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Restoring the Salk Is Both Art and Science

A refurbished window-wall at the Salk Institute.
Photos courtesy of Salk Institute
The Salk Institute’s teak window-walls are more visible from the west end of the plaza, as seen in this pre-restoration photo taken in 2013. Photo courtesy of Salk Institute

The project of reviving the Salk Institute — the structure completed in 1965 on a canyon near the La Jolla cliffs — goes on much like any other major project in its labs.

The process is methodical, scientific and well thought-out.

Many regard architect Louis Kahn’s medical research complex as an architectural treasure — perhaps San Diego’s best — and something not to be tinkered with lightly.

Dr. Jonas Salk had already received national acclaim in the mid-1950s by developing the first safe and effective polio vaccine. Working with the National Science Foundation and the March of Dimes, he founded his institute on land given by the city of San Diego. He set the bar high for the work inside, and laid the groundwork for what would become a major life sciences and research cluster.

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Salk also wanted something special with the architecture, turning to Kahn for his design.

“It’s a wonderfully proportioned building,” said Philip Bona, president of the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Bona, who is senior architect with the BNIM architecture firm, called Kahn’s design a particularly elegant example of the late Brutalist style.

Kahn and Salk chose concrete and teak — a tropical hardwood — for the exterior. The wood paneling softens the concrete fins of the buildings, Bona said. After five decades in the elements, however, both concrete and teak have suffered with exposure to the elements.

Meanwhile, major infrastructure components such as boilers, chillers and an electrical system reached the end of their lives during the decade, and needed replacement.

“It’s like a car. You put 200,000 miles on it, you’re going to need to do something,” said Tim Ball, senior director of facility services at the Salk Institute.

The recent building restoration project cost $9.7 million and was funded by a $10 million bond issue.

The effort included a dive into the archives to figure out the intentions of Kahn, who died in 1974, and Salk, who died in 1995 in La Jolla.

The changes had to please the Salk Institute’s stakeholders as well as regulators. The California Coastal Commission as well as City Hall and the city’s historic review board must sign off on what the institute does to the building.

Damage to Teak

The Salk Institute’s exterior is a study in contrasts. The concrete walls are monolithic, but Kahn set 203 wooden panels containing windows into those walls. Each is unique.

The teak has taken a beating since the ’60s.

In addition to sun damage and some experiments with a reddish stain, there were termites, dry rot, exposure to sea air and a problem with the neighboring eucalyptus trees. San Diego homeowners know the Australian import grows fast but has several downsides (they break like matchsticks, for example). At the Salk Institute, a spore associated with the eucalyptus trees got into the warm-colored teak and stained the siding black.

The institute is wrapping up a project to restore the teak portion of its exterior. The last of the scaffolding, put up in February 2016, is scheduled to come down for a dedication at the end of this month.

In his office, Ball showed off photos of several small pieces of teak lumber in a makeshift frame, which is sitting on the roof of the institute. Each piece of wood appears different as each has a different finish applied.

The test structures sat there for two years.

The building’s caretakers watched how each finish reacted to the weather before deciding how they would take on the massive task of refinishing the tongue-and-groove teak siding.

The Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles helped the Salk Institute develop a program to conserve the teak in a way that is consistent with the building’s architecturally significant status. Contractors Wiss Janney Elstner Associates Inc. as well as Rudolph and Sletten Inc. helped with the job.

Water Damage

Things actually looked worse than they were. Ball said he and his co-workers expected they would have to replace 60 percent of the teak. In the end, they only had to replace 30 percent. When needed, new wood came from entities certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, Ball said.

Kahn’s saw-tooth floorplan for the upper-story offices meant some surfaces were exposed to the weather while others were sheltered from it. The wood walls that stood up best were disassembled and rebuilt. The worst received new material.

Kahn’s buildings also endured five decades of water damage. Ball said that to save costs during initial construction in the 1960s, contractors left off building elements known as flashing and end dams. That left water to pool at the bottom of the wooden panels, and it slowly crept skyward through the wood grain. It’s a phenomenon called wicking, and it left dark streaks at the bottom of the teak panels.

This time the institute spent the money to install flashing and end dams.

“We had 12 inches of rain and did you see any wicking?” Ball said. He held up his hand, making his thumb and index finger into a zero.

Kahn also designed his window-walls with louvers. During construction, the institute saved money by not installing some of them. Fifty-five years later, that has been remedied. “For the first time, the institute was built the way it was designed,” Ball said.

Concrete Patches

Though it might seem counterintuitive, the concrete at the Salk Institute has also taken a beating. Here and there it is falling apart, cracking like an eggshell or spalling. In some places, moisture has worked its way into the concrete and corroded the steel reinforcing bars. Seismic activity has also caused building components to expand and contract.

It’s not an easy fix. Ball pointed to an early concrete repair that is discolored. It looked all right at first, he said, but it bleached over time.

With an eye toward avoiding such problems in the future, Salk’s building managers went back to the archives. They dug into what truck contributed concrete to the spot, and which form was used during the pouring process. The goal has been to reverse engineer the mixture.

Today’s replacement patches range from a softball-sized spot to an expanse that measures 4 by 1½ feet. Workers make sure the texture of the patch matches the concrete around it.

The patches include polymer to create a better repair. Though new patches look discolored, they are intended to change with age, eventually matching the building.

The project of patching concrete promises to continue in the years ahead, Ball said.

Light Wells

Though the central plaza appears to be at ground level, much of Kahn’s building is below it. Labs are actually on the lower levels.

Kahn designed “light wells” to take sunlight to the lower floors, as well as similar wells to bring huge pieces of equipment in and out of the building’s lower stories. Ball showed photos of a crane helping maintenance crews swap out an expired piece of equipment.

Chillers and boilers are all relatively new. Ball said the replacement components pack more capability into a smaller space.

The institute went through a $22 million mechanical and electrical infrastructure replacement in 2012, financing the project with bonds.

The new infrastructure has the capacity to serve several additional buildings in the Salk Institute’s long-term growth plan. As planned, the buildings will form a line running west along Torrey Pines Scenic Drive.

Ball said another project to replace light fixtures produced a scientific benefit. It offered scientists consistent lighting to create images.

Taking advantage of a California Solar Initiative, the institute put solar panels on the buildings’ flat roofs, finishing the project in the spring of 2012 (and taking care not to let the solar panels show from the ground). The solar panels are capable of producing half a megawatt in a building complex with a continuous demand of 2.6 megawatts. The site’s peak demand is 3.8 megawatts. “You can say we have free cooling for the institute in the summer,” Ball said.

Salk and Kahn did not anticipate how much scientists of the future would need computers. As a result, the institute ended up with 127 “data closets” — ad hoc spaces with computers tucked into them, each needing air conditioning.

Under a $400,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health, the Salk Institute built a new data center, full of proper cabinets for rack-mounted computers, and a proper cooling system. If electric power from the outside fails, the facility has an uninterruptible power supply good for four hours, as well as standby generators.

So what would Kahn and Salk think if they came back today?

Ball said that from his understanding, Kahn preferred a gray patina on the teak tongue-and-groove siding, while Salk liked the look of freshly cut wood from a lumber mill.

The result of all that testing and research created something both would have liked, Ball said.

“We feel we have met the desires of both Jonas and Louis Kahn.”

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