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28th Annual Reconstruction Awards: Genetics Lab Decoded

28th Annual Reconstruction Awards: Genetics Lab Decoded

Quinn Evans Architects renovates a vacant animal holding facility into world-class DNA laboratory. 

By By Leslie Streicher, Associate Editor | January 3, 2012
28th Annual Reconstruction Awards: Genetics Lab Decoded
Although the new lab is more than 1,000 sf smaller than its predecessor, the Building Team was able to maximize floor space usin
This article first appeared in the January 2012 issue of BD+C.

When looking at the Genetics Laboratory of the Center for Conservation and Evolutionary Genetics (CCEG) in Washington, D.C., it’s hard to believe dozens of marmosets used to call it home.

“Initially, I was very surprised by how beautiful the building turned out, both inside and out,” said Robert Fleischer, PhD, head of the CCEG and a genetics research scientists. “I thought our lab was going to be dowdy and functional, but it turned out to be an architecturally attractive place.”

For decades, this building at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoological Park was used as an animal holding facility, and until renovations began in 2008, was left unused and vacant.

“There were trees growing through the slab, a dead bird or two, and former holding areas were piled with used furniture, old supplies, and discarded papers,” said Quinn Evans Architects’ Kathryn Slattery, AIA, LEED AP.

But National Zoological Park officials saw potential, and after genetics research scientists outgrew their old facility, the Smithsonian hired Quinn Evans to reconfigure the deteriorating building into a state-of-the-art DNA lab.

Click here to view profiles of other reconstruction projects that have been recognized as part of BD+C's 28th Annual Reconstruction Awards.

“Initially, the researchers and design team wondered if we could make it work,” Quinn Evans’s Alyson Steele, AIA, LEED AP, said.

The former lab encompassed 4,150 sf of usable space, while the new facility had only 2,922 sf. Since the scientists conduct highly sensitive experiments, sometimes with toxic chemicals, various safety measures needed to be implemented in the design.

Two wet labs with separate air systems, equipment-intensive space, office and support areas for documentation of results and management, and an arrangement that could support individual and collaborative work were among the required elements. Would there be enough space, Steele wondered?

After inspections, the Building Team of Quinn Evans, McMullan & Associates (structural engineer), James Posey Associates (MEP engineer), and K-Lo Construction (GC) decided 95% of reconstruction work would need to be performed within the existing footprint of the building.

Working within such a restricted space, the Building Team reached out to laboratory scientists to help create the most efficient and effective design. “The researchers really guided us to determine layouts,” Steele said. “We incorporated as much of their input as possible while integrating systems, materials, and construction approach into the design.”

Genetics Laboratory, National Zoological Park, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Building Team
Owner/developer: Smithsonian Institution
Architect: Quinn Evans Architects (submitting firm)           
Structural engineer: McMullan & Associates
MEP engineer: James Posey Associates
General contractor: K-Lo Construction

General Information
Size: 1,138 gsf
Construction cost: $2,300,000
Construction period: October 2008 to May 2010
Delivery method: Design-bid-build

For about 15 years, research scientists worked in a lab that was inefficient, inconvenient, and dangerous. Located in a flood plain of Rock Creek, the former facility faced significant threats to equipment and experiments during heavy storms.

It also was located about two miles away from other research facilities, making it difficult to communicate with other Smithsonian scientists. “I had to walk 10 to 15 minutes to the other labs,” said Fleischer.

Nor was the layout of the former lab conducive to a productive workflow. Scientists would have to exit the building to access certain pieces of equipment, and although there was more floor area, worktables were crowded and cluttered. “We didn’t really get a chance to do too much design on the former lab,” Fleischer said. “But after working there for so long, we had an idea of how we’d rather have it.” 

Collaborating with the Building Team, the research scientists laid out a plan to create safer working areas that promote efficient workflows.

“Our first step was to understand the researchers’ needs from both a physical and a process standpoint,” Steele said. “We discussed experimental routines, surveyed lab equipment for size, heat loads, and technical requirements, and discussed staffing levels and work area requirements. From this we developed a preliminary space, equipment, and furniture program.”

Plan diagrams and 3D building models were used to visualize new walls, systems, furniture, and 92 separate pieces of equipment within the existing structure. Working within space constraints, the plan was followed meticulously. As a result, the space, although significantly smaller than the previous lab, is actually more efficient.

“The design of the lab actually makes it look very warm and open, light and airy,” Fleischer said. “It is also safer. Even though it is open, things that need to be isolated are separated from other parts of the lab.”

New furniture, benches, and supporting utility services were integrated into the existing structure to meet work and storage requirements. Perforated roof screens now guard rooftop equipment areas, while DNA isolation areas were constructed with hoods and separate air handling systems to protect scientists from potentially dangerous materials. “The layout helps us protect DNA and collections of tissues we use to make the DNA,” Fleischer said. “It keeps samples from being contaminated from what we do downstream in the rest of the lab.”

It’s been more than a year since the new genetics lab opened. Apart from benefiting DNA research at the zoo, the building also helps promote the Smithsonian’s environmental goals. Efficient heating and cooling systems, insulated metal panels, natural light exposure, and efficient glazing support low-energy operations.

“They made the lab as green as possible,” Fleischer said, noting that the building received an AIA/DC 2010 Presidential Citation for Sustainable Design. “But the colors and patterns inside the building also reflect ecological conservation. Sometimes we feel like we’re in the middle of a forest.”

Inspired by the scientists’ research, the Building Team wanted the building’s image to convey the work going on inside the lab. Researchers use dyes and chromatic tests to identify genetic strands in samples, and the building was designed to reflect this in the architecture.

“We focused on light and vision as referring to knowledge and investigation,” Steele said. “We used solid, perforated, translucent, and clear materials to screen and enhance the visibility at different sites.”

Window openings are layered to create extended and filtered views, while perforated awnings create undulating light patterns in homage to the double helix. These design elements, Fleischer said, have made for a better work environment.

Fleisher said the new lab makes the scientists feel more connected to their work. “To have a nice place to go to for work, it makes you feel a lot more welcome,” he said. “And that makes for greater productivity.” BD+C
Click here to view profiles of other reconstruction projects that have been recognized as part of BD+C's 28th Annual Reconstruction Awards


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