A new home for the life sciences

Text by Katherine Unger Baillie, photos by Scott Spitzer

The six-story, $68.6 million, 78,000-square-foot Stephen A. Levin Building, which officially opened earlier this month, brings psychology and biology at Penn under one roof. The facility will serve as the epicenter of life sciences research for Penn Arts & Sciences.

Stephen Levin Building
Photo by Scott Spitzer

A decade ago, faculty from the departments of Biology and Psychology put together a vision statement describing their wishes to consolidate expertise and students from disparate locations oncampus in one facility, replete with functional, inviting spaces for collaboration and learning. A common space was only sensible, they reasoned, as the disciplines were increasingly in dialogue to build a greater understanding of the biological basis of complex behaviors.

With the official opening of the Stephen A. Levin Building this month, that vision has been made manifest. The six-story, $68.6 million, 78,000-square-foot facility brings psychology and biology under one roof.

“The building consolidates people from around the campus and gives a home to two very important departments that have a total intellectual affinity to each other,” says University Architect David Hollenberg. “It’s an incredible achievement.”

The building was made possible by a $15 million gift from Stephen A. Levin, a 1967 graduate of the College of Arts & Sciences.

“This is now the epicenter of life sciences research for the School of Arts & Sciences, and this building facilitated it,” says Matthew Lane, vice dean of administration and finance for the School of Arts & Sciences (SAS). “It gives a core group of the school’s students and faculty a high-quality, attractive home.”

The structure physically connects two other life science buildings: Leidy, through direct hallway connections, and Lynch, through an underground tunnel. The architects, SMITHGROUP JJR Architects and Engineers, made the decision to face the building perpendicular to University Avenue to create a new gateway into campus rather than a continuing wall of buildings. This gives a sightline from the road into the verdant James G. Kaskey Memorial Garden—known to many as the Biopond.

Nods to sustainability and nature abound inside and out. A landscaped, park-like space with plentiful seating stretches between the Stephen A. Levin Building and Lynch. The new building will feature one of the largest bike parking areas on campus and three rain gardens to help manage stormwater runoff.

A striking element of the building’s exterior is the aluminum sunscreen on the south façade. The sunscreen’s web-like pattern is intended to evoke biological networks, such as those formed by neurons. The sunscreen is not purely ornamental; by shielding the sun, it is expected to cut down significantly on the energy required to cool the building.

Facing north and west, the building walls are enclosed with sheets of pre-patinated copper, a durable building material upon which natural weathering has been accelerated to reveal varying shades of green.

Like all new construction on campus, the building is registered with the U.S. Green Building Council and is targeting a LEED Silver rating or higher. Some green elements are apparent, like the sunscreen, the green roof, and the open stairwells that encourage walking between floors rather than taking the elevator.

Other sustainable elements are subtler. The three teaching laboratories on the building’s first floor, for instance, are equipped with an air circulation and monitoring system that protects lab occupants by ensuring a constant supply of fresh air while reducing unnecessary air changes when the labs are not in use.

“Even though you can’t see it, it’s a major green feature,” says Chris Kern, director of design and construction in Facilities and Real Estate Services. “There are also many other things you might not notice that are sprinkled throughout the building, from recycled content in the flooring to Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood in the cabinets.”

Since the start of the spring semester, faculty have begun moving into offices and research spaces.

“The building itself is gorgeous,” says Sharon Thompson-Schill, chair and professor in the Department of Psychology. “And when viewed as part of a complex with Lynch, Leidy, Goddard, and Richards, it gives faculty with biological dimensions to their research the ability to grow and develop connections both within SAS and with our colleagues in the Perelman School of Medicine.”

Some teaching labs have also begun operating in the new laboratory spaces. Karen Hogan, teaching laboratory coordinator in the Department of Biology, says the architects were open to her and her colleagues’ wishes for designs for the lab environment, such as encouraging interaction between students and instructors.

“A key item on our wish list was to facilitate that one-on-one interaction,” says Hogan. “We’ve achieved that with a space that allows us to move easily in between students so no space is off limits.”

The building serves as a home base for many students, not only those majoring in biology and psychology but also in the Biological Basis of Behavior major and the Life Sciences and Management program. These students will likely find themselves there frequently, attending lectures in the 170-person capacity Tedori Family Auditorium or the active-learning classroom where students can work in small groups overseen by a professor.

Hogan has already seen informal gatherings in the building turn into something more productive.

“Some students were sitting outside the lab using the writeable glass on the wall to map out images of cells,” she says. “Some friends wandered through and it turned into an impromptu study session. We’re hoping these types of interactions are just the beginning.”

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