More Than Skin Deep: University of Houston’s New Medical Building

At six stories tall, the recently completed Health and Biomedical Sciences Building stands out among the neighboring parking garages in the southeast corner of the University of Houston campus. The 167,000-sf project expands the College of Optometry's research and clinical operations. These areas became more important after the university became a Tier One research institution in 2011. Shepley Bulfinch of Boston, with architect of record Bailey Architects of Houston, succeed in delivering the requisite spaces, and clad them in a trio of clever, cost-effective facade solutions.

A variety of programs are stacked vertically in this medical facility: ambulatory services, laser eye surgery suites, research labs, classrooms, and offices. Lab space is split between “light-sensitive” floors, where experiments require total control over lighting, and “dry labs,” where computational work is completed digitally. Older laboratories were located in the basements of other buildings that flooded in past hurricanes, leaving administrators worried about protecting research in future storms. To avoid this, labs in the new building were moved to the upper floors, initiating another design problem: How to make an attractive facade for a building with few windows?

Inspired by the sharp play of Texan sunlight, the architects developed a primary facade system of precast concrete panels. Each measures 21' x 6' and is cast with peak and valley articulations. Panels are structurally connected to the cast-in-place concrete columns with welded steel blades, and their backs are sprayed with insulation. Over a day, the units change from a flat appearance in direct sun to a more dimensional state at shallower angles of light, a transformation best seen on the north and west elevations. The faces are pushed and pulled only three inches in either direction but the resulting geometric ripple is pleasingly subtle, though also evident from a distance.

Limestone is used in a rainscreen-like configuration on lower floors of the north and south elevations. Individual clapboard pieces are beveled on their exposed face and stacked within custom vertical aluminum extrusions, and bearing angles are used over window openings. Here, the half-inch variation in depth is slight but adds an appreciable amount of detail as the shadows change from wider, oblique Ls to crisp black underlines below the midday sun.

A large section of glazing defines the southwestern corner of the tower. A ceramic frit, baked onto the second surface of the glass, was used to reduce heat loading and add visual interest. For ease of fabrication, only a single pattern is featured, mirrored on the top and bottom of the glass. Close examination reveals the difference between occupied floor, interstitial spandrel, and the service half-floor above the two levels of light-sensitive labs. The frit hides these sectional differences. Instead, its shadowy gradient accents the horizontal mullions of the curtain wall system. Walls of the western egress stair are painted UH red and are obscured by the mirrored glass during the day. At night they are internally lit to provide a punch of color.

The design team, led by Shepley Bulfinch, developed additional features that translate the angular language of the facade through the building: the corrugated mechanical screen on top of the building breaks slightly in plan; a bright-red bent steel profile supports the lobby stair; and interior corridor walls angle in and out. Outside, the surfaces deliver a sophisticated facade at an institutional price point. A future UH building is planned for the lot east of the Health and Biomedical Sciences building. Let's hope its facades match the high bar set by this new facility.

Jack Murphy, Assoc. AIA, is currently a designer with Baldridge Architects in Austin and a contributing editor to BI ( Photography by Alex Fradkin, Nic Lehoux, Kat Nania and Shepley Bulfinch.

This article is expanded content for Texas Architect November/December 2013.