Skip-Stop Plan: High-Low Energy Building
Holistic sustainable solution for specialized geochemistry research

Site section, indicating building’s placement in a depression
(a former parking lot) to limit environmental and visual impact

1  Campus Entry
2  New Parking Lot
3  Former Geochemistry Building

4  New Geochemistry Building
5  Hiking Trail
6  Hudson River

7  Lamont Sanctuary

Comparison of Conventional Two-Story and Skip-Stop Plans

Skip-Stop Parti: The team designed the lab side as a high energy environment with complex technical systems and the office side as a low tech structure, complete with reduced ceiling heights, operable windows, individual fan coil and occupancy sensors. 


reduction of embodied carbon by reducing the foundations by 19% which is the equivalent carbon absorbed by 55 acres of forest in one year

reduction in building energy usage

reduction of overall airflow within the building

of materials consist of recycled content

of materials used were extracted and manufactured within 500 miles


Columbia University
Gary C. Comer Geochemistry Building

Palisades, NY / United States


70,000 GSF


LEED-NC 2.2 Silver Certified

Since it opened in 2008, the Gary C. Comer Building at Columbia University’s Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory campus has been nationally recognized as a model for innovative laboratory planning and sustainability. The building is home to more than 70 geochemists who investigate all aspects of the planet, including the dynamics of the solid earth, circulation of the oceans and atmosphere, and transport of materials via wind and water. To support these explorations, the building features an array of highly technical chemistry and equipment labs, which have been consolidated into an efficient two-story block that contains complex mechanical and control systems. The remainder of the building’s program, consisting of offices, meeting rooms and support spaces, occupy a three-story atrium wing that incorporates design strategies to reduce energy consumption.

As a highly specialized, one-of-a-kind geochemistry research facility with unique performance requirements, the building faced design constraints from the outset. Vibration-sensitive mass spectrometer labs and corrosive-environment rock digestion labs presented technical challenges, such as tight temperature control and extreme ventilation rates, that were at odds with a traditional sustainable design program.

The program called for a two-story building with 20 customized labs serving a diverse range of research interests, including mass spectrometry, instrumentation and wet chemistry. Additionally, it required ten specialized support labs for activities such as ultra-clean chemistry, rock preparation, gas chromatography, and a high temperature/high pressure work. Offices for researchers and staff, meeting rooms and associated support spaces were also requested, and the ratio of offices to labs required (about 2½:1) was unusually high.

The existing campus master plan called for the building to be placed halfway up a densely forested hillside. Yet to minimize land disturbance, preserve trees and limit the visual impact from the valley, our design team recommended that the building instead be located on a lower, existing parking lot. On a nearby and less sensitive site, a new 85-space, pervious asphalt lot was constructed, helping to restore stormwater discharge to below pre-development levels and reduce corresponding slope-side erosion.

Our team seized the office-laboratory program imbalance as an opportunity to create a highly sustainable massing strategy that separates energy-intensive laboratories from less demanding office and support areas.. They efficiently coupled a two-story block of laboratories (15’ floor-to-floor height) with a three-story wing of offices (10’ floor-to-floor height) of roughly equivalent length. The resulting “skip stop” parti generated a building with a 19% smaller footprint and 13% less volume than the two-story building first envisioned, thus significantly reducing the quantity of building materials required.

Between the lab block and office wing runs a central spine where two clerestory-lit atria provide internal spaces for casual interaction and chance encounters. Open stairs adjacent to each atrium crisscross between levels and reinforce visual connections through the building. Expanses of glass terminate lab and office corridors, and at the building’s narrow ends, meeting spaces extend outward to frame campus and river valley views.

Innovative Components
Much of building’s research is highly specialized. Rock sample digestions require the use of highly corrosive substances, so the building includes eight roofscape metal-free laboratories with polypropylene casework. Mass spectrometer laboratories demand extreme control of building vibration, which is ensured by innovative “link-columns” that enable the second-floor’s mass to dampen first-floor movement.

Photography: © Peter Vanderwarker; © Warren Jagger Photography

James H. Collins, Jr., FAIA, LEED AP

Charles S. Klee, AIA, LEED AP
Project Manager

Peter F. Vieira, AIA, LEED AP
Project Architect