For 20 years, the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) has advanced the study of the genetic code through innovative research and policymaking to improve human health and further environmental sustainability.

The research institute now is applying its vision of sustainability to its new 45,000-sq-ft Western headquarters in La Jolla, being constructed by McCarthy Building Cos., San Diego. When completed in the fall, the $39-million campus will be on track to become the world's first net-zero energy use biological laboratory.

"We realized that you have to walk the talk," says Bob Friedman, JCVI COO and director of the California campus. "At JCVI, we like to set 'stretch goals' for ourselves. We strive for innovative genomic work—for the next generation of environmental cleanup, for synthesizing entire bacterial genomes to harness biology for societal good. So, why not set a stretch goal for the building's design/construction team to meet as well?"

As a result, the project was designed to achieve net-zero energy use without purchasing carbon offsets. The power generated annually by photovoltaic panels within the building's footprint will equal the amount of electricity the facility consumes in a year, says Yann Palmore, president of Sustainable SoCal Inc., La Jolla, the owner's project representative.

Sustainable Strategies

"Traditional wet labs used in biological research are typically classified as high-energy-use buildings and unlikely candidates to achieve net-zero site energy," Palmore says. As a result, the lab needed to employ a synthesis of energy-efficiency strategies.

The facility, which will support approximately 125 scientists and other staff, is on 1.75 acres of coastal land leased from the University of California, San Diego. Groundbreaking took place on Sept. 20, 2011.

The project includes a single-story, 12,605-sq-ft laboratory wing; a three-story, 28,600-sq-ft office wing; a 3,560-sq-ft loading dock area; and a partially below-grade parking garage. The steel and poured concrete building was designed by the Los Angeles office of ZGF Architects LLP to target a LEED-Platinum rating.

The building's unusual geometry, with varying angles throughout, along with full-height shear walls and architecturally exposed concrete make the project challenging to build, says Nate Ray, McCarthy senior project manager.

McCarthy self-performed all of the project's concrete work, including walls, columns, footings, slab on grade, slabs on metal deck and podium deck. Exposed elements use architectural Type III 8,000-psi concrete that contains 30% fly ash, a recycled material. Cement manufacturing is an energy-intensive process, so having fly ash content higher than the typical 10% to 20% helps lower the project's environmental footprint, says Bob Betz, McCarthy senior vice president.

"This is, to my knowledge, the highest percentage of a concrete mix used to produce high-quality architectural concrete that McCarthy has ever used in the 150 years of the company," he adds.

The project is expected to receive other LEED credits from using regional materials, such as local stone and aggregates, FSC-certified lumber and extensive recycling efforts.