Strategic placement of labs reduces cost of building facilities


By Candace Stuart

Phil Haswell faced a formidable challenge. As the director of facilities for the engineering faculty at the University of Alberta, he was charged with finding the ideal location for the National Institute for Nanotechnology facility on the university’s Edmonton campus. Planners insisted that the six-story, $56 million center serve as a physical bridge for the diverse disciplines needed to create novel nanomaterials, nanodevices and nanosystems. That meant proximity to buildings used by chemists, physicists, biologists, life scientists, engineers and medical researchers.

At the same time, the facility’s environment needed to meet the high standards required to perform nanotechnology research and development. Labs had to be free of pesky electromagnetic forces and vibrations that permeate standard buildings. That was no easy task, considering that everyday factors like transmission lines, rumbling traffic and even jiggling elevators can cause perturbations that affect the sensitive microscopy tools used in nanoscience and nanotechnology.

“We needed to have as much (interdisciplinary) interaction as possible,” Haswell said. “Our success will be influenced by that interaction. But if the perfect site with no EMI (electromagnetic interference) or vibrations was out on a farm, that wouldn’t do.”

Haswell knew that diverting large amounts of his limited building budget toward EMI shielding and reinforced flooring and foundations wouldn’t do, either. Instead, he compromised.

“We did a site survey,” he said. “Where we found low EMI and vibration were coincident, that’s what we chose.”

The designers, builders and overseers of the nanotechnology research centers being erected on campuses worldwide agree that money alone won’t guarantee a quality facility. Many environmental problems that are inherent in a campus location can be minimized if not totally avoided with strategic placement of buildings and labs. That, in turn, requires foresight and careful analysis.

It took about two years for builders to complete the National Institute for Nanotechnology. The facility on the University of Alberta’s campus is now ready for occupancy. Photo courtesy of University of Alberta
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“The projects that I feel have not been successful have not been well studied ahead of time,” said Ahmad Soueid, senior vice president of HDR Architecture Inc. HDR has overseen the construction of numerous high-profile nanotech centers, including the Advanced Measurement Laboratory for the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Birck Nanotechnology Center at Purdue University.

“This is not the standard lab of the past,” Soueid added. “No one can really provide a 100 percent solution. They’re balancing requirements and deciding which is most important.”

Thanks to its ability to find the sweet spot - or more accurately, the semi-sweet spot - the National Institute for Nanotechnology is positioned to become a leader in nanotech research. Construction finished in 2005 and installation of equipment began this spring. About 120 researchers and staff from Canada’s National Research Council, which partnered with the university to create the center, are expected to claim offices and labs in May and June. Another 275 graduate students and post-doctoral researchers plus 45 workers from industry and other universities are expected to move in as well.

Many universities are racing to build high-quality research centers to support nanotech innovation. Like the University of Alberta, they want to be at the forefront of nanotech research, and know that a facility that can accommodate state-of-the art equipment will entice top-notch faculty. State and national governments support the construction and recruitment efforts in hopes that university-based discoveries will lead to new companies, high-paying jobs and a stronger economy.

“You have to have the facilities to attract the faculty, and you have to have the faculty to attract the students,” said Luis Carrazana, associate director of capital and physical planning at the University of California at Riverside. UC-Riverside is poised to begin construction on a $65 million materials sciences and engineering building that will include research facilities, imaging laboratories and a cleanroom. “Part of our role is to be an economic engine for the region.”

Carrazana faces an even greater challenge than his colleagues in Canada. Riverside’s poor soil quality coupled with rising costs for material and labor are eating away at his resources, even before the first shovel has been lifted. The building will require concrete piles that he estimates will make the foundation four times more expensive than is the standard.

Marginal environments can be made into suitable nano centers if the need justifies the costs, EMI and vibration experts say. Planners should conduct a thorough analysis of indoor and outdoor environmental factors to identify the regions within the building that will require the least amount of tweaking to become low vibration and low EMI sites.

Shielding protects a scanning electron microscope developed at the National Institute of Standards and Technology from acoustic vibration. The instrument is housed in the metrology wing of NIST’s Advanced Measurement Laboratory. Photo courtesy of HDR Architecture Inc./Steve Hall © Hedrich Blessing
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Hal Amick, vice president of technology with the acoustic and vibration consultants Colin Gordon & Associates, said even a campus bordered by what he considers the nemesis for a nano lab - railroads - succeeded in building a center. The University of Louisville offers a research facility despite having railroad tracks abut three sides of its campus. “We found the sweet spot that was farthest from the rail,” he said. “It’s a really stiff building.”

Amick, who also was a consultant on the Alberta, NIST and Purdue projects, said that on campuses heavily trafficked roads cause one of the greatest outdoor problems. Indoor troublemakers include elevators, doors and hallways. The solution may be to place the most sensitive labs away from those traffic ways. But some labs, such as a high-quality metrology lab at the Birck center, are so sensitive that they need to be built on special foundations and use thick concrete slabs on bearings to ensure little to no vibrations.

“Are they developing new technology or are they using existing technology?” Amick said. “The demarcation is the science they’re doing.” If a center is pushing the envelope and making new tools, for instance, then it may prefer to spend a lot on vibration-isolation technologies to ensure that subtle environmental factors don’t taint results.

Like vibrations, EMI issues can occur from external and internal factors, said Lou Vitale, president and chief engineer at VitaTech Engineering LLC. Common sources include transmission lines and electrical wiring, as well as moving vehicles and elevators that perturb the geomagnetic field. Even a chair scraping the floor or a neighbor’s computer may cause problems. Many of these factors can be identified and controlled, he said.

“If you do it right, you may not need shielding,” Vitale said. Of his “30 or 40 little secrets” he listed twisting wires, relocating switch gears, conduits, and electrical panels and spacing equipment. “The best solution is the separation of sources.”

Sometimes it is as simple as working at times when EMI and vibration sources are idle. At some facilities, researchers know to conduct sensitive experiments in the evening or nighttime hours.

The ultimate goal is to avoid retrofitting a facility after it is up and running. Haswell said the National Institute for Nanotechnology dodged a bullet when planners realized that researchers would be demanding access to powerful computers. Builders needed to compensate for the heat the computers would produce by doubling the cooling capacity in certain areas.

“Fortunately we could squeeze it in,” Haswell said. “It was an expensive change but we had to do it.”