50 Years of Design: Transformation and Adaptive Reuse of Urban Spaces for LifeSci Research
By Christopher Zelisko, AIA
Jack L. Gordon Architects
The scarcity and cost of available space for new construction in and around NYC exceeds that of perhaps any other major US city, a reality that poses a challenge to the future growth of the nascent Life Science industry here. While the biggest players will score the financing and locations to build large, dedicated research facilities, the opportunity for the majority of startups and growing mid-level players lies in NYC’s existing building stock, including aged and outdated office, factory and industrial buildings.
Having focused our firm’s expertise squarely on NYC and its environs for the past 50 years, Jack L. Gordon Architects (JLGA) has designed new life into many derelict and outdated buildings and spaces for a variety of uses, from retail to academic to research facilities.
Over the past decade, in particular, JLGA’s design teams have conquered the challenges and leveraged the opportunities involved in designing for the adaptive reuse of existing urban spaces for specialized and technically complex research laboratories—and we’ve learned a great deal along the way.
Adaptive Reuse for Research Involving Advanced Technology and Equipment
While the goal for many research facilities is to have flexible, convertible space, the reality is that facilities housing highly advanced technology and equipment present needs and demands that allow for little flexibility. Instead, research labs with advanced equipment often require a fixed infrastructure designed specifically for the equipment, as well as a fixed, central location that allows multiple researchers or teams equal access to the technology.
When we design research laboratories that host such advanced technology as a Cyclotron or Cryogenic-Electron Microscopes, we need to develop a floor plan that provides a central or highly accessible location for the shared equipment. The final design needs to address the structural and systems challenges unique to Life Sci research.
As an example of an adaptive reuse project we completed in NYC, JLGA designed a Radiochemistry Laboratory and Cyclotron in vacant space in a 19th century brewery building in Manhattan. The location was optimal for this facility, but the drab, poor layout and outdated existing space had been designed for corporate offices and was completely unsuitable for Life Sci research. On the opportunity side, the former brewery was a load-bearing masonry building, which meant the design did not need significant reinforcement to the vertical loads or existing foundation.
Even so, our design team needed to resolve a variety of adaptive reuse challenges presented by this unique old structure: split levels between different parts of the building that made the existing space highly inefficient and incohesive, deficient infrastructure systems for Life Sci research, existing tenants not involved in research, and locating and creating a central space to host the Cyclotron itself.
The Cyclotron, massive pieces of equipment used for the production of radiopharmaceuticals, required us to design a 16-inch thick concrete vault and foundation to reinforce support its weight and serve as radiation shielding. The vault also provided support for heavy hot cells located on the floor just above.
Integrating new infrastructure systems, including new electric service, exhaust, ventilation, HVAC unit, and chillers, to meet the needs of Life Sci research is almost always a hurdle, and this project was no exception. In order to get the systems up to the roof, we had to strategically relocate existing spaces in the building where construction would have the least impact on existing tenants and operations. Integrating new infrastructure systems into existing, older structures to meet the needs of Life Sci research, is almost always a hurdle.
For this project, we needled the systems through a vertical labyrinth of rearranged occupied spaces, including offices, pantries, storage and other back-end spaces to get to the roof—all in coordination with existing tenants.
Other adaptive reuse projects posed similar challenges: an imaging facility we recently designed demanded creative problem solving around existing low ceiling heights, heavy ductwork, and significant limitations to bringing systems up to the roof. To support the weight of the MRI equipment, introducing new structural steel into the design proved critical.
Transformation of Undesirable Spaces into Desirable 24/7 Workplaces
While older buildings like the brewery offer charm, character and a sense of place as adaptive reuse locations, the options for smaller research entities or new research teams will often be the least attractive and undesirable spaces in existing buildings—those that are below grade.
That’s when we turn our focus to leveraging our designs to transform environments from dark and constrained to bright, open and welcoming. Places where people want to stay and work.
Recently, we transformed a 30,000 SF cellar animal holding facility into laboratories, a flexible lecture space, and specialized support spaces and research equipment—including two Cryogenic Electron Microscopes.
The challenges were significant. The space had been flooded during Superstorm Sandy, special permitting was required to design for new uses in the below-grade space, no access to natural light existed, and structural elements physically impeded our goal of creating multiple spacious, open areas.
We set out to elevate the quality of the space and environment to match the design quality of the building’s above-ground spaces, starting with the creation of an entrance lobby that would create a sense of “arrival” at a special place—rather what would be expected from arriving at a below grade space. We relocated an egress stair in order to maximize the size of the main areas.
The challenges were significant: The space had flooded during Superstorm Sandy, special permitting was required to design in the below-grade space, no access to natural light existed, and structural elements impeded our goal of creating multiple spacious, open areas.
To transform this environment from dark and constrained to bright, open and welcoming—a place where people want to stay and work, the design team selected lighting to add an extra degree of brightness to adjust for the lack of natural light. We extended ceiling heights to open up the space, and elevated the quality of the space through refined finishes, colors, and materials.
JLGA installed two Cryogenic Electron Microscopes Analytical Labs for this project—with each microscope requiring a dedicated room that addressed the equipment’s sensitivity to light and vibration, along with associated lab space. A vibration analysis of the existing cellar space provided us with direction to design and construct two new concrete pits to accommodate vibration platforms to minimize vibrations for the microscopes. The design for the Cryogenic Electron Microscope rooms feature aluminum shielding on the walls, floors and ceilings to provide the ideal environment for testing and wall-mounted radiant panels and airlocks at the doors to keep the temperature constant and controlled.
Ultimately, the design of research labs and facilities in a new, ground-up building in NYC entails very different processes and considerations than for the design for the adaptive reuse of existing, and often quite old, buildings for Life Sci research. Each building and adaptive reuse project presents its own design challenges and opportunities, as do the technical demands for each type of research. But the right design team can properly evaluate and successfully transform existing spaces into top-notch facilities that meet researchers’ needs, optimize budgets, and offer high quality design environments.