T H E   N I H    C A T A L Y S T SEPTEMBER   -   OCTOBER   1 9 9 7 

Michael Gottesman
Michael Gottesman
Cyrena Simons
Cyrena Simons
Architects are trying to humanize these increasingly high-tech spaces with materials, colors, and most importantly, daylight

We have an unprecedented amount of construction occurring at NIH today, and more is coming soon. Although it may cause some temporary inconvenience to us all, we are building the infrastructure that will be vital for NIH's ability to conduct state-of-the-art research in the 21st century. This construction is giving birth to NIH's future, and the birthing process is innately messy.

These projects have two primary purposes: 1) to bring the utility capacity of our existing facilities up to current, safe standards and 2) to provide modern research laboratories to support future research initiatives at NIH. Many of the projects fulfill both purposes. The utility-tunnel project, which we all dodge as we walk around campus, is providing needed current utility capacity - such as electricity, water, chilled water, steam, communications, and sewage disposal - and the means to distribute additional future capacity. Building 50 and the Clinical Research Center (CRC) together will replace outdated facilities in Buildings 2, 3, 6, 7, and 10 and create state-of-the-art research labs and accommodations for shared instruments.

Much of this construction is necessary because the nature of biomedical research and the technology needed to support it have changed since many of the laboratories on the NIH campus were built. For example, Building 50 is being designed to house a 1-gigahertz NMR research instrument, which does not yet exist! The required amount and reliability of electrical power to run our centrifuges, air-flow hoods, incubators, and cold rooms has increased dramatically, and the cooling required in the rooms containing the equipment has also skyrocketed. Computers were not standard research tools when most of our facilities were built - now they are intrinsic to biomedical research and accommodating them necessitates major changes in building design. The increase in computers even dictates changes to the standard NIH postdoc's desk. The old 3.5-ft desk is no longer big enough to hold a computer, a telephone, and a piece of paper, so desks are increasing in size. And now computers must be interconnected by LANs and internets. Building 49 was the first facility with a combined communications system, which included phones, computers, LANs, faxes, and other such items. Integrated communications are now just assumed to be standard in all new facilities.

Other changes are more subtle. Laboratories used to be defined predominantly by the techniques they used. Organic chemistry or electron microscopy labs attacked projects that could be addressed with those techniques. Now labs are more apt to be defined by the problems they address, and most attack their research questions by using multiple techniques at the same time. This means that groups of scientists with different backgrounds must meet to share data, creating a need for small, informal conference spaces and large, formal meeting rooms within laboratory buildings. Many groups also want to encourage this communication between scientists by having larger, more open labs rather than the old single-lab modules, while still providing for containment of noise and hazards. These open labs also rely on small conference spaces to give scientists a quiet spot where they can think, read, and draft papers.

This need for communication between scientists has also reemphasized the surprising fact that scientists are people. Architects are trying to humanize these increasingly high-tech spaces with materials, colors, and, most importantly, daylight. Building 50 and the CRC will both have views of the outside world from most of the labs and offices.

If nothing else, our experience constructing research facilities has taught us that the one thing that is predictable is change. Because we can't predict the direction of that change, we need to design our research facilities to be as adaptable as possible. If we begin a design for a new building by customizing spaces to meet a scientist's current research needs, the labs will no longer be suitable when he or she moves in - perhaps five years later. We learned this the hard way in Building 4, which was uniquely defined five years before it was occupied and so had to be redone while scientists were moving in. As we did with Building 49, a better approach is to create buildings with the utility capacity to support potential changes but to defer defining the nitty-gritty details as long as possible. In Building 50, we have a standardized "kit-of-parts" for each lab space assigned to the ICDs that will be occupying the building, but substitutions can be made in these standard components, allowing for program changes and further detailing to occur during construction. In the CRC, we are designing good, safe, generic, flexible labs without assigning space to the individual intramural programs. Customization will occur only after final occupants are identified.

In all these projects, the input from the scientific community is essential, and your involvement will yield benefits that extend well beyond your own lab plans. So . . . continue to watch your step as you dodge construction sites, and send your advice and opinions to the DDIR or the Office of Research Services as we all prepare for the future of research at NIH.

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