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Creating Flexible Vivarium Space for Multidisciplinary Research

Penn State’s Animal, Veterinary, and Biomedical Sciences Building Was Built with an Eye Toward the Future
Published 7/3/2024
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The Pennsylvania State University’s four-story Animal, Veterinary, and Biomedical Sciences (AVBS) Building replaced a 1960s building with updated space for research, offices, and instruction. Situated on Penn State’s University Park campus, the $98.5 million, 105,000-sf facility brings two College of Agricultural Sciences departments under one roof for easier interaction among Animal Science and Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences researchers who conduct studies on nutrition, reproduction, and infectious diseases. The building has achieved LEED Silver status. 

In 2014, as part of capital project planning, Penn State facilities project manager D. Jeffrey Spackman led a stakeholder tour with the university’s president, senior administrators, and board of trustee members, pointing out the older agricultural sciences building and its need for significant updating. Initially, project leaders considered renovating the old building to provide better research and vivarium space, but soon realized that didn’t address current or future program needs. Over the span of four years, the university hired HOK to develop an animal master plan for the entire University Park campus, conducted feasibility studies comparing renovation with new construction on this building, and gained university approval to move forward with new construction. The building opened in December 2021.

“In 2019 we got our schematic designs approved not knowing COVID was coming, but we were able to get an early start on abatement,” says Spackman. “We began demolition in July, got full board approval in September, and started construction in October. Then, of course, we hit the 2020 shutdown in the spring of the next year.”

Although the project faced some challenges—most notably hazardous material abatement and requirements to protect heritage trees on the building site—timing for construction was fortuitous, says Spackman.

“When COVID hit, we had a lot of the expensive and long-lead items already ordered or on site,” he says. “We experienced a slight delay, but were able to make that up without any issues and finish on time.”

A loading dock at the old facility served two adjacent buildings, which meant those occupants had to make other arrangements during construction. One of those adjacent buildings, built in the mid-1980s when floor-to-floor heights tended to be less than what is typically provided today, required direct connection. The design factored in these discrepancies, with goals to create acceptable floor transitions and vehicular grading to the new loading dock, facilitating movement of people, materials, and vehicles.

Additionally, another building on campus had undergone a recent major renovation with an eye toward providing swing space for displaced researchers and animals, so there was little academic downtime during the construction.

“It took us about a week to move the entire animal facility to the swing space, and then we wanted the animals to sit and reacclimate for a week,” says Jennifer Dilles Kuhns, facilities manager for the Penn State animal research program. “So there was only a two-week delay for anything, and no research had to get put on hold.”

Team Approach to Design

Spackman took a team approach to design alongside Kuhns and the building’s lead planner, Tom Mistretta AIA, a senior lab planner at HOK in Philadelphia. Project design and delivery depended upon collaboration throughout, with five key performance measures identified: safety, cost and schedule, quality, environment, and engagement. Creating a good working environment throughout the building was key, with an eye toward open lab spaces that made it easier for teams to work together, such as conference rooms, informal gathering areas, and desk space directly outside the labs.

The feasibility study on whether to renovate the previous building or construct a new one showed that 71% of Animal Science and Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences faculty use animals in their research, so a central component of the new facility is its modern and customizable vivarium on the ground level. Because principal investigators use multiple animal species, Kuhns often has to accommodate various types of animals, sometimes with little lead time. Incorporating a modular system makes it easy to configure cages and alter layouts as necessary. 

“Being invited to participate early in the process as the vivarium manager was amazing, and truly this is our best building on campus,” says Kuhns. “All of our caretakers ask when they can get stationed there. That’s because Tom thought it out so well, listened, and remained open-minded, thinking about how we do research on this campus to make it work for us.”

The team applied lessons learned from previous vivarium projects to devise a list of design criteria:

  • Ensuring a standard ceiling height of 9 feet
  • Keeping the vivarium on the same level as the loading dock
  • Maintaining equipment consistency across vivaria
  • Building anterooms for ABSL-2 suites
  • Including doors with tinted window film
  • Ensuring HVAC dehumidification and humidification capabilities
  • Providing dedicated electric receptacles for ventilated racks located above the cage racks
  • Spacing personal protective equipment nooks throughout corridors
  • Equipping the space with:
    • Visual air flow indicator
    • Procedure lights
    • Light timers, red lights, and high- and low-light level indicators
    • Floor material that is easy to sanitize
    • Adequate procedure room equipment
    • Biological safety cabinets
    • Downdraft tables

A total of 13 animal facilities are dispersed around the University Park campus, including a centralized cage wash. The AVBS Building also has an on-site cage wash both for redundancy and to support cleaning of larger cages or those more difficult to move, though small cages still get transported to the central wash area.

Modern and Future-Looking Space

The designers’ choice of materials that are both functional and attractive make the building a harmonious part of a campus known for its blend of traditional and modern architecture. Glass-enclosed corridors on three floors lead to the adjacent Agricultural Sciences and Industries Building, and the new building’s exterior features stone, brick, glass and metal panels, and a partial green roof above the first floor. All of the heritage trees on site were saved, including Lucky, a Japanese red pine at the lot’s edge.

“We take a lot of pride in the landscape of the university. It helps with recruitment of students when you have a beautiful campus,” says Spackman. “This Japanese red pine was probably the most mature one that existed in the state of Pennsylvania. We left the existing foundation in place and built on the inside of that, so that we didn’t even disturb her roots. The little grove on the south side, as well, is a nice buffer and provides a beautiful outdoor setting for people to gather.”

An open lobby offers work and gathering space with lots of natural light let in by floor-to-ceiling glass. The building also features a 48-seat seminar room and, on the first floor, a 100-seat classroom named for alumnus and adjunct professor Fred Metzger Jr., DVM, and his wife, Megan, whose major gift made the building possible. Upper floors house administrative offices, modular desks for graduate students, and amenities such as break rooms and kitchens.

A major goal of this project was to make the building an efficient working space for researchers long into the future. The older facility was built in another era, with a different approach to science buildings, says Spackman.

“I think a lot of the problems with the old building were with the exterior wall construction, mechanical systems, and ability to hold temperature,” says Spackman. “Newer buildings obviously are going to do a better job with that. This building also tries to reflect on current thinking about flexibility, collaboration, teamwork, and expansion and contraction of programs, as well as where we think we’re going forward in terms of the vivarium.”

By Amy Souza