MEP and SPW Teams Deliver Technical and Design Masterpiece at UCSF

Exterior view of Weill Neurosciences Building at dusk.
The Weill Neurosciences Building at UCSF required highly technical expertise and specialized construction know-how for its extensive MEP design and layout. Courtesy of Tim Griffith

Delivering the Joan and Sanford I. Weill Neurosciences Building, considered the crown jewel of the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) Mission Bay campus—and part of one of the largest neuroscience complexes in the world—required a special kind of design and construction team.

The team needed to be skilled at solving highly complex technical design and construction challenges typically associated with healthcare and life science projects. They needed to share the owner’s commitment to moving the needle on innovation and quality, while maintaining an accelerated construction schedule—even in the face of epic challenges like a global pandemic that temporarily shut down the jobsite mid-construction. Finally, they needed to embrace collaboration, transparency and teamwork to help them continuously identify ways to deliver the 282,000-sq.-ft. megaproject smarter, faster and better.

Doctors and patients walk through a patient lounge area.
The Weill Neurosciences Building is set on a busy area of the UCSF Mission Bay campus, surrounded by buildings on three sides and a busy street on the fourth. Courtesy of Kyle Jeffers

Technical Know-how

Striking a perfect balance of form and function, design and construction of the complex mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) systems required a high level of technical expertise.

Design-build MEP subcontractors joined DPR, architects SmithGroup and Mark Cavagnero Associates, and UCSF early in the process to help plan the design and provide constructability input, working closely with DPR, the owner and the architect team. The end result? It is a project packed with “systems, equipment and advanced features that are both beautiful and technical,” according to DPR project manager Cory Abbe.

The facility features half research, half clinical spaces and is equipped to support specialized laboratory work. The MEP scope included 10 large air handlers; installation of a 1.5-megawatt rooftop generator; complex lighting controls and Building Management systems and a 6,000-gallon fuel tank designed to keep the building in full operation for up to 48 hours in the event of an emergency; and a state-of-the-art fire and smoke control system.

As challenges arose during the project, the MEP team worked together to determine which solutions would work best for this project. For instance:

  • A catwalk was designed and constructed above the top floor research spaces, which required detailed modeling to ensure all valves and controls could be reached easily by facility managers and resolve MEP system clashes before field construction could occur.
  • Energy Use Intensity models were created evaluating both the systems and the envelope would meet the University’s goals for efficiency
  • The teamwork with the architects to develop high performing systems necessary for the labs and medical spaces while meeting the high architectural standards for the project including high ceilings, low noise and beautiful aesthetics.
  • Extra care had to be taken to allow for the ability to wash down for some of the laboratory spaces to accommodate their intended use.
Sunlit atrium lobby with multiple floors opening up into the atrium.
A central entry hall opens up to a soaring six-story atrium – a striking architectural focal point that allows plenty of natural light into the center of the building via a 40-ft. by 80-ft. skylight. Courtesy of Kyle Jeffers

The atrium smoke control system is one of the building’s most complicated features. It incorporates six smoke exhaust fans programmed to turn on in the event of a fire. Together, they pull over 200,000 cubic feet of air (or smoke) per minute out of the atrium. A trigger to the VESDA smoke detection system or fire sprinkler system in any part of the six-story atrium, automatically opens the operable first floor windows; drops the 60-foot-long level, six-smoke curtain; and shuts mechanical fire dampers—all while smoke exhaust fans start removing smoke from the air within 30 seconds.

“We conducted several pre-tests to the system, and the third-party certifier was very impressed that we were able to sign it off in 24 hours to achieve Temporary Certificate of Occupancy,” said Abbe.

Effective coordination of the MEP work, along with strong communication with the owner and design team were critical to a successful outcome. The highly collaborative approach taken by the team and co-location in the Big Room helped drive this success.

“We worked together for more than a year-and-a-half, going through many design iterations and changes, to achieve the final interior permit package,” Abbe noted. “We had over 100 bulletins to avoid any surprises, and as we were issuing new bulletins, we incorporated all of the MEP drawings, which really helped things go smoothly.”

Raising the Bar for Quality Craftsmanship

Not only was the interior MEP work created with innovation and precision, DPR’s self-perform craftmanship is on full display throughout the building.

DPR self-perform work (SPW) crews undertook $60 million of trade scope on the project, including all concrete, drywall, ceilings, frames, doors and hardware. Self-performing such a large portion of work on the massive concrete structure not only helped control quality, but also improve on-site safety and productivity.

Doctors and technicians working in a laboratory.
The Weill Neurosciences Building brings together top neuroscientists within neurology, psychiatry, neurosurgical and other clinical research programs to drive advances in neurodegenerative disorders. Courtesy of Kyle Jeffers

To accomplish the poured-in-place concrete work, including the concrete foundation pour, the SPW team carefully coordinated its efforts to work around three other major ongoing projects in the immediate vicinity. They scheduled all concrete pours for 1 a.m. to ensure material availability, and simultaneously implemented noise and light mitigation measures to avoid undue disruption to neighboring buildings, which included a UCSF residential facility right next door.

As a defining architectural focal point of the building, the SPW concrete work included the construction of hundreds of exposed concrete columns, seven six-story architectural concrete sheer walls and much more. SPW crews made extensive use of mockups and invested substantial time and effort to understand the many nuances of the design to meet the expectations of the owner, architects and donors, and to deliver the highest quality finish work.

“Our SPW concrete groups worked for almost a year on different recipes to determine the best approach to pouring the concrete and the best mixtures to use to deliver the expected end result,” commented DPR project manager Jeremy Bartle.

Operating in a design-assist capacity, the DPR SPW concrete team played an integral role helping the project fit within the budget, integrating design revisions throughout the entire process, and developing customized and innovative concrete form systems never before used on a DPR project in this region.

Architect Mark Cavagnero, who is widely recognized for his concrete design work, reflected on the high-level of craftsmanship in this marquee facility. “It’s probably the most beautiful concrete work I’ve been involved with over the past 15 or 20 years. The care, the precision and the quality has been beautiful.”

DPR’s drywall group, working in a design-build capacity, developed a strategy to robotically prefabricate over 70% of the interior partitions, and nearly 100% of exterior framing to reduce the project schedule by approximately one month. To leverage this capability even further, DPR collaborated with trade partners to rough-in the MEP in the prefabricated assemblies to further enhance labor savings and reduce site labor constraints. The welded assemblies, developed from a highly detailed BIM model, also contributed to a high-quality and reliable installation.

People sitting and walking outside on one of the building's patios.
Aspiration was a common theme and driving force for the entire project team, which was constructed on the dense, urban San Francisco site within one of the world’s most highly respected research and medical campuses. Courtesy of Kyle Jeffers

Some projects by their very nature leave a lasting impact on all who helped bring them to life. The Weill Neurosciences Building will have a life-changing impact on future patients, who will benefit from the important research taking place inside.

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