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National Cancer Institute, Maryland, US

Issue 74 August / September 2013 : Architectural : Office


Backlit wood veneer feature walls by GPI Design form part of a new lighting design by MCLA at the US National Cancer Institute in Maryland, leading visitors through an inspiring passageway.

Visitors to the newly completed National Cancer Institute in Rockville, Maryland will find their journey from door to elevator takes them through more than just a hallway. To move deeper in to the 575,000 square foot building, visitors traverse the heart of the institution – a long hallway that integrates light and nature with an architectural finesse.

Over three years ago Bill Hellmuth and his architectural team at HOK envisioned spacious wall planes as a way to bring light and texture to the corridor. Working together with The JBG Companies who own the building and general contractors James G. Davis Construction Corp, the aim of the project was to contribute a natural essence to the space in order to brighten the hallway and a series of backlit wood panels to clad the walls were developed in order to achieve this.

Michael Zajkowski of HOK was responsible for designing the walls: “Several ideas for materials were explored, wood veneer, resin panels, and stone, but in the end the owners wanted something interesting. Bill Hellmuth saw a piece of wood veneer laminated into glass in the HOK sample library and wanted to try to backlight it. It fit in well with the palette of warm, neutral earth tones in the base building.”

The lobby and hallway design was multi-purpose: to guide users from the front door to the elevator cores, to highlight views of the natural landscape features on the property and to bring a sense of nature and life into the space.  As the spatial design evolved, HOK designed a funnel-shaped plan that opened toward the pond and oriented users towards the elevators.

The team approached GPI Design because of their proven track record for creating unique feature walls. “It was soon discovered that laminating wood veneer into glass and backlighting it was a challenge,” comments Zajkowski. “GPI was able to provide a turnkey solution by coming up with the glass and lighting systems, engineering the design and installing it. The results look exactly like what Hellmuth had intended.”

The wood surface was the driving element in the conceptual design of the wall and several manufacturing styles and wood varieties were considered for the project.  “The requirements were real wood veneer, cut thin enough to transmit light, about 20” x 40” panel size, and a pattern and colour that fit the design concept,” adds Zajkowski, “only GPI Design was able to provide the laminated panel that achieved all these goals.”

Recognising the strong tie to an authentic material, GPI scoured the world for the perfect natural veneer to meet the criteria and found a poetic fit. The wood species chosen was Vavona Burl, originating from a Redwood tree in the Pacific Northwestern United States, the burl patterning formed, fittingly, in the cancerous portions of the tree.
GPI Design provided the Vavona Burl by developing the proprietary capabilities to fabricate the wood’s veneer in a method that involves thinning the veneer to a proper translucency, then laminating it between glass panels. This, according to Thomas Lawrence, founder and principal of GPI Design, “transformed the wood into an extremely thin plane for effective backlighting, yet protects the surface within layers of glass. The technology breakthrough has opened up the possibilities for designing with translucent wood materials.” The glass-laminated wood product is now branded as GPI Design’s Flicche Translucent Natural Wood Panels.

Designed as part of the full solution, GPI implemented their Flat-Lite LED Panels to bring a continuous plane of light to the back of the translucent wood. The edge lit LED technology was developed in the same size as the wood panels, allowing a controllable zone of light individually behind each panel. The placement of the LED panel in relationship to the surface and structural hardware was detailed closely to avoid the casting of shadows.

“The design and installation at NCI is a great example of the benefits of LED beyond the lamp life and efficiency. The thinness of the LED panel allows us to integrate the lighting better within a small detail. The result is a more innovative approach to accent the material,” said Maureen Moran, principal of MCLA Architectural Lighting Design.

GPI developed a structural system with consideration to weight loads, fastening hardware, organic movement and patterning of the wood panels and flexibility and aesthetics of the products. Defined structural elements acted as the constant force, striking clean joint lines between panels and framing corners with the standoff hardware in a repetitive geometry, while the structure prevented shadow lines and cold spots from interrupting the space between LED and wood panels.

Due to the natural variation of the Vavona Burl in GPI’s Flicche Translucent Natural Wood Panels, flexibility in the brightness of the Flat-Lite LED Panels was paramount.

The GPI Design team engineered a system of Infuse Dimming Controls that controlled the lighting levels behind each wood panel in strategic groupings. Lighting levels were tuned to a fine degree, more light was brought to the denser wood panels and the lighter wood panels were dimmed.

Eight preset lighting scenes were programmed in the main passageway, offering the ability to change lighting levels throughout the day. The lighting can be accessed via a custom smartphone application. This tuning process balanced the walls into a homogeneous aesthetic while still paying homage to the natural variations in material.

By honing HOK’s thoughtful design intent through an iterative development process, backlit wood materials breathe a sense of nature and life for visitors and employees navigating the National Cancer Institute.


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