If you were to take a look inside Building 20 of the Brooklyn Navy Yard (born New York Navy Yard) some 150 years ago, you would have witnessed a spectacle of mechanical strength and breathtaking ingenuity set in a machine shop rated as the most ultra-modern of its kind at the end of the 19th century. Completed at the end of the Civil War in 1865, the cavernous factory building was the facility where the Navy Department manufactured armor for its fleet of wooden warships. Although its specific use evolved over the decades as shipbuilding technology improved, Building 20 retained its role as a production powerhouse for the United States Navy until the mid-20th century, with later activities including the manufacture of parts for hydrogen fuel cell submarines.

Today, the tradition of cutting-edge technology continues in Building 20 with its new tenant, Nanotronics. Harnessing AI, robotics and 3D imaging, the Ohio-based company is a leader in the development of optical inspection systems for semiconductors and other technologies. Nanotronics first established a presence at the New Lab at Brooklyn Navy Yard, now a sprawling urban manufacturing and innovation complex run by the nonprofit Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation, in 2016; five years later, the growing company moved into its new dig, a flagship 44,000 square foot “smart factory,” in April 2021.

Stairs and walkways in blackened steel thread their way between the wooden panels. The material also serves to protect the base and corners from wear. (Albert Vecerka/ESTO)

The move to Building 20, which had remained largely vacant for the past few years except for its occasional use in TV shoots and as a storage facility, allowed Nanotronics to consolidate its various departments, to namely R&D, design and manufacturing, under a single, collab- orative roof. The adaptive reuse of the historic building, which now houses more than 100 employees, also facilitated a non-traditional use of engineered wood in one of the first projects built with cross-laminated timber (CLT) in New York City.

In a design led by architecture and urban design firm Rogers Partners, the brick shell of Building 20 is now populated by four stacked “modules” constructed with CLT walls, floors and lids. (Structural engineering was provided by Silman and CLT was provided by Austrian manufacturer binderholz.) Large interior windows that provide views of the not-quite-rectangular volumes of the factory’s double-height circulation areas foster interaction and transparency across departments while allowing visitors – many of them, thanks to Nanotronics’ STEM-focused education and workplace development – ​​to get a glimpse of how microscopes advanced industrial robotics are developed and manufactured.

a modern factory space made up of stacked engineered wood modules
binderholz supplied the CLT for this interior fitting. (Albert Vecerka/ESTO)

“We didn’t want to just do the typical, which is split the space in half and make half clean and the other half dirty,” Vincent Lee, associate partner at Rogers Partners, explained to A.

“We started to study the space requirements and saw how to build modules that would allow the level of enclosure, cleanliness and sound insulation in a way that worked.”

Bridges, also made with engineered wood, connect the pod configurations from above while blackened steel stairs connect the ground floor of the facility to the second level of the pod assembly. Deliberate punches of color can also be found in the largely natural-toned space, including red accents and a breezy blue-green paint scheme in the kitchen/gathering area in the building’s annex, that brings semi-tropical vibes to Brooklyn’s industrial waterfront.

a modern factory space made up of stacked engineered wood modules and blackened steel elements
Long, landscape-format windows encourage viewing of the start-up’s operations from the main hallways. (Albert Vecerka/ESTO)
a modern factory space made up of stacked engineered wood modules
Bridges criss-crossing the double-height circulation and social spaces connect the upper-level workspaces of the stacked module. (Albert Vecerka/ESTO)

“The space has the comfort of wood in a foundation where invention happened,” said Matthew Putman, co-founder and CEO of Nanotronics. “It uniquely provides labs, factories, and space for impromptu meetings in a way that has been crucial for the exchange of ideas and the construction of critical products.”

The use of engineered wood allowed construction to proceed at a steady pace. As Lee explained, the assembly time for the CLT pod structures was a swift 28 days, although the pandemic slowed the project on its biggest journey to completion, as did the catastrophic and disruptive explosion of the supply chain at the Port of Beirut in August 2020 (Nanotronics partially moved into the building before its official opening to accelerate the prototyping and production of a non-invasive ventilator during the COVID-19 crisis.) Additionally, CLT provided valuable carbon sequestration; this interior stores approximately 411.2 metric tons of CO2.

red brick exterior of a historic shipbuilding facility at night
Brooklyn Navy Yard Building 20 was first used as a shipbuilding factory. (Albert Vecerka/ESTO)

The build speed was further accelerated because both sides of the CLT were left exposed, which, as Lee pointed out, is something of a rarity. “Being able to expose it on both sides and not have to drywall or finish made it an achievable expense,” he said, adding that the project “benefited from how [CLT] works structurally to introduce geometry and playfulness.

Although an indoor installation offered protection from the elements, assembling large CLT structures into an existing building proved to be a challenge. “Now that we’ve used the CLT in a place where it’s proven more difficult to install, I’m looking forward to using it in a more conventional way,” Lee said. CLT’s starring role in the smartest factory in the five boroughs also, of course, serves as a nod to Building 20’s origins as a shipbuilding facility. As Lee said, “The building again contains wooden and steel vessels.”

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