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Merck-Serono Headquarters

Geneva, Switzerland
Murphy/Jahn

Murphy/Jahn knits research and office space into Geneva's urban fabric to create a striking headquarters for Merck Serono

By Joann Gonchar, AIA

Architect Helmut Jahn, FAIA, describes his recently completed Geneva headquarters for biotech and pharmaceutical company Merck Serono, as “not a one-liner like a high-rise building.” But it isn’t clear if he is excluding his own high-rises, such as the 42-story Deutsche Post, in Bonn [RECORD, May 2004, page 96], or the twin skyscrapers known as the Highlight Business Towers, in Munich [RECORD, March 2006, page 154]. Like Merck Serono, the German projects demonstrate a preoccupation with transparency, energy efficiency, user comfort, and pared-down but highly detailed structure.

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However, Jahn’s somewhat off-the-cuff remark points to an important difference between the low-rise Merck Serono and the earlier towers. Although the Swiss building has its moments of expressive structural bravura, it was not conceived as an iconic statement on the skyline. Instead, the 725,000-square-foot facility is almost unselfconsciously slipped into its former industrial site in the city’s international district. Within the building, or more accurately, within the complex of interconnected buildings, Jahn and his team have created not only top-notch labs and offices, but also a network of community spaces—some enclosed, some outdoors, and others somewhere in between—shared by 1,200 scientists, managers, and administrative staff. These shared spaces were created in response to a directive from the client to provide an environment that would foster interaction and collaboration among previously disparate segments of the company’s workforce.

The scheme developed by Chicago-based Murphy/Jahn, with long-time collaborators Werner Sobek Ingenieure and Transsolar Energietechnik, both of Stuttgart, also needed to comply with a Canton of Geneva requirement to incorporate within the new development at least some of roughly a dozen late-19th- and early-20th-century engine manufacturing facilities on the oddly shaped 6.5-acre plot overlooking Lake Geneva. The team chose a masonry load-bearing building and two steel-truss-supported shed structures, renovating them to house such parts of the program as a day-care center, a conference center, and offices, while preserving their most historically relevant elements. “In some cases, it was the facade, and in other cases, it was the structure,” explains Jahn.

The older buildings’ linear configuration informed the new construction, providing a starting point for the layout of the complex. For the rest of the site, the team designed six- and seven-story, glass-clad, bar-shaped concrete structures for labs and offices, and used them, along with the historic buildings, to define a series of exterior courtyards and a pair of atria. The first of these glass-enclosed, multistory spaces is on the north side of the site and serves as the lobby. Visitors and employees enter between two new office structures from a spacious plaza, partially sheltered by an arclike extension of the atrium roof.

Once inside, a network of elegant glass-and-steel bridges connecting the upper levels of the complex’s individual buildings dominates. A multimedia installation of aluminum, beeswax, and LEDs occupies one elevation. It incorporates a water wall, introducing a soft ambient sound to the space.

A second atrium, or “forum,” is visible through the connecting bridges and from the base of a lobby grand stair. Conceived as the hub of the complex, a café, cafeteria, and restaurant surround the daylight-filled space intended to support informal meetings and socializing. Instead of mechanically cooling the forum in warm weather, facility managers can create a semi-outdoor environment by pivoting a series of vents and a set of 36-foot-tall doors to open up the curved glazed facade to an adjacent courtyard. They can also tilt up the fan-shaped, 10,800-square-foot, glass-and-steel roof, controlling its operation through hydraulic jacks and a 110-ton, 180-foot-long, finlike counterweight. According to the design team, it is one of the largest movable glass-and-steel structures in the world.

Despite the obvious difference in size, Jahn likes to compare the forum roof to the sun roof on a car. In both cases, opening the roof creates a completely different interior environment, he points out.

The forum’s movable roof is not the only component in Merck Serono’s building envelope that can adapt to climatic conditions. The “shingled” glass facades on the east- and west-facing elevations of the new offices and labs incorporate operable exterior shading devices and floor-level ventilations flaps (see sidebar). These elements are closely coordinated with other features aimed at maximizing occupant comfort and minimizing reliance on limited natural resources, including a displacement ventilation system and “active” slabs.

Some building features play less obvious roles in the Merck Serono climate-control strategy. For example, the lobby water wall acts as a humidification device in the winter and allows for evaporative cooling in the summer. And completely hidden from view is a thermal exchange system that relies on water pumped from Lake Geneva. It provides nearly 70 percent of the energy that Merck Serono requires for heating and cooling, preventing about 4,800 tons of carbon emissions from being released into the atmosphere each year, say company officials.

Jahn calls Merck Serono “a building of high technology but low energy consumption.” And while it is true that the project is technologically sophisticated and that its elements are refined with Swiss-watch precision, it is also humane. The design team has developed a complex at a scale that seems appropriate for its setting, skillfully integrating the old with the new. In so doing, it has defined a series of dynamic courtyards and atria. It is nearly impossible to know, of course, what kind of effect such amenities will have on Merck Serono’s bottom line or on the satisfaction of its employees. But on the basis of a recent visit in early spring, the social spaces seem well used at all times of the work day. And one never knows—researchers just might develop the concept for the next blockbuster drug on the back of a napkin while sipping espresso under the forum’s glazed canopy.

Formal name of project: Merck-Serono Headquarters

Location: Geneva, Switzerland

Gross square footage: 67,396 sq.m.

Total construction cost: $1.25 billion

Completion Date: 2007

Owner:
Merck – Serono

Architect:
Murphy/Jahn
35 East Wacker Drive
Chicago, IL  60601
PH:  312.427.7300
FX:  312.332.0274

Sophisticated skin adapts to Climatic conditions and occupant needs

At the Merck Serono headquarters in Geneva, the predominance of glass is intended, at least in part, as a metaphor for a progressive corporate culture. “For many people, biotech is black magic,” says Mark Underhill, the owner’s project manager, by way of explaining the allure of a glass building skin. But management also hoped that a transparent building envelope would provide benefits to occupants, such as access to daylight and views, in addition to conveying a certain image. The challenge for the project team was maintaining transparency while controlling cooling loads and glare.

In order to create a mostly glass but energy-efficient complex, the Merck Serono design team developed a facade system it calls a “shingle wall.” The fish-scalelike curtain wall is deployed on most of the east- and west-facing elevations of the new lab and office buildings. It is made up of sloped pieces of high-performance, low-iron glazing, 5 feet wide and 12 feet tall. The bottom edge of each cantilevers beyond the slab edge 3 feet, overlapping with the unit below.

This overlap protects a floor-level ventilation flap from wind and rain and shelters a mechanism controlling an operable exterior shade composed of thin, L-shaped, stainless-steel bars. The partially transparent shade mitigates heat gain, but reflects light into the interior.

Photo: © Tim griffith (top); Mori Building LTD (middle)

Overlapping and canted glazing units compose the shingle wall (right). Its exterior shades mitigate heat gain but preserve views (left).

The envelope design works in tandem with the interior climate-control strategy. Although the research areas have more conventional systems, the largely open-plan offices rely on raised-floor ventilation on top of “active” structural-concrete slabs left exposed to the spaces below. The combination of radiant ceilings, which use chilled or warm water, and low-velocity displacement ventilation, requires minimal distribution energy when compared to a standard forced-air system. Fan coils at the perimeter of each floor plate control the temperature of the air coming in directly from the outside.

The operation of many of the envelope and interior systems are automated. For example, orientation and daylight conditions determine the position of the exterior shades. Occupants can directly control or override building-management-system settings for some of the components, including the ventilation flaps, the fan coils, and internal roller blinds for reducing glare.

For architect Helmut Jahn, the benefits of such climate- and user-responsive envelopes extend beyond their potential for maximizing energy efficiency and occupant comfort. They also add dynamism to facades, he says. At Merck Serono, “the building transforms from one that is all glass to a stainless-steel box.” — Joann Gonchar, AIA

 

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