Smithsonian Prepares to Unveil ‘Phase I’ of $45 Million Sustainable Building at SERC in Edgewater

Next month, the Smithsonian Institution‘s new Mathias Laboratory will open its doors to the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) scientists who will call it home. The opening will mark Phase One of a $45 million building structure that will be the work habitat for the humans who conduct vital environmental and climate research at the site.

The Mathias Lab at SERC in Edgewater is set to open Phase One in October.

The Mathias Lab at SERC in Edgewater is set to open Phase One in October.

The facility is located at 647 Contees Wharf Road in Edgewater.

The construction company, Hensel Phelps (who also built the Udvar-Hazy National Air & Space Museum facility), broke ground in May of 2011. The Smithsonian’s goal is to make the Mathias Lab the most sustainable industrial building among the Smithsonian Institution’s catalog of properties, and in public spaces in Maryland and around the globe.

It is already the coolest-looking building in Edgewater.

SERC Director Anson “Tuck” Hines said that the building will likely receive the LEED Platinum building designation by the U.S. Green Building Council. Hines gave the South River Source an exclusive tour of the new facility on Friday. We got to see the new 90,0000 square foot building and the old Mathias Lab, which is still in use on site.

Each lab is arranged by eco guild.

Each lab is arranged by eco guild.

Hines said that Phase One is building the new science labs and meeting space. To do that, they removed dozens of portable trailers and used the existing footprint to build the new facility. While construction of the new building was underway, scientists continued to work in the old facility, which abuts the new construction. During Phase Two, the scientists will move into the completed Phase One building while the old building gets a complete rehabilitation. When the old building reopens, the scientists will then have their offices and labs in one integrated facility.

The building will be not only a state-of-the-art research facility, but also a key component to SERC’s ongoing environmental education efforts.

Hines said that they wanted to make as little impact on the environment as possible, and that is why they used the existing site footprints and why they are using as many sustainability components as possible.

There are numerous functional components to the building that were on Hines’ wish list — things like having the psychology of the building design promote collaboration among scientists. They’ve done that by creating meetings spaces that promote interaction and collaboration. They are also assigning the laboratory space by ecological guild.

Each guild encompasses several segments.

Each guild encompasses several segments.

Organized by Eco Guild

Organizing the labs by guild allows flexible organization of the space. In all, there are four guilds, they are marine, terrestrial, environmental and molecular.

Here’s how the lab allocation might work: in the old lab, one scientist got one lab. If she had one person assigned to her project or 40 people assigned, the lab assignment was static, the square footage static. In the new space, each of four guilds will be represented by one large space each. If there is a scientist in marine who needs to take up more space, it is allocated from the available real estate in the marine guild lab.  If a project comes to conclusion and the scientist can contract the amount of space needed, they utilize less.


SERC employs about 180 people on Edgewater campus.

The old labs will be renovated during Phase Two.

The old labs will be renovated during Phase Two.

When we toured the existing lab, it was clear that the old way wasn’t working. One lab was jam-packed with beakers and instruments and supplies and samples, with barely enough room to turn around, while another lab seemed comparably bare. It wouldn’t be possible (or desirable) for one scientist to commandeer another scientist’s entire lab to accommodate overflow.

In the new lab, this isn’t a worry. If a scientist needs two of the five segments of the lab, her team will still be all together in the same lab space. If she needs only one segment, or even a portion of one segment, she will still have all of the real estate and access to equipment required for research.

This shared space also promotes teamwork among the scientists. After all, if your guild is marine and there is a scientist on a similar study track, there can be easy cross-collaboration within the space.


A great big rainbarrel at the front entrance.


The building is designed with an eye to environmental sustainability. This is nothing new at SERC. For a long time, they have been a leader in the field of green building and site practices. They utilize porous pavement to reduce runoff, they have rain gardens and rain barrels and host educational programs on sustainability.

This new building incorporates sustainability throughout. The building is south-facing to allow maximum light. In fact, while we were there in the middle of the day with no overhead lights turned on, the building was bright, not only in the open atrium, but also in the labs and conference and meeting rooms.


Director Tuck Hines led us on a tour of the new facility.

In addition, the new building’s front yard will be a series of stormwater traps and diversions—constructed wetlands—with big circles of concrete edging capturing the building’s runoff and filtering it out, slowing and cooling it before it returns to the estuary. Also in the front yard are 250 geothermal wells, each dug 430 feet deep. Geothermal energy is used to heat and cool the building.

The old parking lot will be the site of a series of solar panel carports. These solar arrays will capture the light and convert it into energy to run the building. But it will also keep the parking lot in the shade. This reduces the carbon footprint (and also makes employee cars work less like ovens on a hot day).


Lines in the glass keep birds from flying into the windows. The front yard will be a garden and turnabout for cars and buses. Underground are hundreds of geothermal wells which will heat and cool the building.

Hines showed us other innovations incorporated into the building. Giant fans capture the heat and fumes from the chemistry labs and convert them into energy, instead of just allowing them to escape out of the building, again, reducing the carbon footprint.

They also recycle and reuse the water from just about every aspect of the building, from drinking water to wastewater, fire suppression, chemistry water, stormwater and even condensation from the HVAC system. Hines said that they will treat waste water then send it to the fire suppression tank up on a hill, from there it will be used a few more times before being returned to the earth.

“[The water] will be cleaner than when it came into the building,” Hines said.

In the End

When they merge the two buildings into one, sometime in late summer of 2014, Hines said that


The bright and sunny atrium with an amoeba light fixture.

they will have come a long way since his early days at SERC. He’s been there for 33 years. The facility has been in existence for about 40 years. He said when he first came, he worked out of an old dairy barn.

Although they have added buildings, many of the old structures are still in use and have been for the past four decades. They’ve built new structures too, but the scientists have been shoehorned into their facilities for a long time. Although they will have a tremendous amount of new space, Hines said it is long overdue.

“Imagine stuffing 90,000 square feet of stuff into 16,000 square feet, and that is what we have been doing,” he said.

The scientists will have four days to move their work from the old building into Phase One in October. Once they are out, work crews will begin rewiring, replumbing and reconstructing the old building within the existing walls and footprint. That should take a little less than a year.

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About Mitchelle Stephenson

I've gotta tell Mitchelle! Send your South County news tips, brag on your fab volunteers, talk traffic, police and fire or just say "howdy" to Mitchelle Stephenson, co-founding editor of the South River Source. or reach me in person on mobile: 410-353-4706.


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