The new Science and Engineering Complex, a dynamic lab for research and learning, is the latest significant addition to the Allston campus of Harvard University. As an integral part of the ambitious energy goals the design for the exterior façade balances technical and aesthetic goals to celebrate performance-oriented aspects and establish a strong visual presence. The layered design calibrates the scale of the large volumes that constitute the research program, creates an identity of the complex, and plays a crucial role in the building’s energy performance as well as occupant comfort.

The research areas on the upper floors are sheathed in a sophisticated screen enclosure; the world’s first hydroformed tensile façade system. A team of engineers, fabricators, lighting and climate specialists used empirical testing, rapid prototyping, full-scale mockups, advanced industrial design and simulation software to optimize the screen panels for strength, production, and visual qualities. Behnisch designed the façade in collaboration with the structural engineering firm Knippers Helbig, and it was fabricated by Josef Gartner GmbH/Permasteelisa North America Corp.

The screen combines solar control with material and fabrication innovation, using stainless steel that has the delicacy and lightness of fabric. The concept centers on a fixed sunshade screen that is geometrically calibrated to lower peak cooling loads while reflecting daylight deep into the spaces. In 14 different profiles, the 12,000 panels are fabricated from 1.5mm-thick stainless steel by hydroforming, a process that uses pressurized water to shape metal sheets against a single mold. Commonly used in the industrial parts and automotive industries, hydroforming forms stiffer components with less material and at lower cost than traditional methods, reducing the embodied energy of the components. After folding each razor-thin panel their edges are perforated, blurring the contrast between shade and exterior. Because the panels are so stiff, they require a minimal tensile support structure, enabling views and daylight to penetrate the interiors while reducing solar glare. The panel cassette is bolted directly to spring-tensioned vertical steel rods, with only wind bracing at the spandrel levels.

Depending on its exact position on the facade, each screen is precisely dimensioned to shield the building interior from solar heat gain during warmer months, while it lets beneficial sun in during the winter, reducing significantly cooling and heating loads. The screen also reflects daylight towards the interior while maintaining large view apertures. The thermal enclosure behind the screen is triple-glazed, and punctuated with operable windows.