light and delicate as a contrast to the weight of the concrete above,” says Lidicker. There were several challenges encountered during the renovation process, says Lidicker. Upgrading the structural performance proved difficult, because of the seismically deficiencies discovered in the 1990s. A temporary seismic upgrade was performed in 2001, with plans to undertake a more substantial update at a later time, due to the constraints of museum operations. The structural upgrade for the current project needed to make the building safe for occupants and bring the building up to current code.

Another challenge was to preserve the historical character of the building, which was declared a City of Berkeley landmark in 2012 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2013. All modifications proposed needed to be respectful of and sensitive to the defining features of the building and preserve the character of the building where possible,” says Lidicker.

Structurally-reinforced and fully restored original cantilevered concrete ramps and faceted skylights hang above open workspaces and enclosed offices where researchers can collaborate and share ideas.

“Working together with Page & Turnbull, MBH made every effort to develop a cohesive conceptual program layout which protected and responded to these primary character defining features, while not adversely affecting the functional use of the space. Page & Turnbull identified areas of primary and secondary historical significance. Working with Forell | Elsesser Structural Engineers, structural brace framing was added along the demarcation line between the areas deemed of primary and secondary historical importance, creating glass front labs where the museums galleries once were and preserving original circulation routes and views around the central atrium,” says Lidicker.

During the conceptual space planning process, it became clear that additional square footage needed to be added to the existing space due to the irregular geometry of the existing structure. The solution—an extension of the lowest tier of the Lower Gallery. The glass enclosure can be compared to a delicate “jewel box” jutting out from the heavy concrete mass of the building. The design team’s work to preserve the historical building paid off—the Bakar BioEnginuity Hub of Berkeley is a winner for the 2022 Preservation Design Award for Rehabilitation, given by the California Preservation Foundation. It also received first place in the Historic category of Retrofit Magazine’s 2022 Metamorphosis Awards.

Glass-enclosed laboratories provide scientists long sight lines into the dramatic and inspiring full-height atrium space. Just outside, the Museum’s original circulation system is re-purposed to allow for spontaneous interactions between researchers who may not otherwise meet.

Lidicker hopes that the process behind renovating this space will serve as a good example for other project teams looking to take on a similar task. “By employing a great deal of creativity, we were able to repurpose an old building that may otherwise have been torn down and fit the systematic and programmatic needs of a modern laboratory into a highly irregular shape. With the utmost respect for what existed, we were able to make the space both safe for occupants and functionally modern,” he says. “This can be a model for other campuses and laboratories who are faced with similar challenges and opportunities. We had to be innovative to not just make it work but work well, and it feels very appropriate for a place where people will be creating innovative solutions to the world’s problems. We created an environment that challenges the standard laboratory, creating an inspiring space where scientists can quite literally think outside of the box. As architects, we believe in the power of the built environment to improve lives, [and] we are hopeful that the scientists that work in this space will feel empowered to change the world for the better.” Published: Lab Manager


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