Biotech Commons

University of Pennsylvania | Philadelphia, PA

The University of Pennsylvania sought to rethink and reinvent the idea of a university library in an era when book reference and isolated research have given way to digital learning, hands-on making, and transdisciplinary exploration. The establishment of Biotech Commons creates a novel new academic center that will inspire life sciences students, faculty, and industry leaders to come together for groundbreaking learning, prototyping, and collaboration.

VMA found both large and small innovations to meet the University’s desire to break down traditional boundaries. Achieving the vision, however, required VMA to make substantial exterior and interior changes to transform the dark 1960’s brick biomedical library into a space reflective of its progressive vision. Leveraging the building’s location at the intersection of the Schools of Medicine, Nursing, Science, and Biology enabled VMA to both physically and symbolically recast the Commons as a vital crossroads. Crucially, VMA had to take a surgical approach to ensure the new Commons did not disturb the sensitive lab work occurring above and below in the same building, including a Zebrafish lab, where even minor sound vibrations could be detrimental.

Gone now are carrels and stacks, replaced with tech-integrated conference spaces, collaboration classrooms with moveable furniture and boards, and a digital fabrication lab equipped with modeling tools and 3D printers. Each of the spaces is free to be scheduled by any student. Also, at the heart of the plan, are clusters of adaptable group workspaces for 4 to 12 people, arrayed in an open plan, so that breakout sessions enable students to observe one another’s work. Beyond this are smaller, semi-private spaces, including conference centers and classrooms, where students can shut themselves off from the surroundings and work together in a highly-focused way. Each of these rooms is acoustically-treated for a soundproof environment. Another space, typically set up as a meeting room, may be seamlessly converted to host receptions, roundtable discussions, and symposia for up to 80 people. 

To modernize its appearance and bring in natural light, VMA replaced the brick facade with floor-to-ceiling windows at ground level. This opens up to the building to the campus, allowing pedestrians on Hamilton Walk to see inside. Reading areas and lounges for informal group work line the windows, activating the facade and offering day lit spaces with views out to campus. Throughout, finishes were selected for durability, sustainability, and ease of maintenance to lower the lifecycle carbon footprint and operating costs. The building includes gender-neutral bathrooms, advancing a campus-wide university initiative. Lastly, wirelessly automatic doors operators maximize health and safety for the post Covid-19 world.


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Size: 18,200 sf


Architecture, Interior Design, Planning, Sustainability

Biotech Commons

University of Pennsylvania | Philadelphia, PA

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