Building Research labs

Nov. 1, 2002
Universities should seek out contractors with experience in constructing these specialized facilities.

Exciting scientific advances are coming out of academic research institutions — especially in the fields of nanotechnology, biotechnology and biomedical science. Universities are racing to attract the best students, researchers and faculty. In such a competitive environment, many universities see their facilities and associated amenities as key marketing and recruitment tools.

However, because of the increasing pace of advancements in scientific instrumentation, facilities built as recently as five years ago are becoming outdated quickly. According to a 2001 survey by the National Science Foundation's Division of Science Resources Studies, academic institutions reported that only 42.7 million of the existing 147.5 million square feet of science and engineering research space is adequate to meet research program commitments.

Many campuses are addressing the problem with plans to build or renovate laboratory facilities. Given the amount of resources that will be devoted to these projects, it is crucial that university officials are familiar with the unique considerations involved in building university lab facilities. Armed with this information, schools can select a construction manager or general contractor more confidently and avoid scheduling difficulties, incorrect cost estimates, prematurely obsolete facilities and unnecessary inconvenience to the campus population.

Below are some aspects of campus research facility construction that require specialized construction expertise. Keep these in mind when reviewing construction proposals.

Specialized experience

Campus research facilities are highly specialized and technical. They require a unique set of construction experience and resources. No academic, commercial or industrial structure poses the same complexities as a research building.

Research spaces usually require strictly monitored environments with controls that can keep close track of lighting, pressure and temperature. This requires intricate mechanical, electrical and piping (MEP) support systems that can represent more than half of a facility's cost. Typically, subcontractors carry out MEP work on construction projects. However, because MEP systems affect all areas of these facilities, it is beneficial to work with a general contractor or construction manager that has MEP experts on staff. They can help determine how these systems fit into the entire project.

Often, many research studies are being conducted simultaneously within the same facility. To prevent cross-contamination of research materials or media, a builder may need to install a complex heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system that uses 100 percent fresh air. Elaborate exhaust systems also may be required to monitor and provide extensive ventilation for volatile organic compounds (VOC).

Health and human-related research may call for building components such as vivariums, cleanrooms and biocontainment spaces. This level of sophistication requires exceptional cleanliness, even during the construction stage. In these areas, a builder's experience in cleanroom construction protocols and working in protective gear and gowns can make a difference.

In addition, it is important to find a builder that has experience in constructing a flexible research environment. As research objectives change, new studies may require thoroughly different setups. Many universities have found this out the hard way with studies that require intensive computer-aided research. To make space for dry labs that support computer needs, universities have had to undertake expensive renovations of their existing wet labs.

A builder must be able to work with architects in the planning stages to incorporate flexibility into the construction of the facilities. The flexibility will make it easier and cheaper to modify laboratories in the future. For instance, having open labs with fewer walls and gas, electric and water utilities will allow labs to be easily rearranged and “plugged-in and unplugged” as needed. Other major considerations for developing a flexible research environment include the arrangement and styles of lab benches, piping connections and local exhaust vents.

Preconstruction services

Traditionally, general contractors were not brought onto a project until after the architect had completed the design. Over the last 20 years this has changed; the builder partners with the university, architect and engineers from the early design phase through completion. These preconstruction services are of great benefit on research facility projects because of the complexity and detailed mechanical and electrical requirements.

An experienced builder with expertise in advanced technology construction will understand the issues and recognize which of them can bog down a project or escalate budgets. Such a contractor will be able to suggest alternative design strategies or construction methods for resolving these issues before construction begins.

Builders with strong preconstruction services also can provide accurate budgets based on early preliminary designs. One of the tools an experienced builder uses to provide the most accurate estimates is a database of final cost information from previous projects. This database provides a detailed and searchable resource for quick and accurate estimates on projects that are still in the early design phase. The more experienced the builder, the better the database, and the more accurate the cost estimate.

Potential campus disruption

From beginning to end, a builder must be able to work with university personnel to develop and carry out a comprehensive plan that ensures the safety of students, faculty and visitors, and minimizes disruptions to the learning environment. This can be challenging when the construction site is in a high-traffic location on an existing campus while classes are in session.

A majority of campus construction is geared toward specific academic terms; therefore, the plan should include a detailed construction schedule developed with the help of key university officials and stakeholders. The more detailed the schedule, the easier it is for academic officials to plan classes and campus functions around construction activities. Officials also will be able to communicate project milestones and completion dates to the campus population and surrounding community.

Scheduling also plays an important role in safety. By sequencing construction so that activities such as deliveries of construction materials and the operation of heavy equipment occur during off-peak times, a builder can provide a safer campus environment.

Strategy and processes

Communicating effectively is the key to a successful project; especially on college campuses with many interested parties.

Construction may call for relocation of classes and functions, rerouting of walkways that are part of the main campus flow, or campuswide utility shutdowns to tie in services to the new or renovated facility. By organizing regular meetings, university officials and the builder can work together to ensure information is presented effectively to affected parties.

High-tech communication tools can help university officials and general contractors keep people informed about their research facility construction projects. They may develop web sites that provide consistent updates on construction efforts to key stakeholders, the community and the media. A tool on some projects now is a web-cam that can be viewed from the web site on demand.

Research facilities are as complex as the studies they house. As you consider renovating or building a research facility on your campus, remember to review the above considerations with prospective construction managers or general contractors. By making an informed decision, you can help minimize surprises, ensure smooth project coordination and end up with a facility that will be a symbol of your campus for years to come.

Guest is a senior vice president focusing on R&D and laboratory construction at McCarthy Building Companies, Inc., St. Louis.

Cornell University's Duffield Hall

Cornell University's $42 million Duffield Hall is a research and teaching facility for nanotechnology. The facility will provide state-of-the-art accommodations for the Cornell Nanofabrication Facility — the oldest federally supported nanotechnology center.

Features include several types of research spaces — wet, dry and specialty laboratories and a 20,000-square-foot cleanroom laboratory. The builders worked with university officials to sequence the project, which is being built on the busiest pedestrian and vehicle intersection on campus, in ways that would minimize the effect on staff, students and ongoing nanotechnology research being conducted next door.

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