Photo: Courtesy of DPR Construction/Mark Citret
The stem-cell research lab in seismic San Francisco would have been even more difficult to build had O’Brien not suggested eliminating the mechanical-level “underbelly.”


Marianne O’Brien gives value engineering, or in her case, “value architecting” a good name. She also smashes the stereotype of architects as oblivious to cost and constructibility issues. At the University of California, San Francisco’s stem-cell research lab, a serpentine cliff-hanger in a seismic zone that was excruciatingly difficult to build, O’Brien saved the day by finding ways to slash $20 million off the price of the over-budget conceptual design by Rafael Viñoly Architects, without sacrificing architectural intent and functionality.

“She really made that building happen,” says Michael Bade, UCSF’s interim assistant vice chancellor and campus architect.

The $123-million Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine, sitting on stilts between a hill and a hospital at the Parnassus campus, opened on time in October. Few thought that would happen. After all, the bridging documents for the design-build job were for a lab that would have cost $20 million more than the $76-million target cost and taken a year longer to build than the stipulated two-year time frame.

O’Brien, a principal in the local office of the lab’s architect-of-record, SmithGroup, came up with many ways to cut the budget. But her biggest coup, during the proposal stage, was her idea to change the occupancy of the building, dubbed the Snake, from a complicated lab occupancy to a business occupancy.

Under Viñoly’s design, building officials saw the open area under the building as the first level; the mechanical level, dubbed the underbelly, as the second level; the lab as the third (though there was a direct exit to grade on one side); and the office level as the fourth. For the occupancy-change idea to work, the lab had to be on the second level, says O’Brien.

O’Brien’s second brainstorm was to eliminate the mechanical level and embed it in the office level, which would render the lab as level-two above grade. “The underbelly would have been extraordinarily difficult and expensive to construct [because] it needed to be hung from the underside of an elevated and almost inaccessible building,” says O’Brien.

O’Brien also revised and simplified Viñoly’s custom overhead utility distribution system for the lab benches, says Gavin Keith, project executive for the lab’s design-build contractor, DPR Construction, Redwood City, Calif. And she also helped keep the schedule tight by organizing face-to-face design reviews with users instead of submitting milestone document packages. “Marianne designs with cost and constructibility in mind,” says Keith. “We consider her one of the best architects we have had the opportunity to work with.”