Going Underground: Duke Institute for Brain Sciences

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Duke Institute for Brain Sciences

When the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences (DIBS) was founded in 2007, its directors had a vision to create a multidisciplinary, cross-school think tank to support innovation and collaboration in brain research. The challenge: from its inception, DIBS departments were scattered across the Duke campus in disparate locations. Without shared workspaces, the program lacked opportunities for the kind of informal, spontaneous interactions which lead to creative discoveries. Without organic overlap between programs, it was harder for DIBS to feel truly interdisciplinary.

Evolving technology offered an unexpected solution. When the Levine Science Research Center was added to the campus chilled water loop, its sizeable basement chiller equipment was instantly outmoded. Removing the old chillers freed up a fair amount of space - basement space.Could this space be adapted to serve as the DIBS nerve center? Could basement mechanical space be transformed into something exciting, welcoming, and inspiring?

Indeed it could.

DIBS teamed with LS3P and Lend Lease to transform this basement into a space for network building, creative collisions, and multidisciplinary engagement. The team’s ideal space was fun, modern, efficient, and flexible, with an entry exciting enough to serve as the face of the DIBS program.

First the team had to clean out the basement. This process included decommissioning four chillers; building a new, much smaller mechanical room; installing a new chase for chilled water piping; and re-routing overhead acid neutralizer piping for the science labs overhead. This was no small task.

Next, the team envisioned a bold new entry: a modern glass cube which would entice visitors from the ground-level quad above. The glass cube houses an elevator and doubles as a light shaft illuminating the basement with natural light.

As a connecting element between the aboveground cube and the underground program, the team included a striking warm wood element which flows from vertical paneling behind the elevator into a horizontal wood ceiling over the central double-height gathering space.

The interior is warm, vibrant, and tactile, with an energetic color palette and materials which celebrate the facility’s former function. Exposed mechanical elements such as pipes, chases, and conduits, painted white for visual unity, add depth and texture. Raw concrete contrasts with sleek metal and warm wood for a modern industrial aesthetic.

The space is tailor-made for a program rooted in collaboration. The facility includes collision/team rooms, wet labs, flexible education space, and administrative offices. Visual and programmatic overlap encourages interaction. A central gathering area provides visual connections among educational, administrative, and collaboration spaces. Through flexible partitions, moveable garage door dividers, and a wide variety of seating areas for structured or informal gathering, spaces flow into each other as functions require.

Designed for efficiency and collaboration, the new facility provides opportunities for maximum creative collisions.

Despite technical challenges such as creating a mezzanine in a space with a tightly constrained head height, adding a chase to maintain required mechanical functions, and working with the existing slab-on-grade structure, the resulting space is functional and engaging; academic and modern; professional and warm.

Custom furniture used for informal gatherings, touchdown space, and individual study is tailored to the subtle forms and angles of the mezzanine level. Ring lights in the central atrium draw the eye upward, while the garage doors enclosing the lecture space hint at vertical motion.

Designed to serve as the nexus of this multidisciplinary think tank, this new space encourages network building, expanding connections, intellectual overlap, and the creative connections which lead to discovery.


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