Teamwork Produces Results at Emory University's Newest Facility

Whitehead Biomedical Building is First in Southeast to Receive LEED Certification
Published 7-8-2003
  • Open Lab Design

    Floor-to-ceiling windows provide natural lighting in the labs at Emory University's newest research building. Conventional wood casework with Trespa laminate tops are designed with point-of-use filtration systems. The lab units are combined in groups to allow researchers to work together. Photo courtesy of Emory University.

    Photo courtesy of Emory University.

  • Environmentally Friendly

    The $81-million Joseph B. Whitehead Biomedical Research Building is the first facility in the Southeast to earn LEED certification. The cast-in-place structural concrete building, completed in late 2001, has eight floors and a mechanical penthouse. Photo courtesy of Emory University.

    Photo courtesy of Emory University.

The Joseph B. Whitehead Biomedical Research Building, located on the campus of Emory University in Atlanta, exemplifies the cost-effective, environmentally-friendly results that can be achieved when a facility is constructed with teamwork and proper planning.

The $81-million, 325,000-sf facility, completed in late 2001, features eight floors with a mechanical penthouse. Six of the floors are used for research and office space, and two are used to provide 57,000 sf of space to house animals and robotic cage-washing facilities.

"We had an architect on site through most of the construction and that was well worth the money," says Laura Case, project manager for the facilities management department at Emory University. "Team effort was essential because we were able to share responsibility and solve all of our problems together."

The team effort began by conducting a pre-occupancy survey to determine what building features are important to the scientists who work in the facility. The results show the occupants value work space that is flexible and encourages collaboration. Ensuring a productive, healthy work environment is important to Emory University, which conducted $278 million in sponsored research during Fiscal Year 2001-02, employs approximately 19,000 people, and has more than 11,000 students.

"We want to provide a premiere space to attract the best scientists from around the world and to bring environmental consciousness to the forefront of our community," says Jan Hawes, scientific facilities manager at Emory University's School of Medicine.

Open Floor Layout

Collaboration and interaction are accomplished with an open floor plan and shared support spaces that include environmental rooms, sterilizers, glassware washing and autoclave facilities, darkrooms, tissue culture suites, and equipment rooms. A 150-seat auditorium is available for viewing presentations and sharing research information. Shared break rooms on each research floor allow the scientists to relax by socializing and playing billiards or foosball.

Faculty office space is situated away from the labs on both sides of the research floors to provide quiet work areas. Administrative offices are also located away from the labs near the elevators and most workstations are along the perimeter of the building. Visitors are circulated to reception areas for security purposes. This same generic design is used on all six levels where the labs are located.

The labs are designed with shared areas, such as microscope rooms, fume hood alcoves, and equipment zones. The 20-by-36-foot lab units are combined in groups of five, called neighborhoods or pods, so the configuration can be changed without major renovations to suit future needs. The neighborhood arrangement is ideal when multiple research groups need to work in close proximity. Technical workstations, located on both ends of each research neighborhood, provide a comfortable setting for private tutoring and research that needs to be done outside the actual lab.

"When this design concept came up, we didn't think it would work. We soon discovered the open lab design has a method to its madness by providing equal space for everyone's equipment needs," says Hawes. "We had safety concerns about radiation and chemicals being used by one researcher that others weren't familiar with, and people using solutions they weren't supposed to. Actually, the people are working well together in this building."

Special Lab and Support Space Features

Floor-to-ceiling windows allow researchers to work at nearby dry bench spaces with plenty of natural lighting and a view of downtown Atlanta. Entry doors are also provided on a large scale with wide entrances for proper clearance to move equipment in and out of the work areas. Equipment rooms on each floor are supplied with extra air flow to accommodate heat production from freezers and incubators, and to handle exhaust gas from liquid nitrogen tanks.

Each lab also has six multifunctional prep rooms used for microscopy and cell culture projects, procedure rooms with biological safety cabinets, and additional office space that can be used for a variety of purposes. Small mechanical closets, located in the hallway outside each lab, house the valves that control all of the utility feeds.

Each floor is designed with a 173-sf BSL-3 suite, which can accommodate two different research groups. A double-door autoclave unit in the BSL-3 antechamber room is built through the wall into nearby common equipment space. This allows multiple researchers to share its use. All of the BSL-3 suites, although currently used for tissue culture work, have been safety tested to ensure they meet required guidelines.

The autoclave and glasswash rooms contain enough space to properly accommodate sterilizers, glassware washers, hot water tanks, and other equipment used in biological research. The rooms offer the flexibility of wall reconfigurations to provide space for additional equipment. The cage wash area is kept clean and fresh with the robotic cage-washing system that was developed by the Swedish Karolinksa Research Institute. The system is one of the first of its kind installed in the United States.

Casework in the labs is unique with space for point-of-use filtration systems, which are handy since the building is not supplied with house reverse-osmosis water. Laminate workspace is provided along the windows instead of the more expensive epoxy coatings. Shelf height is restricted to keep researchers from stacking supplies higher than the fire code stipulates at 18 inches below the sprinkler heads.

Overcoming Challenges

Case and Hawes are approaching other facilities management projects at Emory University with the knowledge they gained during the design and construction of the Whitehead Biomedical Research Building. The open-lab concept is also being used in the construction of the Winship Cancer Institute, which is slated for substantial completion in September.

The biggest challenges addressed at Whitehead centered around occupant flow, air circulation, HVAC noise, and mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) issues.

"One thing we've noticed in our research buildings is that people like to put things in the hallway because they are just busting out of their labs," says Hawes. "The hallways are wide enough for us to move things in and out, but we've maintained that clean look."

The hallways at Whitehead are six feet wide with sani-rails on both sides to discourage researchers from leaving equipment in the corridors. The floor pattern indicates hallway intersections, and doorframes are inset into the labs. Way-finding and safety signage makes it easy for building occupants to find their destination.

Another post-occupancy issue that has been addressed is the vibration and subsequent noise coming from laboratory ductwork exhaust grills. The designed exhaust flow pattern placed the grills directly above lab workstations. Creating more space between the ducts and the grills solved the problem and gave the researchers a quieter work area.

"We were running about 55 to 60 decibels underneath those exhausts, and researchers were complaining about noise levels being too high," says Case. "That's where they need to concentrate and it was not a good environment."

Addressing exterior noise issues stemming from exhaust fans due to space constraints in the penthouse led to a redesign of the exhaust air duct. The original 90-degree ductwork exiting the vane axial fans was replaced with a turning vane device to provide a better route for exhaust air leaving the building in a quieter and more efficient manner.

Other MEP concerns included air circulation problems in the mechanical equipment room, and ineffective hot water circulation. The air circulation problem in the equipment room arose because the initial design called for hot, humid Atlanta air to be brought into the facility across steam lines, then air compressors. This caused moisture to accumulate in the air vacuum system and into some of the electronics, causing malfunctions and failures. The solution was to move the fresh air intake away from steam piping, circulating it through the space and exhausting from the ceiling level to capture the warmest air. Control panels are protected from potential moisture and heat by being washed by cooled air ducted in from a nearby source.

The addition of in-line heaters and pumps throughout the building's water circulation system was necessary to provide both hot and cold water in the laboratory sinks.

Case and Hawes recommend commissioning the entire control system with a separate consultant who specializes in controls, and keeping the consultant on board throughout the first year of occupancy.

"We ironed out quite a few problems when we commissioned the emergency generator," says Case. "During this process, you also test your startup and shut-down procedures, and your fire-safety system. It is very important to commission and closely monitor the issues."

Energy and Environmental Efficiency

Guaranteeing the safety of all systems went hand in hand with Emory University's dedication to being environmentally responsible to its employees and the surrounding communities. After construction was well under way, Emory officials decided to seek certification by the LEED™ (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Green Building Rating System. Points are awarded under the LEED certification for site selection, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, and indoor environmental quality. Emory achieved a silver rating for its environmental efforts.

"Obtaining LEED certification makes good business sense by reducing building operating costs, and creating a healthy work environment for our employees,” says Hawes. "It's the right thing to do."

Environmental groups, which were already in place on the 630-acre urban campus, provided input to help Emory University receive the LEED certification.

The Whitehead facility demonstrates a commitment to energy efficiency with its large windows in 90 percent of the labs and offices, sensors that regulate lights, glazing that reduces ultraviolet transmittance, and enthalpy wheels designed to use the air being exhausted from the building to preheat outside air in the winter and to pre-cool outside air in the summer. The enthalpy wheels can significantly reduce the cost of heating and cooling a building.

It is estimated that approximately $100,000 in savings will be realized each year at Whitehead as a result of using the enthalpy wheels, which cost $450,000 to install. During their 20-year lifespan, the wheels will save more than $1.5 million after payback.

Water conservation efforts are also important to maintaining the LEED certification in the Whitehead facility. Rainwater is collected in a retention vault and used to irrigate the landscaping with a low-volume irrigation system. Condensate water is collected from the building's air-handling unit and sent to a chilled water plant for later use. The water-recovery efforts are expected to save over 2.5 million gallons of water annually.

Indoor air quality is also taken into consideration during the LEED certification process. The indoor air quality is enhanced with natural lighting, low VOC finishes, and the zero-scaping process of using native plants.

Prior to applying for LEED certification, the University had already made great strides in environmental stewardship with extensive recycling efforts and an alternative transportation program. Parking decks are built on the perimeter of the campus in order to dedicate the core of the complex to pedestrian traffic. Shuttle buses, operated by alternative fuels, transport researchers and visitors throughout the campus and free cards are provided to encourage individuals to ride Atlanta's mass transit system.

Overall, the occupants are happy with the design of the building and are especially pleased with the natural lighting. However, a post-occupancy survey revealed that they would like more control over the heating and cooling system.

"All in all, we are really surprised at how well everyone is doing in the open-lab concept," says Hawes.

By Tracy Carbasho