Belfer Research Building: An Interview with Atelier Ten's Bret Mantyk

On March 11, join campus architect William Cunningham, project architect Lois Mate (Ennead Architects), and sustainability consultant Bret Mantyk (Atelier Ten) for a Case Study on the Belfer Research Building at Weill Cornell Medical College. Bret Mantyk spoke with Urban Green Council about some of the Belfer Research Building’s design features in advance of the event.

Belfer Research Building's offices and laboratories

©Jeff Goldberg/Esto

The $650 million Belfer Research Building had a lot riding on it before construction began. “This is a lab research building and that field is extremely competitive, especially in the New York area,” says Atelier Ten’s Bret Mantyk, who served as sustainability consultant on the project during the construction phase. “Weill Cornell's biggest assets are these researchers, so the building itself needed to meet their needs while remaining healthy and comfortable.” Sustainability was essential for the college, “so our goal, as dictated by Weill Cornell,” says Mantyk, “was to create a beautiful, comfortable space for these researchers that they will respond to and ultimately stay at.”

A big part of achieving this meant providing occupants with as much natural light as possible. Though laboratories have strict minimum lighting standards, the team worked to create a façade that “maximizes both thermal comfort and daylight,” while “minimizing the use of architectural lighting as much as possible. We went through many different derivations of the façade design until we came up with this double-skinned curtain wall that is comprised of an outer layer of fritted glass that helps to shade the interior when the sun is high and the solar loads are higher, but also brings light through earlier in the morning and later in the afternoon when it's most needed.”

Once the light made it into the building, designers focused on making the best use of it. The team laid out the lab with “desk spaces closer to the windows, with a lab bench adjacent to it, which allows for kind of a seamless movement [for researchers] between sitting in front of a computer and standing at a bench.”

Belfer Research Building's double-skinned façade detail

Another key feature was the terrace, which Mantyk says “was carefully designed to include vegetation while still acting as a space for congregating. Again, the challenge was how to bring light into that space because it's essentially behind the building, with other buildings right up against it— the amount of direct sunlight was limited to a small window of time during the day.” The design team chose reflector field panels and sky masts to reflect more light into the space, even during hours when the terrace would otherwise be shaded. These will be installed in the near future.

With many of the world’s top researchers as incoming tenants, did Mantyk and his team feel more pressure than usual? Not so much during the design phase. But once the project started to move from theory into reality, he began to feel differently. “When you're meeting with the owners, the operations crew, and the staff that will be moving into the building,” says Mantyk, “it was then that we understood the weight of what we were doing, and the significance of the project. I think it was those times that we really realized this was a big deal.”

Belfer Research Building's day-lit laboratories

©Jeff Goldberg/Esto

You can see the finished product on at our Case Study on March 11.