Assignment: Project 1

“It is our business to use the materials and constructional methods to our hand, not, of course, blindly, but with a constant endeavor to improve them.”
— Le Corbusier

According to the United States Green Building Council, buildings account for 40 percent of raw materials use.[1] This means that architects and their consultants are responsible for specifying nearly half of all materials that flow through our society. One of the most important applications of materials in buildings is in the facade, where many systems must be integrated to serve important, and sometimes conflicting, functions. Because of the challenging performance requirements and high visibility of the building envelope, it is a critical territory for the application of reliable material technologies that also represent the important values and aspirations of a building’s client and users. The process of materials selection is therefore a fundamental skill of the architect, and requires the same level of study, evaluation, and argumentation as would a critical piece of writing.

The new University of Minnesota Experimental Physics and Nanotechnology building provides a good model for the creative study of building facade materials selection, due to its close proximity to Rapson Hall and its current, unclad state of construction. For this assignment, you are to collect, evaluate, and design the application of material technologies for this building’s envelope. Your approach must consist of the following three stages:

  1. Survey
    Populate a collection of data and images for potential material selection. This information can come from manufacturer catalogs, articles, your own photos of local buildings, and other sources. This material survey should address the following three categories: context, typology, and technology. Context will include a material sampling from the building’s local physical environment, which is often a determining factor in material choice—especially on academic campuses. Typology will consist of a sampling of materials used for buildings of similar type (university science buildings) but which are located in other parts of the globe. Technology will include an expanded assessment of materials that are not found in the first two categories, but which might be appropriate to this particular building program (physics, nanotechnology).
  2. Evaluation
    Develop a decision matrix for material selection. This visual framework will include a narrowed list of the most likely candidates from your survey, and should consider characteristics such as practicality, economy, sustainability, and innovation. Your matrix should include images and text descriptions for each material, and may also incorporate a rating system of your own design. (For product criteria guidelines, see references below.)
  3. Selection and Design

    Based on your evaluation, select a primary facade material* for design. As discussed in class, your design must not only consider the material, but also how it will be applied. Your charge will be to develop an innovative material application based on knowledge gained in your survey and evaluation stages, with a consideration of your application’s anticipated effects (use the material strategies and effects discussed in class as guides for this exercise). Communicate your design strategy by considering, at minimum, the following two scales: the scale of the material (detail), and the scale of a typical structural bay of the building (elevation, section).

*Primary facade material in this case means the predominant visible material. For example, for a punched-opening wall system, you could select the cladding of the opaque portions of wall. For a curtain wall system, you could focus on the building glazing. You might also choose a hybrid system with multiple materials; however, focus your study so that it is not overwhelmed by many materials or internal assemblies.

In practice, materials selection is rarely executed by a single individual. Therefore, this will be a team-based assignment. Select two or three of your fellow students (to make a team of three to four people) and discuss how you will approach the exercise as a group. I recommend that you visit the building site together and talk about what particular strengths, experiences, and interests you each bring to this assignment.

Your work will culminate in a mock-client presentation for which you exhibit three presentation boards, one for each stage listed above. These “boards” will actually be slides projected in class (PDF, Keynote, or PowerPoint format), in landscape orientation, at a 4 x 3 aspect ratio (you could think of this as translating to three 40″ x 30″ posters for a client presentation). Each exhibit must be clearly titled and marked with the names of all team members. We will use two class periods for the presentations; however, all teams must turn in their work at the beginning of the first period. Please bring your team’s presentation in one electronic file to class on a USB drive or disc.

In addition, this assignment should serve as the basis for your online journal due the same week. Discuss among your group what each member will write about. For example, one member might write about your team’s survey of science building cladding; another might write about environmentally-responsible materials for this type of application; and another might write about your design proposal (at least one member must write about the actual proposal, and include images from your presentation boards with credit to all team members).

In reality, this will not be a linear process, but a back-and-forth testing of options—especially between stages two and three. A successful outcome will require the development of multiple design schemes, which you may include in the margins of your third presentation board.

As in writing, you are constructing an argument consisting of informed opinion based on claims and evidence. Your proposal should demonstrate an innovative application of materials, and you must defend the rationale for your proposal to a target audience who may not share the same values.

The architects Zimmer Gunsul Frasca and Architectural Alliance have already selected materials and designed the facade of the UMN Experimental Physics and Nanotechnology building, and you may find preliminary renderings that depict their chosen approach online. However, for the purposes of this exercise, you are to imagine that the facade is an open territory that remains to be designed, based on the given building structure.

Leaning Objectives
This assignment aims to achieve the following learning objectives:

Basic Objectives

  • To model basic research and design practices employed by architects
  • To test the principles of innovation in practice

Mediating Objectives

  • To evaluate material technologies from multiple perspectives, including conflicting views on existing or emerging technologies
  • To develop a critical framework for evaluating the social and environmental ramifications of material technologies

This assignment will be evaluated according to the following criteria:

  • Clarity and purpose
  • Organization, coherence, and development
  • Flexibility and disciplinary appropriateness
  • Originality and engagement
  • Appropriate support
  • Proper editing and presentation
  • Meets basic requirements (presentation board count, board content, deadlines)

A structural plan and sectional drawings of the building, courtesy of Architectural Alliance, may be downloaded here:

Sources that provide a good starting place for information about project criteria are as follows:

  • Practicality: information about product use and constructibility may be found in Architectural Graphic Standards, the Facade Construction Manual, and other common architectural materials and methods texts (architecture library).
  • Economy: basic cost estimating information may be found in RS Means cost data (architecture library).
  • Sustainability: environmental evaluations may be found in GreenSpec or Environmental Building News (architecture library).
  • Innovation: emergent material technologies may be found in books like Transmaterial or on free websites such as and Examples of innovative material applications may be found in Material Strategies.

Project Details (from the UMN website)
During a 2011 Legislative Special Session, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and the State Legislature approved $51.3 million in bonding funds for an Experimental Physics and Nanotechnology Building at the University of Minnesota.

In addition to the $51.3 million, the University of Minnesota received $4 million in planning money for the Experimental Physics and Nanotechnology Building during the 2010 Legislative Session. The remainder of the project that is estimated to top $80 million total will be paid by the University and private donations. Construction on the new building is expected to begin in fall 2011.

Highlights of the building include more than 43,000 square feet of modern and highly flexible physics laboratory and laboratory support space and more than 15,000 square feet of nanotechnology space (including a 5,000-square-foot clean room designed for class-100 chip fabrication and class-1000 bio-nano work). All told, the facility will contain 40 new research laboratories.

The physics and nanotechnology building will house 200 faculty, post doctorate and graduate students, and visiting researchers. Dedicated meeting and discussion space throughout the building will be allocated for student interaction with faculty.

The project site is located adjacent to the existing engineering and science buildings on campus allowing close connection to other University of Minnesota science and engineering disciplines. The building also will be directly north of the Scholar’s Walk, a vibrant pedestrian walkway connecting the campus from the east to west. Views into the building, even into the Nano Cleanroom, could create an open, inviting, and interesting type of “science on display” for the University. The building and program can also be physically accessible to the public throughout the day, allowing a shortcut or pathway during inclement weather.

Project-Related Facts (from the UMN website)

  • The Nanofabrication Center (NFC) serves the needs of hundreds of users in eight University of Minnesota departments, close to 30 other academic institutions, and dozens of companies nationwide.
  • More than 25 University of Minnesota physics researchers are part of an international team of scientists from more than 30 countries who are involved with the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and its Large Hadron Collider (LHC) built 300 feet underground in Switzerland. The researchers are attempting to understand the beginnings of the universe.
  • Thanks to nanotechnology researchers at the University of Minnesota a new company called Rushford Hypersonic in Rushford, Minnesota has licensed technology that they are using in manufacturing industrial tooling resistant to friction—and therefore wear and tear. The company is hoping to create dozens of local jobs in the town that was ravaged by floods in 2007.
  • Chemistry associate professor Andrew Taton is working to find general chemistries to connect nano-objects with biological molecules. He is working to create a vaccine using nanoparticles coated with proteins which will fool T cells into thinking the particles are cancer cells.
  • Attempting to meet the growing demand for human cornea for transplantation, mechanical engineering professor Allison Hubel is using nanotechnology to research a way to create synthetic corneal tissue to mimic natural tissue.
  • Mechanical engineering professor Uwe Kortshagen has developed an efficient way to make silicon nanocrystals, putting a gas containing silicon and hydrogen (silane) into a reactor. Kortshagen and his collegues are using silicon nanoparticles to develop a lower-cost, higher-efficiency solar cell that can turn sunlight into electricity.
  • Led by physics professor Cynthia Cattell, University researchers recently used University-designed instruments to unlock one of the biggest mysteries of the Van Allen Belt, named for their discoverer, James Van Allen. They pinpointed the likely physical process creating some of the most destructive radiation in the Belt, a necessary step toward NASA’s goal of predicting and circumventing damage to spacecraft and space travelers, when traveling at altitudes corresponding to the Belt.
  • In 1940, physics professor Alfred Nier established Uranium 235 is responsible for slow fission in uranium. This discovery laid the foundation for the U.S. government’s Manhattan Project, which developed the first nuclear weapons during World War II.

1. “Green Building Facts,” U.S. Green Building Council, 2012

Dowload the print version of this assignment here.


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