Research for Resilience

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Soldier Squad Performance Institute
Natick, MA

SMMA was commissioned by the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), as part of an IDIQ with the New England District, to design a first-of-its-kind research and development facility for the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center (NSRDEC) in Massachusetts. The development of the Soldier Squad Performance Institute, also known as S2PRINT, is a joint effort between the Combat Capabilities Development Command Center (CCDC Soldier Center) and the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine (USARIEM). S2PRINT is intended to empower both groups to perform research and apply studies to uncover ways to optimize soldier and squad performance, as well as enhance readiness for combat.

The design provides for a wide breadth of lab types, including a large high-bay lab for large-format testing squad and soldier performance, biomechanics labs, and various virtual reality systems. Researchers at S2PRINT will utilize these spaces to test internal and external factors that affect soldiers from gear, to cognitive health, physical nutrition, sleep, and experiences out in the field. Having each type of lab within one facility will enable the team to perform multidisciplinary research with increased agility and efficiency. Testing how soldiers and squads are affected by different environments and types of gear, permits researchers to quickly prototype and test new gear and other amenities.

This type of testing will enable research teams to look at squad dynamics and communications so that they can identify the attributes of high-performing squads and modify training to increase overall efficiency of the unit.

Designing Through Constraints

The facility is comprised of a three-story lab and office building connected to a one-story fieldhouse, complete with ancillary support spaces. Developed through a set of tight space constraints, the building’s geometry is reflective of its unique adjacency requirements, rather than an overt architectural expression. It was imperative that the building would fit within the complex’s  overall aesthetic due to its location within a historic district and installation design guidelines.

To reflect this, the team made use of texture and pattern when designing the façade and other spaces throughout the facility. The building’s primary skin is made up of tan and white architectural pre-cast concrete panels laid out in a checkerboard pattern to give an otherwise static material a sense of movement. The slight change in texture in the façade pattern means that no side is identical creating a unique visual experience. Additionally, the building is organized around a series of large high-bay laboratories on the first floor. 

Given the private nature of the research happening within the lab, the team was required to design the space to delineate between what is for public viewing and what isn’t. The lobby is intended to serve as a welcoming entrance to the facility for visitors, research participants, and staff. It allows for direct access to vertical circulation to the upper levels. As well, the design incorporates glazed vestibules in the lobby area to limit access to labs, reinforcing and expressing public front-of-house operations that are open to visitors, while simultaneously maintaining strong functional operations for private areas.

Simulating the Battlefield

With an emphasis on studying human performance, the client required several operationally relevant laboratories, including a large, high-bay lab for recreating combat situations and performing standardized metric research year-round, biomechanics labs, and various types of virtual reality systems. 

Each space had its own challenge. To provide researchers with a Combat Maneuver lab where they could adequately simulate different climates and battlefield experiences, our team of electrical engineers worked to develop an adjustable lighting system to reflect different times of day within different spaces. Their system makes use of Tunable White lighting, which mimics the full range of pure daylight to moonlight, via color temperature-tuning, and lighting-intensity dimming. This system is paired with vast amounts of AV and IT integration to create a black-box theatre type space that was flexible enough to replicate a wide spectrum of environments, all while gathering accurate dynamic data that is vital to the buildings mission.

Our mechanical engineers designed an intricate HVAC system to meet specific temperature and humidity requirements and provide flexible individual space temperature controls. The Combat Maneuver Lab and other labs in the facility essentially function like a large-scale gym and obstacle course. In some cases, one room might be empty, while another might have entire squads being tested at a high level of activity. The resulting design includes a robust, highly-programmable set of mechanical systems to accommodate the various needs of each lab space while keeping the other spaces comfortable when demand varies throughout the building.  

Bridging Workspace to Research

Critical to creating a healthy workplace was ensuring that there was little-to-no noise pollution between the different labs and office spaces where focused work would occur. Our team wanted to avoid sound overflow from some of the noisier environments to adjacent areas. For example, labs like the engagement skills trainer, a digital shooting range, the Combat Maneuver Lab and the biomechanics labs would be considered noise generating spaces.

These spaces need to be acoustically separated from some of the cognitive and neuroscience research spaces. To achieve this, it required clever space planning, sound attenuation in the mechanical systems, vibration isolation for the mechanical equipment and the creation of unique assemblies throughout the facility to ensure research could be completed effectively.

Special consideration had to be taken for the equipment being used, given the nature of the research taking place in the facility. Specifically, certain tests call for physical activity such as, jumping and running. This type of activity can have a significant physical impact on the building. Precautions were taken to ensure that the vibration-sensitive equipment would function optimally. Isolated floor pads on the first floor, and locally-reinforced structure on the upper levels, helped dampen the ambient vibration that could occur in this building. 

It was paramount for the design to include spaces that foster collaboration. The workspaces include open-office arrangements, where teams can interact, as well as several closed offices. Each space was designed to encourage conversation and the sharing of ideas. As well, adding breakout spaces and break rooms to each floor also helped to further these goals. 

The exterior of the building reinforces this gesture by adding a level of transparency throughout the space. Within the office areas, there is increased transparency to gain greater access to natural light and of the surrounding lake and state park.