Chapel Hill, North Carolina


To attract the best and brightest faculty and students, universities today are asking architects for buildings that not only serve their academic goals but also bring prestige to their campuses through innovative design. The Genome Sciences Building (GSB) at the University of North Carolina (UNC) in Chapel Hill succeeds on both levels. Designed by the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), the GSB is an integral part of the university’s Bell Tower District, for which the firm designed the master plan in 2004. “The resulting plan serves as a vital link between the historic north campus and the medical school to the south, forming a series of new quadrangles, a park, and expansion of the existing Coker Woods,” explains SOM associate director Peter Van Vechten.“Conceived as an interdisciplinary ‘crossroads,’ the GSB unites scientific rigor with collaborative flexibility, supporting parallel research and teaching functions.”

“Porosity” and “transparency” are the words mentioned most often by the architects and users to describe both the architectural and programmatic goals of the GSB. The center emphasizes a shift from isolated closed-loop research to the open-ended, multidisciplinary collaboration that has become critical to cutting-edge science in the 21st century.

The eight-story 228,000-square-foot GSB rests on a plinth, clad in brick to acknowledge the traditional Georgian structures of the original campus. Students can enter classrooms and lecture halls off pedestrian paths at grade or follow a ramp to a public plaza atop the plinth where they can enjoy landscaped and shaded areas and a café.

The plinth and facility rising from it posed significant structural challenges. The GSB is an L-shaped glass-and-concrete box housing wet and dry labs, faculty offices, conference rooms, and an enormous rooftop greenhouse for the study of plant genomics. The L is made of three pods, two of which extend two floors below grade to accommodate the mechanical plant. These pods rest on mat foundations that align with the natural slope of the bedrock. This arrangement minimized excavation and eliminated blasting. The third pod is supported at the plaza level by micropiles, 8 inches in diameter, which are often employed at sites with difficult access such as this one.

The building’s upper floors focus on three large wet labs. This organization allows three to five principal investigators to work together in each lab, with benches arranged to accommodate 30 people in the same lab space. Dry labs are adjacent to the wet ones, allowing researchers to go back and forth between different experiments. Faculty offices are next to the dry labs and cantilever from the upper floors.

The major interior-design strategy involves daylighting, which floods the labs through floor-to-ceiling glazing. Rather than adding drywall or paneling to the interior face of the perimeter walls, the architects saved money and achieved an industrial effect by simply tinting and polishing the concrete. Floors and interior partitions are rendered in sturdy low-maintenance materials. Against this economical backdrop, a dramatic spiral staircase emerges as the centerpiece of the interior. The stair is enclosed in a glass elliptical column, reinforcing the architect’s pursuit of transparency at every floor. It terminates at the 80-by-200-foot greenhouse, which, when lit at night, confirms the GSB’s status as an icon of innovation in the center of the campus.

“The simple, honest palette of materials—concrete, metal, and high-performance glazing—allows the GSB to maintain UNC’s longstanding commitment to sustainability,” says Van Vechten. In addition, the facility is fully integrated with the master plan for site development—re-using water for irrigation of the park, which itself is engineered to process stormwater and mitigate peak levels. SOM achieved this feat by installing underground cisterns with a 50,000-cubic-foot capacity. A reservoir tank collects roof drainage water, which silently and invisibly irrigates the gently graded park fronting the building. These water-conservation tactics, along with many energy-saving strategies, contributed to the GSB’s LEED Gold certification.

Genomics is a new field within the study of genetics, encompassing a broad range of inquiry from bioinformatics to engineering to medicine. With few precedents for this kind of complex programming, SOM designed a facility that embraces the multidisciplinary nature of 21st-century scientific research, education, and training. Going far beyond the goals of porosity and transparency, SOM delivered a programmatic and architectural model that will allow the university to respond to rapidly evolving technologies and to foresee opportunities for discovery for decades to come.


University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP
224 S. Michigan Avenue, Suite 1000
Chicago, Illinois 60604
(p) 312.554.9090
(f) 312.360.4545

Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
Architect of record:
Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP

Interior designer:
Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (Structural); AEI Affiliated Engineers (MEP/FP)

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP Project Team:
Richard Tomlinson, Managing Partner
William Baker, Structural Partner
Peter Ruggerio, former Design Partner
Peter Van Vechten, Associate Director
Mike Lingertat, Associate Director, Project Manager
Anwar Hakim, Associate Director, Technical Coordinator
Jaime Velez, Director of Interiors
Douglas Voigt, Director of Urban Design and Planning
James Michaels
Kevin A. B. O’Connor
Daniel O’Riley
Niklas Haak
Iana Kolev
Megan Inouye
Al Khoshaba
Brian Schirmer
Dane Rankin
Jeremy Kirk
Rodney Lind

Hoerr Schaudt / Cole Jenest Stone ' Landscape Architect: Peter Schaudt,

Laboratory Design:
Research Facilities Design ' Laboratory Design: Leslie Ashor,

MEP/FP Design:
AEI Affiliated Engineers ' MEP/FP Design: Jerold Schuett,

Stormwater Engineering:
McKim & Creed ' Stormwater Engineer: Lester Lowe,

Civil Engineering:
Stewart Engineering ' Civil Engineering: Roy Lorenzen,

SBLD Studio ' Attila Uysal '
Carpenter/Norris ' David Norris '

Cerami and Associates ' James Perry '

Vertical Transportation ' Lerch Bates ' Lance McMasters '
Signage ' Jones Worely ' Barry Nation '

General contractor:
Bovis Lend Lease / Clancy & Theys ' A Joint Venture ' CM At Risk: Ronnie Stott,

Tom Rossiter
Ph: 312.543.8233
SOM | ' Tom Rossiter Photography

Peter Van Vechten
Ph: 312.360.4171
SOM | ' Peter Van Vechten

Ph: 312.554.9090

CAD system, project management, or other software used:


210,000 square feet


$110 million

Completion date:

September 2012



Structural system
Reinforced architectural concrete ' Contractor ' Miller & Long

Manufacturer of any structural components unique to this project
Elliptical Steel Communication Stair ' Contractor ' Daniel Metals, Birmingham, AL

Exterior cladding
The Belden Brick Company

Metal Panels:
Sobotec Ltd

Custom Fabrication Contractor:
ASI Limited / Juba Aluminum

Metal/glass curtain wall:
Custom Fabrication:
ASI Limited / Juba Aluminum

Sobotec Ltd

Moisture barrier:

Curtain wall:
Custom Fabrication:
ASI Limited / Juba Aluminum

Sobotec Ltd
Safti First

Built-up roofing:


Custom Installation:
ASI Limited / Unisky

Kawneer ' Entrances and Storefronts
Oldcastle BuildingEnvelope

Metal doors:
Custom Fabrication ' Contractor ' Martin Architectural

Fire-control doors, security grilles:
Safti-First Fire Rated Glass Doors, Martin Architectural ' custom made hollow metal fire doors

Locksets: Sargent

Closers: Norton

Exit devices: Sargent

Pulls: Adams Rite, Blumcraft

Security devices: Dorma

Interior finishes
Acoustical ceilings:
BASWAphon ' Sound Absorptive Acoustical Finish System
USG Interiors Inc. 'Clean Room ClimaPlus Class 10M-100M'
USG Interiors Inc. 'Mars ClimaPlus'
Decoustics 'Solo 16'
Linder - Perforated Ceiling System ' Snap in perforated prefinished aluminum ceiling system (company went out of business)

Suspension grid:
Linder - Perforated Ceiling System ' Snap in perforated prefinished aluminum ceiling system (company went out of business)
USG Interiors Inc. ' Fineline 1/8 DXFF Grid System
USG interiors Inc ' DX Exposed Grid System

Cabinetwork and custom woodwork:
Stephenson Millwork - contractor
Pridgen Millwork ' contractor

Tabu Coporation ' Wood Veneer
Sierra Pine Ltd. ' MDF
Formica Crop ' PLAM Surface

Paints and stains:
Sherwin Williams

Wall coverings:
Carnegie Fabrics - Xorel

Plastic laminate:
Formica Crop ' PLAM Surface

Floor and wall tile:
Royal Mosa ' Toilet room floors and walls

Resilient flooring:

Carpet: Shaw

Raised flooring: Tate

Special interior finishes unique to this project:
Elliptical Stair Tread Covering ' Glass bead stainless steel stair treads ' Daniel Metals

Lab Casework:
Fisher Hamilton called System XL; modified for project

Office furniture:
Herman Miller Canvas Workstation

Reception furniture:
Davis Radius lounge chair / Knoll Vibe upholstery
Davis Aero bench

Fixed seating:
Theatre Solutions Inc. auditorium seating / Maharam Tremor upholstery

Herman Miller 'Mira' task chair
Fixtures Furniture Emotion stack chair
HAG Capisco lab stool / Maharam Chime upholstery
Bernhardt Balance lounge chair with tablet / Kvadrat Divina Melange upholstery
Vitra Vissavis sled base chair / Vitra Plano upholstery
Janus et Cie Miralook exterior seating
Herman Miller Setu conference seating
Fischer Scientific lab task chair / vinyl upholstery
Steelcase Node classroom chair

Coalesse Emu round exterior table
Haworth Planes conference and collaborative laminate table
Prismatique Cube occasional table
Herman Miller Eames segmented base table
Izzy Jack Solo mobile tables

See above in chairs

Other furniture:
Egan Visual ADA lectern
Herman Miller Teneo mobile drawer storage
Herman Miller Teneo whiteboard unit
Herman Miller Meridian filing
Humanscale M7 monitor arms
Peter Pepper coat hooks

Interior ambient lighting:

Kurt Verseen
Edison Price Lighting
Cooper Lighting
Color Kinetics
Focal Point
MP Lighting
USA Illumination

Task lighting: Bega

B-K Lighting
Sternberg Vintage Lighting
Union Metal Corp.
Lithonia Lighting

Dimming System or other lighting controls:
Passive Infrared Occupancy Sensors:
Dual Technology Occupancy Sensors, PIR and Ultrasonic: Hubbell
Power Packs: Light-O-Matic
Photocells: Intermatic
Timeclocks: Intermatic
Wall Box Dimmers: performance criteria
Electrostatic Switch: performance criteria

Elevators/Escalators: Kone

The building is provided with a storm water collection and water treatment facility that harvests storm water from the roof and exterior site storm water. This provides water for urinals and toilets in the building. Water saving fixtures were provided in the building.

Energy management or building automation system:
Building ' Metasys by Johnson Controls
Greenhouse ' The Argus System ' Argus Controls

Add any additional building components or special equipment that made a significant contribution to this project:
Brise Soleil ' light shelves and shading system
Stormwater Tanks & Citerns
Greenhouse on roof of building
Design part of UNC master plan
Central Park outside of GSB