Planning Commission Critiques LBNL Building

By Richard Brenneman
Friday December 21, 2007

The chair of the Berkeley Planning Commission offered a scathing critique of one of two major new laboratory buildings planned for Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). 

But it wasn’t the Helios Building, the target of an unbroken string of criticism during a public hearing two nights earlier. 

The critique dished out by architect James Samuels Wednesday night targeted the Computational Research and Theory (CRT) building, located next to the lab’s Blackberry Gate. 

“Unacceptable,” was the verdict he pronounced to architect Allison Williams, the building’s designer. 

Calling the 11-story, metal-clad structure “an extremely large building ... that is going to have a large impact on the city,” Samuels said he was concerned that the design wasn’t respectful of its site. 

He said a better design would have produced a design that stepped down the hillside and reoriented the main mass of the building by 90 degrees. 

Williams disagreed, and said the design was driven by the need for a large clear space to house computers. 

The structure will serve as a center for high-speed brute-force computing that will be used, among other things, to conduct research in climate change, energy efficiencies and the biosciences. 

Williams was part of a team dispatched by LBNL to brief the city on the CRT building and the Helios building, a lower-rise structure at the other end of the lab complex that will house the $500 million BP-funded Energy Biosciences Institute and other energy research projects.  

The presentations were made to solicit city comments on the building for inclusion in the environmental impact reports (EIRs) on the projects. 

Bill Collins, a UC Berkeley professor who heads the lab’s Earth Sciences Climate Sciences Department, said LBNL and the university are working to enhance their cooperation with the community. 

One area of cooperation is the “Green Corridor” partnership with local governments, which aims at developing crop-derived transportation fuels and other alternative energy sources, energy efficient technologies and other “green” businesses and industries. 

The 140,000-square foot CRT facility will employee 300, with no additional parking spaces, said Henry Martinez, the building’s project manager. 

The architect said the building would be one story shorter than originally envisioned, the result of earlier community critiques, and would have a mass similar to the Molecular Foundry building, a structure built by the Lab with no environmental impact report. 

Jeff Philliber, the lab’s environmental planner, said three alternative sites had been considered and rejected, while the preferred alternative was a design with a lower profile than the one subsequently slammed by Samuels. 

The lab official said neither building required review under federal environmental law, since the site wasn’t leased by the Department of Energy, a point which had been challenged earlier by critics of both projects. 

Commissioner Gene Poschman sided with Samuels in his design critique, noting, as had the chair, that most of the building’s high-rise portion consisted of offices, and could have been organized differently. 

Poschman also criticized the lab’s plans for a Silver environmental rating. “This is the structure that is supposed to lead the nation in energy efficiency,” he said, while the Silver rating can be garnered with almost no effort. 

Martinez said the lab will be looking for ways to garner a higher rating. 

When it came time for a look at the Helios building, architect Bill Diefenbach made only one mistake, albeit repeatedly, by references to “Lawrence Livermore” rather than Lawrence Berkeley. 

The Helios facility consists of two wings, one to house the Energy Biosciences Institute, the project created with $500 million in funds from BP, the British oil company, and the other to house a variety of energy research projects. 

Some of the questions focused on green roof designs, which will be planted, to blend in with the hillside. Whether the grasses are watered during summer months is still at issue, Diefenbach said. 

“I think it is a very well-designed project and it fits on the hill in a way that is quite beneficial,” Samuels said. 

Poschman agreed. “This is 160,000 square feet and fits in, while the other building is 140,000 square feet and sticks out like a sore thumb.” 

“In fairness to the CRT building, it’s on a much steeper site,” said Samuels. 

The only serious non-architectural critiques came during the public comment session. 

Gianna Ranuzzi faulted the lab on adding new projects to a site that “is a hotbed of contaminants, and it’s also a watershed.” She urged the commissioners to “please vote for no projects or for alternative sites and a public comment  


Merilee Mitchell said the lab should keep the computing center at its present location in Oakland, while Amy Beaton said the lab’s monitoring of groundwater contamination “is a sham.” 

Ranuzzi and a UC Berkeley student who identified himself as “anonymous 77” both urged commissioners to extend the public comment period on the CRT building as they had on the Helios project. 

Comment closes on the CRT Jan. 5, while lab director Steven Chu extended the Helios commentary period to Feb. 1. 

The draft EIR and more information on the CRT building may be found at www.lbl.gov/community/crt, and on the Helios building at www.lbl.gov/community/helios