The Other Campus: Richmond Rediscovered

by Fernando Quintero

At the Richmond Field Station, a long corrugated steel building with a sloping roof looms across the northern horizon looking like something out of an old Warner Brothers cartoon. Decades ago, human-made fog filled the giant metal structure to study the effects of harsh weather conditions on airplane landings.

Today, a road runs through it as part of a cooperative experiment between the university and the California Department of Transportation on the wear characteristics of asphalt.

"Simulations of airplane landings are now done on computer," said Frank Giunta, director of facilities operations and management at the station. "This place is filled with relics of yesterday's science."

Nearby, at the Department of Naval Architecture and Offshore Engineering is a unique collection of wooden ship models that were tested in the department's 200-foot-long towing tank and wave maker to provide a variety of hydrodynamic experiments.

Today, such experiments are also done on computer.

The Richmond Field station is both a living history museum and a model example of resourcefulness during these lean economic times.

With a less-than-modest capital budget and large amounts of ingenuity, buildings at the bayside facility that once housed outdated laboratory equipment have been renovated and reused for cutting-edge research.

Some buildings have been leased to businesses on a temporary basis, including start-up biotechnology computer companies founded by former field station graduate students. The regional headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency is the noticeably new addition to the 155-acre campus.

"This place has a history. You can see the history of change," said Robert Spear, professor of public policy and director of the Environmental Engineering and Health Sciences laboratory.

"A variety of research activities have been major contributors to the university. You can see artifacts of research from days passed, and how we've adapted to support what's going on in the present," he said.

Situated between Interstate 580 and San Francisco Bay amid towering groves of eucalyptus trees and open grassy fields, the Richmond Field Station has been an important research center for the university since it was acquired in the early 1950s.

Long ago, before the bay bridges were built, hay and other animal feed was shipped from the site to San Francisco. The crumbling remains of a wooden pier are still visible in the muddy marsh. During World War II, munitions were stored on the property.

Several of the original wooden army barrack-style buildings now house the research facilities of four Organized Research Units, as well as laboratories and offices for individual research projects from the colleges of engineering, letters and sciences, natural resources, the School of Public Health and the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.

Recycling is the main architectural theme. A vacant water treatment pond is used as a volleyball court. There is a basketball hoop in a parking lot. And one of the barracks has been turned into a fitness gym, with a committee overseeing the acquisition of mostly donated equipment.

Additionally, a major university-wide library archive and two University Extension programs are located at the site.

Important interdisciplinary research is conducted at the station. The Structural Research Laboratory, with its nearly seven-story bay, houses what Giunta fondly calls "the world's biggest nutcracker"--a 4 million pound capacity Universal Testing Machine that was used to test the strength of the cables on the Bay and Golden Gate bridges.

The Earthquake Engineering Research Center, an Organized Research Unit established in 1967, is an international focal point for research in earthquake engineering and studies. Information and analysis has recently been provided to scientists in Kobe, Japan.

And at the Partners for Advanced Transit and Highways program (PATH), scientists and engineers from both the university and public agencies are working together to build "intelligent" highways of the future.

In the past, the Environmental Engineering and Health Sciences Laboratory was called the Sanitary Engineering Research Project, "one of the most visible water pollution and solid waste management research facilities in the country," said Spear. "But times have changed. Civil engineering has moved away from processes. We're more interested in ecological impacts."

Recent research projects include indoor air quality monitoring, industrial exposure to chemical mixtures and projects in biomechanics and ergonomics.

Spear said the advantages of working off campus far outweigh the disadvantages.

"I love it," he said. "It's a place where you can do your research and escape from the pressures of committee work. It's a good place to with students on projects without many interruptions."

Judy Sindicic, lab administrative assistant, said chances are she would be "in a basement somewhere" if she were on the main campus.

"I'm sitting here with robins outside my window. There are trees and elbow room outside--not to mention that view," she said, pointing west.

In the late afternoon, when the air is thick with the smell of salt water and sludge, the San Francisco skyline is resting on a pillow of fog. The sun, filtered through high clouds that for weeks were masked by uninterrupted rain, colors the western sky in tones of pink and gold.

Standing knee-high in sewage, undergraduate Paul Suto calls the field station "a beautiful place to work and study."

"For me, it's a great way to see my course work applied," said Suto as he sealed a paddle in a cement pond of Richmond waste water used to study waste treatment.

Giunta estimates there are about 250 students, faculty, staff and other mostly researchers at the Richmond Field Station. The small campus, coupled with its relative isolation, make it a closely knit community.

The field station's newsletter runs restaurant reviews and ads for used appliances. In the summer, there are family barbecues on the deck of the conference center that was once two old farmhouses. A recreation committee is raising funds to build a PAR course.

"Those that like it out here, stay," said Giunta. "Those that don't, leave."

Richmond Field Station

University Units

* Graduate Art Practice Studios

Graduate students in painting, sculpture and mixed media have individual studios in a converted wooden barrack.

* Structural Research Laboratory

The focus of experimental research in several areas of structural engineering. Much of the research conducted over the years has resulted in significant improvement in building codes.

* Coastal and Hydraulics

Research Labs

Features include a large model basin for studies of coastal flows, a 180-foot-long wave tank, and a model of the Kissimmee River in South Central Florida, where investigators modeled the restoration of that river from its channeled to its natural form. Modern equipment includes an experimental facility for debris-flow studies.

* Soil Mechanics and Bituminous

Materials Laboratory

Research at this lab has been directed toward the behavior of soils, granular materials, stabilized materials and asphalt paving mixtures in a range of loading and environmental conditions.

* Fire Research Laboratory

Berkeley has a long history of fire research and testing, which began in the mid-1940s. Administered by the Forest Products Laboratory, the facility provides space for investigation and evaluation of materials and assemblies used in construction and in transit vehicles. The lab has evaluated the flammability of seats for BART and major U.S. airlines.

* Earthquake Engineering

Research Center

The center's labs include state-of-the-art earthquake engineering experimental facilities, the most extensive library collection of quake engineering and structural dynamics materials in the country, and the non-profit National Information Service for Earthquake Engineering.

* Forest Products Laboratory

The only institution in the state dedicated to forest products research and education. Research programs have expanded to include centers of research concentration.

* Institute of Transportation Studies/ Partners for Advanced Transit

And Highways

Established in 1986, PATH is jointly sponsored by the California Department of Transportation and the campus's Institute of Transportation Studies to investigate applicability of advanced technology to solve transportation problems. The institute's Extension programs provide continuing education for transportation and public works professionals in conjunction with University Extension.

* Pacific Asbestos Information Center

The University Extension program in Environmental Health Management conducts continuing education and training sessions in asbestos evaluation and remediation.

* Department of Naval Architecture

And Offshore Engineering

Provides a classroom and research facility for students and faculty. Research is also conducted for industry, government entities and other educational institutions.

* Northern Regional Library Facility

Managed by UC systemwide, the library storage facility is one of two of its kind in the state. The library stores, preserves and provides access to infrequently used materials. Combined capacity of the building is 5.3 million volumes.


Copyright 1995, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
Comments? E-mail