Buildings of Noble Purpose: Life, Learning, Discovery, and Healing
“Our buildings are science buildings, places of research and discovery, and they are hospitals, places where we have our most intimate moments,” said Payette’s Building Science Group Principal and Director Andrea Love. “They’re a place of birth and death and everything in between, and we want to make those moments as comfortable as possible.”
Located in Boston, Payette’s roots go back to the architectural firm Markus and Nocka, a partnership formed in 1932 by Fred Markus and Paul Nocka. “They were industrial designers and architects, and they were interested in doing time and motion studies of how people use space, particularly in the healthcare environment,” Love told us.
They were joined in 1960 by Tom Payette, who had just completed his architectural studies at Harvard Graduate School of Design and who emerged as the second generation of leadership. In 1974, he assumed the presidency, giving his name to the company. The name has since become synonymous with buildings that look beautiful and are highly efficient.
“Tom Payette sold the business in the late nineties to the next generation of leadership,” Love said, explaining how today, Payette is a collaborative practice where fifteen partners, of which she is one, share equal roles in marketing, management, and design. Now the company is planning for the fourth generation of leadership, with seven new principals having been named in the last three years to ensure the continuity of the design philosophy for which Payette is widely recognized.
Payette employs a staff of approximately 175 professionals, and integral to its success is the Building Science Group of four, led by Love. Her credentials include an architecture degree from Carnegie Mellon University and a master’s degree in building technology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where her thesis focused on the thermal performance of façades. Building performance of façades is something on which she currently lectures at MIT and has conducted further research into in 2012 for a project funded by Upjohn.
She continues to research on behalf of Payette and explained that while her research is for internal projects, her findings are made public and are available on the company’s website. Topics include ‘Reducing HVAC Energy Consumption in Labs,’ ‘Natural Ventilation in Healthcare,’ and ‘Thermal Comfort and Glazing.’
“That’s something that was commented on when we received the awards. The judges noted that our research focuses on expanding knowledge in the industry and sharing it with others,” said Love.
“The practice of building performance into the design process is integrated from the outset of the project,” she said, “so we understand the performance impact of everything that we do. It informs our decisions, so that is what we (the Building Science Group) spend half our time on, and the other portion of our time we spend trying to green our practices.”
From the time she began her studies at Carnegie Mellon, which “had a strong focus on sustainability and building performance,” she has been passionate about environmental concerns. “Buildings are one of the biggest emitters of carbon in the US, and it seems that we as architects have the responsibility to do our part toward mitigating these emissions that lead to climate change.”
She told us that the American Institute of Architects (AIA) has committed to designing carbon-neutral buildings by 2030. “I think there are five hundred or maybe six hundred firms that have signed up to do this. Every year, we report on how we’re doing and how we’re progressing. We’ve integrated that goal into every one of our projects, with the immediate goal by 2020 to reach seventy percent reduction from that of a typical building. We want to push energy efficiency and building performance to make sure we are designing the most energy-efficient building possible. At the end of every year, we collect the data on how we’re progressing with the aim of trying to make further reductions.”
Although a seventy percent reduction of carbon emissions by 2020 is the goal of AIA, many of Payette’s designs have resulted in reductions greater than seventy percent.
For example, Northeastern University’s Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex, (ISEC), located in Boston and completed in 2016, showed a seventy-eight percent reduction. This was achieved, according to the company’s website, by using “energy modeling tools to analyze solar heat gain and shape the building for optimum performance. Iterative simulations, employing parametric modeling and custom compositing software, developed the exterior shading system as an integral part of the building’s overall form.”
This unique shading element on the southwest side, comprised of repeated curvilinear anodized aluminum cylinders, greatly reduced the heating and cooling loads, while permitting natural light to enter the workspace. At the same time, the reflection of light from this sculpted shading system gives a sense that the building is a living, breathing entity, floating and shimmering above the urban streetscape.
As a result of its high energy efficiency and striking exterior appearance, ISEC received both the AIA’s COTE Top Ten Award for sustainable excellence and the Harleston Parker Medal, awarded by the Boston Society of Architects for most beautiful building, proving aesthetics do not have to be compromised in favor of functionality.
“Issues of technical performance, sustainability, responsible design – these are all integrated,” said Love. “We spend a lot of time looking at thermal performance on the façade and how to improve energy efficiency, while at the same time, how to maximize comfort for the occupants.” And, as it turns out, the company spends a lot of time figuring out how to design beautiful buildings.
Receiving just one COTE Top Ten Award, the industry’s best-known award for sustainable design excellence would be considered a lifetime achievement for many architectural firms. Payette, however, has received the award not once but four times in the past four years, in 2016, 2017, and twice in 2019.
The Biosciences Research Building at the National University of Ireland in Galway was constructed in 2013 and received the award in 2016. With a seventy-two percent reduction in energy use compared to the 2030 baseline, the sophisticated science laboratory dedicated to cancer research, regenerative medicine, chemical biology, and biosafety level 3 animal research, is one of the most energy-efficient research laboratories in the world, according to the company.
As explained on the website, “Wrapping the perimeter of the building with low energy uses creates a ‘thermal sweater’ for the high energy laboratories, which optimizes energy use for the building as a whole.” In addition, “each side of the building is tuned to the sun’s orientation, a strategy that eliminates solar heat gain and thereby the supplemental cooling system that would have otherwise been required in the low energy zones.” Ireland’s moderate climate allowed the low-load energy spaces of the building to take advantage of natural ventilation for more than half the year.
In 2017, the COTE Top Ten Award winner was the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University, in Washington, DC. It was completed in 2014 and showed a sixty-four percent reduction in energy use compared to the 2030 baseline.
It was a challenge for the designers who needed to plan for a building to be constructed on what the company refers to as “an awkwardly configured, dense urban site.” At the same time, the designers faced another challenge: how to incorporate daylight, air, and views. This was accomplished by the irregular arrangement of classrooms, windows, and skylights.
According to the website, a year after its completion, a survey found that the building encourages movement and nurtures healthy lifestyles. Eighty-five percent of the respondents agreed the building supported their health more than other campus buildings, citing stairs, natural light, and shared kitchenettes as primary factors.
Then in 2019, Payette received two COTE Top Ten Awards. As noted, one was for the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex at Northeastern University in Boston, which has racked up a staggering total of eleven awards since 2016.
The other 2019 COTE Top Ten Award was for the Amherst College New Science Centre, Amherst, Massachusetts. It was completed in 2018 with a seventy-six percent reduction of carbon emissions in its first year of operation. According to the company website, its distinctive and cleverly designed roof, which “covers the multi-story, glass-enclosed commons, performs several functions. It provides both natural and artificial light, its photovoltaic panels generate electricity, its shape and materials afford acoustic control, and it radiantly heats and cools the commons.”
As well as the outstanding building designs Payette has completed coast to coast in North America, the company has designed buildings in Ireland, China, (where it has just finished designing a hospital), Russia, Pakistan, and Kenya. A hospital in Nairobi came with a different set of challenges, Love told us. “There is often interruption of water service and power there, so the hospital has to be completely self-sufficient, with onsite water storage, so when the power goes out, it can still operate.”
“We are doing two new buildings at Penn State that we think are exciting, and there’s another phase for Northeastern adjacent to a previous building. There’s a hospital that is just starting construction and a couple of others, including one at Lafayette that we’re very excited about.”
“We’re continuing to push design, to strive for design excellence in all our projects. We still have a long way to go in mitigating the environmental impact of our buildings and getting to carbon neutrality. We need to think about the health impact of our buildings and the embodied carbon, our buildings’ resiliency, and how they will handle the changing climate. There are a lot of things we continue to push for and strive for in sustainable design.”