This article is an excerpt from New Orleans: Structure, Community, City. Find it at the Greenbuild Bookstore or contact Jen Illescas at [email protected]/magazine.

Take our video tour of the New Orleans BioInnovation Center here.

In New Orleans’ central business district, there’s a building that speaks to the future as it references the past. The aluminum brise-soleil façade, with its uneven array of horizontal shades, projects an interplay of light and shadow against the glazing behind the panels. It creates a dappled effect on the cool terrazzo flooring of the lobby inside. Just beyond an interior glass wall is the inner courtyard; though slightly obscured by the dance of shadows, it has the timeless feel of a place of respite as the fountain at the center cascades water through sun-bathed foliage into an old alabaster basin.

Although it is reminiscent of a 19th-century French Quarter compound with louvered shutters and a breezy courtyard to water horses, the New Orleans BioInnovation Center (NOBIC) has a thoroughly 21st century purpose: to support biotech start-ups in Louisiana and solidify the industry as a mainstay of the region’s economy. Twelve blocks from the Mississippi River up Canal Street—a broad right-of-way once intended for barges and now a bustling jamboree of the city’s cultural colors mixed with equal parts of its entrepreneurial ambitions—NOBIC has become a quiet incubator of southern Louisiana’s future.

It is an ordinary day at NOBIC. Inside, scientists scurry about mass spectrometers; sharply dressed businessmen are gathered around an enormous boardroom table listening to a presentation on cloud-based technology for tracking medication use, and in the hallway, a few casually dressed men and women are strategizing about funding opportunities with the director of the center’s commercialization department. The four-story, 66,000-square-foot space houses 35 emerging bioscience companies, which are outfitted with state-of-the-art wet labs, offices, and a suite of support services including legal firms, PR companies, accountants, and market analysts. “Incubators turn out to be ecosystems—it’s not all about scientists,” says Z Smith, a principal at Eskew+Dumez+Ripple (EDR) and architect on the project, of NOBIC’s multifunctional structure.

NOBIC is about turning revolutionary, science-based ideas into sound business operations. However, when it comes to facilities, “the number-one need for a life-science company is office space and conference space,” says Aaron Miscenich, the organization’s executive director. Since its doors opened in 2011, NOBIC has helped launch 75 companies, created over 200 jobs, and raised $6 million in start-up capital. “It’s designed as a gateway between the research and business communities,” he says of both the incubator program and the building itself, which is mostly convertible between office and lab space. Miscenich is quick to emphasize, however, that much of NOBIC’s magic comes through the informal interactions between tenants and organizational staff in break rooms, at event receptions, and under the spell of the massive fountain in the center’s breezy inner courtyard.


NOBIC’s courtyard fountain reuses rainwater and water discharge. All stormwater is managed on-site. Photo: Will Crocker


Glass walls looking out to the courtyard allow the sun to naturally light a large portion of the building during the day. Photo: Will Crocker

Louisiana was facing an issue of having universities that produce biotech innovation, but it often left the state to be commercialized, says Smith, the director of sustainability and building performance for EDR, who is himself a scientist with a PhD in electrical engineering in addition to his architect’s license, “so the legislature decided to fund three biotech centers.” It’s been nearly a decade since the State of Louisiana first chose to pursue policies friendly to the bioscience industry in the southeastern region of the state. Now, NOBIC’s location on Canal Street sits at one of the gateways to the New Orleans BioDistrict, a 1,500-acre redevelopment zone just west of the central business district that is already home to Tulane’s Medical School and the LSU Hospital, with a new VA Medical Center currently under construction. The redevelopment plan expects to stimulate 34,000 jobs and $3.3 billion in new investment over the next 15 to 20 years.

“It’s easy to forget how raw things were after Katrina,” says Mark Ripple, a partner at EDR. “There was a toxic soup six to eight feet deep for two weeks. . . buildings became infested with mold. People said you couldn’t live in New Orleans because you couldn’t trust the air to breathe. There was incredible intellectual property coming out of Tulane, but it would disappear to Houston, Birmingham, and points beyond.”

As an idea, NOBIC began in pre-Katrina New Orleans. Facing numerous hurdles over funding and decisions over where to locate the center, the plans were still on the shelf when the hurricane hit. In the post-Katrina climate, however, the drive to make New Orleans a biotech hub found increasing traction. Rather than the code-minimum, value-engineered design originally conceived for the center, something more symbolic was in order.

Ripple, Mark

Mark Ripple is a partner at Eskew+Dumez+Ripple, which designed the BioInnovation Center. Photo courtesy of Eskew+Dumez+Ripple

Smith, Z

Z Smith is a principal at Eskew+Dumez+Ripple. Photo courtesy of Eskew+Dumez+Ripple

“We wanted a facility that provided for our programming needs,” says Miscenich, who has been one of the center’s primary proponents during its long march from vision to fruition. “But I also wanted to enhance the brand with another angle.” That angle ended up taking form as the first LEED Gold-certified lab building in Louisiana, dovetailing NOBIC’s future-thinking economic development mission with a citywide vision to rebuild a greener, more resilient New Orleans. “But we didn’t want to just throw up a green façade,” he says. “We looked at many of the green technologies for financial reasons. . . so frankly, it’s legitimate.”

“Hearing that NOBIC wanted to do more than just ‘fulfill program’ was music to an architect’s ears,” says Ripple, a lifelong resident of the Crescent City, who sees his work as “contemporary architecture that speaks to the spirit of New Orleans.” Although everyone involved seemed to agree that the building had to promote the next generation of leadership in New Orleans, the challenge came in molding the existing value-engineered design—which had already made it partway through the permitting process—into the tangible representation of the city’s new vision that became part of NOBIC’s mission in the years following Katrina.

“They were asking me, what can you do to reduce overall operating costs?” Smith says. Clearly, there was no budget for a complete redesign, but there was a fortuitous turn of events that greased the wheels for some major tweaking. The original 2006 design was priced based on what contractors were charging during the rebuilding frenzy after the storm. When the project came back on line in 2009, the inflated cost of construction had subsided.

“We ended up with a $600,000 surplus [in the budget] after the post-Katrina boom,” says Smith, who was charged with taking that budget and wringing as much resource-conserving design out of it as possible. “The conventional thinking is, ‘no, no, you have to design for sustainability from the beginning.’” That wasn’t in the cards, so the team set out on a six-week charette to see what $600,000 could do for the building’s environmental performance and operational bottom line. The project was already in the construction-management phase, so all ideas were immediately vetted by the engineers and contractors in terms of feasibility, cost, and energy savings. “We came up with 19 possibilities, which we reduced to 11 [final design changes],” Smith says.

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The towering back wall of the lobby atrium is clad in local FSC-certified poplar. The fast-growing native species is normally considered a cheap, paint-grade wood, but for EDR, it became a cost-effective palette to design a variegated indoor wall covering that echoes the lines of the exterior brise-soleil. Photo: Timothy Hursley


While respecting local architecture, NOBIC pushes the regional design culture forward, directly challenging certain conventions like impervious paving. Other design details are more subtle and driven as much by creative impulses as the practical considerations of sustainability. Photo: Timothy Hursley

On the $38 million project, the extra $600,000 was largely put toward efficiency features that have translated into $150,000 to $200,000 of savings on operating costs per year—an impressive three-year payback. Since this was not a showpiece LEED facility coming from a deep-pocketed philanthropist, design decisions had to transparently confront cost-benefit ratios. A photovoltaic array was considered, for example, but the numbers didn’t work, so it was nixed. “But we put in stub-outs on the roof, so it is solar ready,” Smith says, knowing the economics of photovoltaic panels will improve over the lifespan of the building. “Some of the measures were free riding,” he says, “but most had a payback.”

Some of the efforts toward energy conservation came in a very low-cost package. For example, each lab is outfitted with its own ventilation system controls. Instead of a normal lab ventilation configuration where all spaces receive a high air-change rate just in case one of them might need it, NOBIC allows each lab to select the ventilation rate appropriate for their current task. Of course, the old-fashioned brise-soleil also helps to rein in the energy budget. The front façade is 62-percent glazed but has the summertime solar gain of a building with 18-percent glazing as a result of the shading and light deflection. All combined, the simple design tweaks led to a building that uses less energy than 90 percent of typical laboratory structures.

Where the louvered façade takes a cue from traditional New Orleans architecture and turns it into a modern design for energy conservation, the courtyard fountain does the same for stormwater management. “We are a city surrounded and defined by water,“ Ripple says. “Unlike 75 percent of the country, we have too much of it.” Annual rainfall is about 62 inches, which, as any long-time New Orleans resident will tell you, is distributed in near-perfect, inch-per-week increments. 

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The Canal Street facade is 63% glazed but only has the solar heat gain of a building that is 18% glazed.

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A site plan shows the full stormwater plan. Strategies include rainwater capture and the use of permeable paving.

Mark Ripple + Z Smith

Looking back on the years since Katrina, what stands out to you as the most significant characteristic of the efforts to rebuild?

Smith: One of the great surprises post-Katrina is that New Orleans has become a magnet for start-ups. Life is more than just going to Applebee’s. The city attracts young people, and we’re trying to make the most of this fact.

What are the roles of architects, builders, and designers to help refashion the urban environment in this regard?

Ripple: The attitude we’ve taken is that the conditions that affect architecture in New Orleans are timeless, but the best responses are of the times. Three-hundred years later, we’re responding to the same conditions as the French when they first arrived: It’s hot, it’s muggy, and the land is always sinking from under you. The best architecture here uses innovative ways to deal with sun, rain, flooding, etcetera.

How does the New Orleans BioInnovation Center reflect what New Orleans is about today?

Smith: Many of these labs and incubators end up in a suburban office park. This is the only facility I know of where someone can step away from the mass spectrometer, go out on the balcony, catch some Mardi Gras beads, and get back to work.

The original design came with a courtyard fountain, but EDR reimagined it as part of the site’s stormwater infrastructure. Everything that falls onto the roof flows into the 12,000-gallon fountain basin, along with all of the air-handler condensate, which, in steamy New Orleans, is a 30,000-gallon-per-year stream. Water jets evaporate a bit of the total volume into the air, cooling the courtyard and drowning out traffic noise. But when it really pours, the system overflows into percolation beds beneath the parking lot, which are outfitted with bioswales that provide vegetative filtration along the way.

The parking lot foundation is another one of those low-cost, high-return features conceived in the redesign phase. “Some things don’t cost extra; you just have to think about them a little differently,” Ripple says. EDR specifies a coarse gravel subbase under any parking lot it designs, but the one at NOBIC was elevated an extra 18 inches to function as a stormwater infiltration basin. With 40 percent of the gravel base consisting of empty space, the modest-sized lot became a 60,000-gallon reservoir that allows the flooding rains to seep slowly into the water table.

Step two for the parking lot redesign was a bit more complicated. EDR wanted to use pervious concrete, never before used in Louisiana, to surface the lot. “It looks like Rice Krispy Treats,” Ripple says. “The challenge was not in convincing the client, but our own engineers and city officials. The construction industry in our region isn’t always known for being cutting edge.” The only example of pervious concrete they could find in the area was the driveway of a permeable pavement company’s owner. Thus, NOBIC became the guinea pig for proving the concept.

To say the least, it worked. Taken together, NOBIC’s stormwater features can absorb every drop of on-site precipitation for up to a 4-inch rain event—not an inconceivable feat in a suburban office park, but pretty impressive for a dense urban setting, making this the first example of a downtown New Orleans structure handling 100 percent of its stormwater on-site. Apparently, city officials were impressed, as were others working in the area. The local crew that was trained to install the pervious concrete at NOBIC has since trained others in the city, including Make It Right crews who have been using it to pave streets in the Lower Ninth Ward.    

Under the broad banner of the biotech industry, NOBIC houses start-ups ranging from a supplier of stem cells to a company that builds modular, hydroponic grow systems in steel shipping crates intended to make urban farming a scalable form of agriculture. In its three-year history, Miscenich says the incubator program has already “graduated” two of its first participants. Another that is now poised to take flight is a nanotechnology company with a product that breaks down groundwater contaminants into nontoxic byproducts.

“Tulane patented the technology and contacted me about bringing it to market,” says David Culpepper, CEO of Nanofex, who has worked in the groundwater remediation business since the eighties. The product is essentially a fine powder of carbon-based microspheres covered in zerovalent iron molecules, which is all derived from local, sustainably farmed sugar cane and Louisiana crayfish shells. Nanofex injects the substance into groundwater wells at contaminated sites where the powder is dispersed through pores in soil and bedrock to clean up drinking water supplies, molecule by molecule. It is designed to target the chlorinated solvents used by dry cleaners as well as in the aerospace and computer-processor industries. “NOBIC opened just as we were getting started,” Culpepper says. “It’s been a great fit for a company like ours that prides itself on being sustainable.”


Local artist Mitchell Gaudet created the partition wall out of recycled glass from French Quarter bars as a response to the absence of municipal glass recycling in the city. Like other aspects of modern urban life often taken for granted, glass recycling has yet to be restored since Katrina. Photo: Will Crocker

Culpepper says the camaraderie among his fellow tenants at NOBIC has been invaluable in terms of moral support, but the technical services and business advice have led to tangible outcomes that propel his business off the ground. “They have an emerging environmental economy fellow and commercialization director who we meet with regularly. . . [who] have come up with a number of ideas to help us, like applying to the New Orleans Idea Village competition,” he says in reference to the $50,000 business accelerator grants that Nanofex has twice received. Now, they’re helping him pursue a mega-contract with the Department of Energy to clean up groundwater at research facilities like the Savannah River site in South Carolina and Los Alamos in New Mexico.

There is plenty of work left in restoring wholeness to the city of New Orleans and its swampy, sea level hinterlands, but the post-Katrina efforts represent a paradigm shift in the ongoing patchwork of place. NOBIC, and the overall BioDistrict, are placing a big patch over the long-standing “brain-drain” problem while also providing a forum to address other, ongoing city ills.

While Culpepper sits in his office, brainstorming ways to clean up contaminated water at the nation’s nuclear research facilities, inside NOBIC, yet another giant thunderstorm is brewing on the horizon outside. As the drops begin to collect and trickle down his office’s glass walls toward the sleek courtyard landscape below, the building’s mission feels palpable inside. It’s a new type of melting pot for New Orleans, one that considers the future as much as the present and elevates responsibility—social, environmental, and fiscal—to the top priority in how things are done. Local and global, theory and practice, business and ethics—they all meet in harmonious design.

This article is an excerpt from New Orleans: Structure, Community, City. Find it at the Greenbuild Bookstore or contact Jen Illescas at [email protected]/magazine.

Take our video tour of the New Orleans BioInnovation Center here.