A Sustainable Engine for Innovation in Philadelphia

Case Study: The University of Pennsylvania’s Pennovation Center

The University of Pennsylvania’s new Pennovation Center is a rebel, a futurist, a disruptor. It’s a phenomenon of a building that is also a machine for sparking new growth in the fields of learning, commerce, and community across greater Philadelphia and beyond. What’s more, its bold approach to sustainability that leverages its industrial heritage as an engine for research and learning has earned it a LEED Gold rating.

The University of Pennsylvania Pennovation Center was designed by Hollwich Kushner, Design Architect, and KSS Architects, Architect of Record

Pennovation Works — the 23-acre former DuPont industrial site along the Schuylkill River, in the up-and-coming neighborhood of Grays Ferry, is the next generation of innovation. The Pennovation Center, a brick and mortar factory relic, is the site’s anchor building, and a redesigned icon for Penn. With a program that enables entrepreneurs, researchers, and industry partners to translate invention into viable ventures, the Pennovation Center is where ideas go to work.

By centralizing co-working spaces to connect offices, labs, and shared resources, the design, led by Hollwich Kushner as Design Architect and KSS Architects as Architect of Record, allows engineers to break out from their laboratory spaces and work across disciplines and industries. In addition to co-working desking space, the common area includes meeting rooms, social spaces, and a “bleacher” for entrepreneurs to practice their pitches. This central space, above all else, is an area of intersections — where disciplines, theories, and brilliant ideas overlap and collide in a spectacular array of what-if, outside-the-box, next-big-thing thinking and doing.

Adaptive Reuse to Sustain the Entrepreneurial Community

As an adaptive reuse project, the Pennovation Center maintains an industrial aesthetic: the architecture is raw and solid; manipulations are applied without hesitation and idea creation overrides architectural preciousness. The building inspires creativity within, while simultaneously telling the world outside that Penn is committed to putting knowledge into action for the greater good.

The Pennovation Center allows for broad inclusion of Philadelphia area entrepreneurs by providing low-cost, flexible terms for occupancy and by eliminating the typical barriers to starting and growing a business. This approach to creating a culture of innovation is inherently sustainable, capturing the efficiency of a sharing economy among Pennovation tenants by sharing spaces, encouraging collisions, and providing the invaluable resource of an entrepreneurial community. Benjamin’s Desk membership levels provide regional startups access to guidance and programming available at the Pennovation Center. The cost model provides flexible short-term licenses for occupancy and access to highly specialized equipment, which is a differentiator among other options for startups in the marketplace.

The resources and technology available to members of the Center will allow for greater inclusion of startup biotech companies that would not otherwise have access to these amenities. Life science innovators are choosing the Pennovation Center because it provides startup companies affordable spaces and shared state-of-the art equipped labs, inside a larger, vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem.

The Pennovation Center has already begun to have major impact both locally and globally. As home to Qualcomm, The Hershey Company, the Penn Engineering Research and Collaboration Hub, and more than a dozen startups, it is a incubating environment where ideas and businesses are created by innovators, Penn students, faculty, and researchers. At the Pennovation Center, they can find support, space, and assistance from the Penn Center for Innovation’s venture initiative, and go on to achieve their potential in the commercial marketplace.

The design creates a truly iconic landmark for Penn’s innovation ecosystem and a dynamic hub for Penn’s culture of innovation & interdisciplinary collaboration.
- Amy Gutmann, President, The University of Pennsylvania

Ranging from innovative drug delivery systems to robotics, the start-ups that grow their business at Pennovation generate jobs and important positive economic impact throughout the region. An estimated 223 full-time jobs and 15 part-time jobs are being directly created through the Pennovation Center’s impact, as well as 249 permanent indirect jobs and 249 temporary construction jobs. In particular, the development strategically impacts the biotechnology/pharmaceutical/life sciences sector, the high-tech & advanced manufacturing and materials industry, the business and financial services sector, and the healthcare/medical research and educational industry.

Perhaps one of the most significant impacts on the region is the Center’s showcasing of attractive alternative career paths for graduates, helping to attract, nurture, and retain university students and young professionals on behalf of the Philadelphia region. As concept in action, the Penn President’s Innovation Prize winners were granted coworking membership desk space at the Center for a year as part of the award.

Approach to Integrating LEED

The Pennovation Works ecosystem is about more than the 200+ desks distributed throughout the Pennovation Center — it’s about connection across and beyond the business, research, and technology community — a ground-up system that cultivates a sustainable innovation sector in Philadelphia. To strengthen this identity, the project team incorporated sustainable design into the project in several ways:

During Schematic Design, the project team outlined the integration of sustainability and LEED for both design and construction. From meetings with the University and the project team, the team formulated a running list of potential credits and their status, based on established educational value, University goals and Climate Action Plan, building type, and economy. The project team held regular workshops to strategize and update the checklist, assigning each credit to a team member to monitor and document based on discipline.


Adjacent to the Schuylkill River, the development of the site augments the river trail connections to allow for greater connectivity throughout the south bank and improve pedestrian and bike access to Grays Ferry Ave. and 34th Street. The landscape is designed to drain all impervious area stormwater to on-site wetlands, filtering and retaining the runoff for irrigation. The site’s redevelopment also protects and restores a large proportion of the site’s flora, with native and adapted vegetation.

The Pennovation Center’s sustainable design resulted in 35.6% energy savings from baseline ASHRAE standards.

Building Envelope

By striking a balance between retaining and reusing the existing building façade and renovating to maximize energy effeciency and thermal comfort, the envelope was designed to optimize sustainable building performance, minimizing the needs placed on the mechanical system.

Technical Features: After the design of the building envelope was optimized, which includes an ASHRAE climate zone 4A compliant envelope including R-20 insulation for exterior walls and R-20.8 insulation for exterior roof assemblies, the mechanical system was then sized and designed to most efficiently fulfill these needs.

Façade Optimization

With a goal of improving the façade performance by reducing the solar loads while maintaining good daylight in the occupied spaces, the project team evaluated the incident solar radiation on all four facades and determined shading would be beneficial on the south, east and west facades. By studying existing wall construction, the team identified a cost-savings yet effective method to improve building performance by retaining the existing wall type and adding insulation, while reusing existing building materials and retaining historical context. With the reuse of the existing infill and further refinement of the wall assembly, the project team took the sustainable approach to retain the existing infill and install high-performance double-pane glazing.

The design team explored several iterations for fenestration and shading which resulted in increasing the building’s performance.


Implementing shading on the south, east and west façades was critical in achieving better performance. A grid system shading directly over the glazing provides a balance between solar radiation reduction and adequate daylight and quality interior views.

Water Conservation

With ultra-low-flow flush and flow fixtures, high efficiency water closets, and metered lavatory fixtures, the building takes tangible steps to conserving water. Extending into the site, landscape design retains stormwater for irrigation purposes.

Technical Features: High efficiency water closets (1.28 gpf), pint flush urinals (.125 gpf), and lavatory fixtures with a flow rate of 0.5 gpm.

Mechanical Systems

Providing efficient mechanical systems for a building with a high proportion of lab spaces is an intensive process. The HVAC system dual wheel energy recovery greatly reduces the need for energy-wasting mechanically-provided reheat.

Technical features: The airside HVAC system utilizes one neutral air dual wheel energy recovery dedicated outdoor air system that serves primary air to all spaces in the building. The energy recovery wheel setup includes one 77.5% effective total energy recovery wheel to pretreat incoming outdoor and one 80% effective sensible only “free reheat” wheel that greatly reduces the need for energy-wasting mechanically-provided reheat. Sequencing of the energy recovery wheels is controlled via the building automatic system (BAS) to meet all turndown and part load requirements.

A series of high-efficiency variable refrigerant flow (VRF) systems are zoned to provide individual temperature controls to spaces. The heating load of the building is decoupled from the VRF system and served by a 92% efficient hot water condensing boiler system to maximize efficiency. Laboratories are provided with high performance, low-flow fume hoods to limit makeup air. The dilution exhaust fans include an airflow measuring station to track the building outdoor air and reduce airflow during unoccupied hours, drastically decreasing fan energy usage.

By translating Penn ideas and discoveries into the products, ventures, and services that change the way people live and thrive, the Pennovation Center is a superconductor for creative energy, unifying Penn’s researchers and inventors and connects them like never before with visionary parters in the business community.

Design Architect: Hollwich Kushner
Architect of Record: KSS Architects
Landscape Architect: Land Collective
Signage and Wayfinding: Bruce Mau Design
Structural and MEP Engineer: Ballinger
Environmental Engineer: Atelier Ten
Lighting Design: Focus Lighting
General Contractor: Hunter Roberts
Photography: Michael Moran; James Ewing

KSS Architects is a full-service architecture, planning & interior design firm in Princeton, NJ, and Philadelphia, PA. Since our founding in Princeton in 1983, KSS Architects has matured, growing in size, abilities, and ambitions. Our clients are leaders in the fields of business, industry, education, development, cultural and social impact.

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