Field Trip :: Genzyme Center

Genzyme Center atrium - photo from

By Ian Hester, BArch Candidate

As architecture and design have moved into the twenty-first century, sustainability and efficiency have become some of the most important elements in new buildings.  One of the groundbreaking projects that catalyzed the popularization of this movement was Genzyme Center, the corporate headquarters of the Genzyme biotech company in Cambridge's Kendall Square.

Genzyme Center - photo from

The design process for this platinum LEED building began in 2000 with the hiring of German architects Behnisch, Behnisch, and Partner, who earned the contract by their willingness to embrace Genzyme's vision and then implement it in the design of the building.  In 2003 construction of the twelve-story building was completed, and the company had an iconic headquarters that embodied its values of innovation, collaboration, and responsibility.

Heliostats - photo from

One of the most striking features of the building is the amount of natural light.  This is achieved through an innovative system of computer controlled heliostats (at the time of construction, seven of the eight heliostats in North America were in this building), mirrors, and prismatic louvers that direct light throughout the central open space.  The effect is heightened by the use of reflective mylar blinds on the office windows and reflective tiles on the edges of the ceilings.  Even the pool of water in the lobby is designed to reflect the light; the water is only two inches deep, and the bottom is covered with highly polished aluminum.

Prismatic louvers - photo from

Another design element that stands out is the amount of collaborative spaces.  There are eighteen gardens spread throughout the building, each of which has plants, artwork, and seating for the company's employees to mingle and share ideas. 

Collaborative garden space - photo from 

The loggia is designed to control air quality and enable extra light to be brought into the building, in addition to functioning as a storm window.  The computer controlled transoms automatically open to let in fresh air when it is needed, and the computer controlled blinds maintain light levels during the day and automatically close at night to reduce the building's light pollution.

Loggia - photo from 

A major focus of the design is the sense of responsibility, which is one of Genzyme's core values.  The white roof addresses the urban heat island effect by minimizing its contribution to the problem.  The vegetation on the roof filters water to address the problem with storm water runoff.  Possibly the most intriguing system is the heating and cooling, which are done with excess steam from the nearby Cambridge power plant.  Less fancy, but arguably even more important, are the interactive touchscreens throughout the building that allow both visitors and employees to learn about sustainability.  These efforts to maximize the sustainability and efficiency of the building's various systems were crucial to the platinum LEED certification.

Roof vegetation - photo from

Genzyme offers guided tours to educational groups Monday-Thursday in the mornings and afternoons, but it is recommended that they be scheduled a month in advance.  If you will be in town this summer, organize a group of friends and colleagues and check out the building.  The guided tour will allow you to see the upper floors of the building, including the loggia and a closer look at the prismatic louvers.  You can also swing by anytime between 7:00am and 7:00pm Monday-Friday to see the building from the first and second floors.  This will still give you a great look at the neat central atrium, and a better understanding of how the building works.  This is definitely one that needs to be experienced.  It is located at 500 Kendall Street in Cambridge.  Check out Genzyme's web site for more information.