March 3, 2005

6 myths about building for biotech

  • Forget the naysayers. You can build almost anywhere

     retrofitted office building
    Photo courtesy of BNBuilders
    A Seattle research institute located its labs in a retrofitted office building, despite the low floor-to-ceiling height. A new air-handling system was also required, but the project shows some unconventional spaces can handle the demands of the biotechnology industry.

    One of the biggest admonitions that biotechnology and high-tech facilities managers regularly receive is that you cannot efficiently construct laboratory and research facilities in an existing office building.

    But there's little truth to that notion. Seattle's Institute for Systems Biology, for example, shows how office space can be successfully re-used to create highly functional laboratories and research facilities.

    A little background

    The Institute for Systems Biology was founded by Dr. Leroy Hood to provide a nonprofit research institute dedicated to the study and application of systems biology. The institute's goal is to identify strategies for predicting and preventing diseases such as cancer, diabetes and AIDS through the study of human biological systems.

    The institute needed a highly collaborative research center for its 170 biologists, physicists, mathematicians, computer scientists, engineers and chemists. The five-story building identified for its new headquarters had everything the institute sought and more: 65,000 square feet and room for growth, great views of the city and a site in the Wallingford neighborhood, near Gas Works Park.

    6 common myths

    One thing the institute didn't require was a specially built research building. Instead, the institute retrofitted a three-story structure originally intended for general office use.

    The project, completed in 2001, challenges the conventional wisdom about building for biotechnology.

    Myth 1: Floor to ceiling heights must exceed 13 feet.

    The building proposed for the institute's new home was originally developed as speculative office space.

    Its 11.5-foot floor-to-ceiling height was extremely tight and wouldn't easily incorporate laboratories.

    However, the height proved adequate through the use of creative design and careful pre-planning of HVAC systems, electrical elements, sprinkler piping and utilities pathways.

    Myth 2: Post-tensioned concrete structures are too sensitive to allow for the kind of penetrations needed in a laboratory.

    By working closely with the structural engineers, Engineers Northwest, and the architect, Kornberg Associates, optimal locations for the slab penetrations were identified with the use radar and X-ray techniques.

    General contractor BNBuilders de-stressed, capped and re-stressed two tendons on three floors. This provided a 36-inch opening that was used for HVAC. Also, by carefully planning locations, the structure was able to accommodate the institute's highly automated technical equipment, which included DNA sequencers, genotypers, microarrays, mass spectrometers and cell sorters.

    Supplementary research and support space was added on the lower level of the two-floor garage, located below the structure. Floor-to-ceiling height at this location was extremely tight at just over 10 feet. A side-fed ventilation system served to accommodate this space, proving once again that by thinking creatively such problems become opportunities.

    Myth 3: It takes too long.

    Schedules on biotech and high-tech projects are always fast-tracked. The institute was no different, and the entire 65,000-square-foot project was completely designed and constructed in 7.5 months.

    This was accomplished through very close coordination with the entire design and construction team. The group met weekly throughout the design and construction process to ensure that all work was completed on schedule and that all equipment was ordered for on-time installation or better. Decisions were made at the weekly meetings and schedules were updated daily.

    Myth 4: It's too expensive.

    Every requirement, such as ample ventilation, structural reinforcement and vibration-free equipment locations, needs to be addressed regardless of the building type and whether it's new or a retrofit.

    Although it may be easier to start by constructing an entirely new structure, retrofits are completed much more quickly and efficiently than a new structure.

    Myth 5: The ventilation system cannot be accommodated.

    Ventilation and exhaust systems (which handle 10 times the air volume typical of office buildings) were carefully planned and constructed to match two existing shafts and slab penetrations.

    For the institute, the original air-handling system was replaced by a larger unit. To make way for the larger unit, the contractor used the block-out space for the original tower crane and one area of the de-stressed/re-stressed tendons. Working with the architect, the contractor integrated the new air distribution and ventilation system by leaving it exposed, making it part of the architecture.

    Myth 6: A spec office building can't accommodate the collaborative environment needed for research.

    The project team left the lobbies of the structure fairly intact, but demolished most of its interior wall systems to create the institute's desired open floor plan.

    Restrooms were relocated to improve interior open space. The final design solution provides both transparency throughout the structure and flexibility to allow teams to collaborate efficiently.

    You can be flexible

    The bottom line is that biotechnology spaces can be constructed almost anywhere.

    Certainly, there will be many factors requiring analysis and creative thinking. However, our experience on more than 50 biotechnology and laboratory projects indicates that the right design and construction team can find the solutions needed to meet each client's needs and desires almost anywhere.

    Gayle Guadarrama is the director of marketing for BNBuilders in Seattle and California.

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