Design and Operational Lessons Learned at the University of Idaho’s Integrated Research and Innovation Center

Uncomfortable Auditorium Seats, Cracking Lab Floors, Inefficient Loading Dock Require Workarounds
  • Integrated Research and Innovation Center

    The University of Idaho’s IRIC was designed from the ground up to be flexible and adaptable to foster collaborative cross-disciplinary research programs that are universally useful to society.

    Courtesy of University of Idaho

  • auditorium

    Lacking back support, the step auditorium seating is uncomfortable for long presentations, even when foam cushions are put out for events. Light from the large south-facing windows washes out presentations on the screen, and the metal panels sit too close to the window glass to allow cleaning.

    Courtesy of University of Idaho

  • cracked concrete

    Concrete floors make it easier to move lab benches, but they are susceptible to cracking without heavy-duty sealant.

    Courtesy of University of Idaho

  • open desk area

    The open desk area on each floor has not succeeded as a place for building occupants to do heads-down work, as originally planned.

    Courtesy of University of Idaho

Since its opening in 2017, the University of Idaho’s 78,500-gsf Integrated Research and Innovation Center (IRIC) has attracted a cumulative total of $144 million in grant funding, roughly 20 percent of all the research dollars coming to the school. Among other signs of success, the $52 million, three-story structure has hosted 30 different research teams whose work has generated 35 Ph.Ds., 77 master’s degrees, and close to 900 publications. Offering wet and dry labs, offices, collaboration spaces, core research facilities, and event space, the building breaks away from the traditional research paradigm to focus on projects rather than faculty or departments. But the design and operation have presented some challenges in the first five years, including a wall of south-facing windows, concrete lab flooring, and a small loading dock.

“IRIC was designed from the ground up to be flexible and adaptable to foster collaborative cross-disciplinary research programs that are universally useful to society,” says Russell McClanahan, IRIC facility manager. “It stands as a very clear model for the university’s commitment to interdisciplinary research. Overall, our architect did a wonderful job of developing a building that has been very well received on campus.”

Auditorium Obstacles

Despite all of IRIC’s positive attributes, as with many facilities designed to house unknown future projects, five years of occupancy have revealed room for improvement in the original plan.

One of the most noticeable features that hasn’t lived up to expectations is the open, airy step auditorium that spans the space between the second and third floors on the window-lined south side of the building. While definitely possessing the cool factor, McClanahan notes that it is not being used according to its intended design. The rows of stadium-like concrete steps that serve as seating are ill suited for occupancy for any length of time. Even with foam cushions that are put out for events, the lack of back support makes it uncomfortable to sit through a 45-minute presentation. 

Additional drawbacks prevent the space from being utilized to its fullest potential. Light from the morning sun washes out the large display screen above the stage. It also creates heat build-up in the summertime. The university had investigated purchasing blinds to cover the windows pre-Covid, but the $70,000 price tag exceeded the available budget.

Acoustics are also a sticking point. The auditorium is open to the adjacent atrium, which often hosts talks, gatherings, even musical performances. Sound from these events disrupts activity in the auditorium. McClanahan’s workaround is one of scheduling, advising against morning presentations in the auditorium and booking both spaces as a block to ensure that separate events will not run concurrently.

“In retrospect, in an open facility like this it would have been better to have one space for presentations and gatherings and use the square footage occupied by the step auditorium for something else—more offices or dry labs, for example,” he comments.

There is another glitch associated with the span of large south-facing windows: the openwork metal panels installed on top of them. An attractive design feature that ties the building façade into the central campus and helps to reflect radiant heat, the panels sit too close to the window glass to allow cleaning.

“What’s missing is a strong plan for how to clean the windows,” says McClanahan. “They seem to require specialty equipment with a high reach that isn’t available locally. The best we have done so far is inserting power washers through the holes in the panel gridwork to rinse the windows off.” 

Cracking Concrete Floors

The concrete floors in the wet labs on the north side of the building are easy for custodians to clean, but the cracks they are developing are problematic. While the result of normal aging and not a structural threat, the cracking is becoming a safety issue in labs that work with strong chemicals or biohazards.

If a spill were to occur, a cracking floor could not be properly cleaned or disinfected, says McClanahan, who came on board just a few months before IRIC opened and after the flooring decision had been made. He theorizes that the concrete was selected over more conventional options like rubberized material or tile to make it easier to move lab benches, a need that was anticipated as projects rotated through the building.

But even with turnover, that need has arisen only infrequently, and a more durable type of epoxy seal could have prevented the cracking, he notes. The reduced risk following a biohazard spill and longer-term protection of lab personnel would have justified the higher first cost of a higher quality coating. While awaiting a more permanent solution, the facilities staff is filling the cracks with epoxy as a temporary fix.  

“Most likely, we will have to cover these concrete floors with a more traditional flooring,” he says. “But whatever the solution we come up with, it is going to be a significant expense and a significant impact on the research going on in the building.”

Loading Dock Plays Hard to Get

The loading dock, also on the north side, is equipped with a 4-foot-high deck. It is the right height for a semi-truck, but the topography and proximity of neighboring buildings do not allow enough room for a semi-truck to access the dock. The doors are too small as well.

“We ended up installing a lift to the face of the loading dock to raise arriving material to dock level, but we still have to get creative to manage some deliveries, for example, having items dropped off at the street and wheeling them into the building. Once inside, everything is fine—we have double doors, wide hallways, and a 5,000-pound freight elevator.”

Unused Spaces

An open area with 18 desks that repeats on all three floors might attract students for casual studying, but it hasn’t succeeded as a place for building occupants to do heads-down work, as originally planned. The area on the second floor is particularly underutilized due to the disruptive foot traffic from the nearby main building entrance. 

Given its lack of popularity, coupled with the high demand for more dry labs in the facility, the second-floor desk space is a prime candidate for repurposing. The facilities team plans to analyze the costs of converting the area to a much-needed dry lab or two, with some preliminary funding to work on a design.

A few other spaces in the building are un- or under-utilized. Still, while they might not be meeting research needs, they are meeting the overall needs of the university, McClanahan points out. For example, the planned relocation of an existing microscopy core to a new purpose-designed home on IRIC’s first floor did not materialize, so the space plays host to occasional workshops and seminars. A room on the second floor intended for server racks has become storage, cloud technology having eliminated the need for onsite equipment. During Covid, the covered work yard built right outside the fabrication lab was transformed into an exterior conference room for Zoom meetings. With the arrival of a new group whose work is incompatible with the sensitive equipment in the fabrication lab, the yard will return to its initial function. 

Lessons in Building Operation

Space in the IRIC is available by application, which are reviewed by the 15-member IRIC Facility Committee, including representatives from every college on campus. A collaborative interdisciplinary dimension is mandatory for acceptance.

“If it fits the mission and space is available, most likely the applicants will get space in the building,” explains McClanahan. “A single researcher, even if well-funded, will not.”

Early on, applications for dry labs outstripped capacity. Once the building became operational, space started to become competitive, and the committee recognized the need to establish equitable guidelines to manage project selection and retention.

A waiting list for approved projects was one of the first procedures to be implemented. Then, to addresses potential issues of favoritism, the committee adopted a framework for scoring projects according to fixed criteria.

Project lengths and end dates had to be clarified. Reviews after year one and year three of occupancy determine how fully a group is using its space. An increase or decrease in allocated square footage is possible if warranted. 

McClanahan reports that some extra effort was required to explain the imposition of project-specific end dates, a practice that runs counter to the traditional academic culture of space “ownership.” Groups that want to extend their occupancy term must reapply and will be evaluated according to the same criteria as other contenders, perhaps even more stringently.

“In fact, projects that are already in the building are probably more highly scrutinized,” he says. “We ask questions like, ‘Were they collegial? Did they follow safety protocols? Were they involved in committees?’”

Currently about 90 percent occupied, the IRIC today hosts 40 projects, ranging in size from approximately 100 sf to over 3,000 sf. It has generated seven patents or applications and supported 410 student research projects at the undergraduate, master’s, or Ph.D. level.

“We really focus on getting students involved in research. Reaching that number in our first five years is really cool,” he concludes.

By Nicole Zaro Stahl

Published 10-30-2022