Form and Function in a Research Space Designed for the Future
Post-secondary meets Silicon Valley in University of California, Berkeley’s new artificial intelligence lab
One must-have for the Berkeley Artificial Intelligence Research (BAIR) Lab was Zoom capability in every room. Way back in 2019, when the space was being designed, this was a novelty. Within a few months of the new space opening in January 2020, it was a necessity.
“I thought we were ahead of our time,” says Scott Shackleton, retired Assistant Dean at the College of Engineering at UC Berkeley, who oversaw capital projects for the college. “Now there are Zoom rooms all over the place!” This is true, but not every Zoom room has integrated AV that makes the system work at the push of a single button. And not every research and learning space has a spectacular view of San Francisco Bay and the look and feel of a Silicon Valley tech start-up.
Going new school in an old school
Berkeley sits across the bay from San Francisco. The new building on Berkeley Way West is just outside of campus, nudging Berkeley’s corporate district. When it was built, the eighth floor of the building was slated for a state-of-the-art research space where faculty, graduate students, and postdoctoral researchers from a range of disciplines could study computer vision, machine learning, robotics, and other AI-related areas. Ideas would be born here, and the design demanded something appropriately future-focused and contemporary.
Historically, post-secondary classrooms, labs, and meeting spaces have been divided into separate rooms, accessed by enclosed corridor. That’s not what Shackleton and the faculty wanted for the BAIR Lab. He envisioned an open, well-lit, free-flowing research space. It would have a variety of seating areas, collaboration points, and meeting rooms (with one-touch Zoom capability, of course). He knew students would arrive with their own technology and would need uninterrupted Wi-Fi and plenty of flexible space.
DIRTT at UC Berkeley
The UC Berkeley campus dates back to the 1960s. To walk its pathways is to enjoy the full spectrum of architectural styles, from Beaux-Arts classicism to Brutalism. As education has evolved, so have many of the building interiors — often with DIRTT’s help.
Shackleton’s introduction to DIRTT happened nearly a decade ago, when the college pulled half the stacks from the Bechtel Engineering Library to create seven new study pods for students. It was a 1979 building — lots of concrete surfaces — and the new rooms were designed to incorporate more glass for a brighter, more inviting feel.
Shackleton liked the way light carried through the finished spaces. He was also impressed by how contemporary the retrofitted rooms looked, how excellent the sound quality was (despite the glass walls), and most of all, by the fact that installation took only five days. “It blew my mind. This is the future!” he says. Since then, Shackleton has worked with DIRTT on other retrofit projects including a chemistry and engineering lab in O’Brien Hall and a massive tech wall in Haviland Hall. But the BAIR Lab was different. “It was my first opportunity where it was a blank palette. 27,000 square feet of openness where I could just do DIRTT,” he says.
Staying clear on cost
Shackleton managed a large budget and needed to account for every penny of it. But construction projects are unpredictable, especially in the Bay Area, where trade labor can be pricey — if you can find it at all. For Shackleton, it was a big help that DIRTT could give him a firm cost five months before he went out to bid. The bid covered everything from walls and glass to the electrical system. It was even more helpful that the number didn’t budge throughout the project. “For me to lock in 40% of my budget that far ahead, in our marketplace right now, that was huge,” Shackleton says.
That decision is still paying off. As researchers and students use the BAIR Lab, they’re finding ways to make the space more responsive. More writeable surfaces for one. And the adaptability of the system makes these improvements easy to do without spending much time or money.
Managing quakes, soundwaves, and mess
When you’re designing the eighth floor of a building in the Bay Area, you have to think about seismic activity. For the DIRTT team, this was a critical challenge. It wasn’t enough to make the BAIR Lab seismically stable. It had to look good. DIRTT’s research and experience ensured the deck-to-deck connection offered structure and style. The processes for managing deflection (the amount a structure changes shape when a load is applied) and connection details gave the wall assembly the strength it needed.
Another challenge was soundproofing a space with so many glass walls, but DIRTT is always looking for ways to improve acoustics. The DIRTT team held a Bluebeam Studio Session with construction partner Vantis to collaborate on a solution. Together they reviewed and marked up drawings. With DIRTT’s adaptive construction system, the install team was able to add mass-loaded vinyl to the solid walls on-site to help absorb sound more effectively.
Throughout the install — even while the walls were being finished — Shackleton was impressed by the cleanliness of the process.
We just had a guy with a Shop-Vac going around tidying up. Compare that to a site full of sheetrock dust.
A Silicon-Valley-worthy space
“It’s so cool to see the energy the space is creating,” Shackleton says.
It’s a new way of collaborating, more in line with what you might find at a company like Google or Facebook. Everything has worked really well.
The real test was when people started using the space. Shackleton says it’s not unusual for people to stay there for 14 hours at a stretch. The BAIR Lab has a big common area, and the whole space is equipped with super high-speed Wi-Fi that allows every person on the floor (up to 170 in pre-pandemic times) to have three devices operating simultaneously. No one needs cords. People can work solo, form groups, or float from task to task.
It’s functional, but is it beautiful? “People love the contemporary look,” Shackleton says. We overlook the San Francisco Bay and we all share that panoramic view.” He compares the BAIR Lab to the floor below, which is traditionally constructed with closed, solid-walled rooms and corridors. Down there, Shackleton says you have no idea which direction you’re walking. “It’s completely the opposite of what we accomplished, where you feel like you can see the world. And they spent twice as much as we did.”
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