The Helios building brings together LBL and UC Berkeley researchers to work on ways to curb climate change. Photo: Rudolph and Sletten

The Helios Building, a new addition to downtown Berkeley, is in the very final stages of construction and the scientists for whom it has been built are expected to move in over six weeks, starting on July 30.

The $133 million, 133,000 sq ft building, which stands five stories high on a two-block lot, bounded by Oxford, Hearst, Berkeley Way and Shattuck, is home to UC Berkeley’s Energy Biosciences Institute, a collaborative project between Berkeley Lab, UC Berkeley and the University of Illinois. BP (British Petroleum) has committed $500 million over the next 10 years to the institute, whose mandate is to explore the application of modern biological knowledge to the energy sector. Scientists working in the building will be exploring cellulosic fuels and bio-products among other things, including developing non-food crops to produce fuel and power.

The wedge-shaped building — which is now formally known as the Energy Biosciences Building — will also house Cal’s Synthetic Biology Institute, whose bioengineering research focuses on applications for health, food and the environment.

The building’s dramatic central staircase blends reclaimed Indonesian teak and vibrant orange glass-Perspex. Photo: Tracey Taylor

The Helios project was originally conceived by Steven Chu, then director of Lawrence Berkeley Lab, now US Secretary of Energy. It was designed to bring together LBL and UC Berkeley researchers working on solar energy, biofuels and other ways to curb climate change. The original plan was to construct a large building on LBL land in Strawberry Canyon.

The new scheme replaced a grim, unused 1950s building that once housed California Department of Health Services offices. A second, smaller building, Helios East, that will house the Solar Energy Research Center will be constructed on the Strawberry Canyon site. [Correction, 07.19.12: The original plan did include a Strawberry Canyon site. However, that has since changed. Jon Weiner at Berkeley Lab tells us the new building, to be called SERC: Solar Energy Research Center, will be built in what’s referred to as “Old Town,” which is a complex of buildings at the Lab. Older buildings were recently removed to make room for the SERC facility. No Strawberry Canyon site will be used. See more here.]

The new LEED-certified building, designed by Smith Group JJR, and built by contractor Rudolph and Sletten and Gayner Engineers, includes a slew of green features which encompass lighting, heating, and cooling, as well as choice of materials.

Even before construction on the building began, concerns were expressed among some in Berkeley about the nature of the relationship between the scientific body and BP, which will have office space in the Helios Building. How independent could such research be if it was being underwritten by a commercial organization with skin in the game, they asked?

Each floor of the Helios Building has about 10,000 sq ft of laboratories — 64 lab stations per story. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Mara Beth Bryan, PhD, Research Operations Manager at the Energy Biosciences Institute, who is in charge of moving the team of scientists into the new building, says it is not unusual for scientists to receive funding from commercial operations.

“A lot of universities get funding from corporations,” she says. “This is unique in scale and in the fact that the company has a presence in the institute’s building. But BP does not direct Energy Biosciences research. It’s a fruitful collaboration.”

Bryan adds that her team is doing nothing less than “solving the world’s problems using scientific research.” And she stresses that all their work is being vetted to the highest degree. “There is a huge amount of oversight in the work we do engineering cells and in synthetic biology. The whole campus adheres to National Institutes of Health (NIH) standards.”

Room with a view: Designer charts two new Berkeley buildings [04.03.12]
Downtown’s Helios building: One year from breaking ground [07.25.11]
New Helios building rises rapidly in downtown Berkeley [02.11.11]
Helios West to go before UC Regents next week [01.13.10]
UC building moves forward [10.13.09]

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Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...