“The use of precast concrete allowed for a level of quality control and review that was essential to the overall success of the structure’s facade.”

David Rolland, Rafael Viñoly Architects, New York.


Best High-Tech or Laboratory Facility

Millennium Science Complex, Penn State, University Park, Pa.

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The new science complex at Penn State University uses precast concrete to create a soaring, angular structure that draws attention both for its compelling design and its high-performance attributes.

The 292,000 ft2 (27,100 m2) structure is one of the few research facilities in the country specifically designed to integrate physical- and life sciences. Initially planning it as two separate buildings, the design team decided to combine the projects into a single, L-shaped building with a massive precast concrete cantilever at the main entrance that hovers over a plaza and garden.

The design features 345 architectural precast concrete elements totaling 104,176 ft2 (9678 m2).

“With every project, there is always a desire to maintain the economies of the budget and the challenges of the construction schedule while achieving the aspirations of the design,” says David Rolland, AIA, JIA, project director for Rafael Viñoly Architects in New York. “For this project, those goals aligned through embedding kiln-fired brick in precast concrete panels installed with thermal insulation already mounted to the rear of the panel.”

In choosing precast concrete rather than traditional brick masonry, the designers were able to meet a tight budget and schedule with a sustainable material that can mimic the brick architectural design used throughout the Penn State campus.  

University planners go to great lengths to ensure that all new buildings blend aesthetically with the existing brick structures, Rolland says, so this feature was critical.

“Precast concrete allowed us to recess brick courses and to control the dimensional tolerance for the stack-bond layout of the brick facade in a way that would not have been possible had the brick wall been traditionally constructed,” Rolland says. “Furthermore, it allowed for a level of quality control and review that was essential to the overall success of the facade.”

The biggest challenge on the project was constructing the 150-ft (46 m) cantilever – and again, precast concrete helped solve the problem. “It was built high so that it would deflect level when all of the dead load weight was applied,” Rolland explains. The cantilever theme is then repeated at the ends of the building, where the thin brick veneer panels are mounted to steel frames.  

“This could only have been achieved through the use of precast panels, which allowed for re-adjustment and re-leveling as the structure deflected into its final position,” he says.

The precast concrete cantilever also allows dampening of the building structure for lower-level laboratory spaces, including quiet labs, where sensitive equipment must be protected from vibration, noise, temperature, and humidity. The mass of the precast concrete used in the cantilever design helps to ensure that no vibration from footfall or machinery, is transmitted down to the lower-level laboratories.

This project is a great example of the versatility of precast concrete, says Kelly Tetkoskie, marketing manager for High Concrete Group in Denver, Pa., the precast concrete producer for the project. “Most people think of concrete as the gray or white slabs in their sidewalk, but this project shows the dramatic effect of precast concrete as a building material used ‘outside the box’ of the typical thinking on what precast concrete is and how it is utilized in construction.”

It also demonstrates the high performance attributes that precast concrete brings to a project. “Everybody loves the extraordinary 150‑ft-plus precast concrete cantilever structure over the public landscaped plaza,” Rolland says. “But only a few truly appreciate that all of this was contemplated, designed, and engineered to improve the performance of the most vibration-sensitive, acoustic-sensitive, and thermally-sensitive equipment in this research complex.”


High Concrete Group LLC


Owner: The Pennsylvania State University University Park Campus, University Park, Pa.
Architect: Rafael Viñoly Architects PC New York, NY
Precaster: High Concrete Group, Denver, Pa.
Engineer of Record: Thornton Tomasetti Inc, Newark, N.J.
Contractor: Whiting-Turner Contracting Company, Baltimore, Md.
Total Cost: $190 million
Project Size: 292,000 ft2 (27,100 m2)