The Best Laid Plans

For modern medical research facilities, it is an absolute must to keep up with the times. Without the best environmental controls, a facility runs the risk of sacrificing the validity of its research. Without an energy- and cost-efficient operation, it may lose out on valuable federal funding that is contingent on keeping costs down.


For modern medical research facilities, it is an absolute must to keep up with the times. Without the best environmental controls, a facility runs the risk of sacrificing the validity of its research. Without an energy- and cost-efficient operation, it may lose out on valuable federal funding that is contingent on keeping costs down. Without a cutting-edge building that gives research staff the best tools available, it becomes harder and harder to attract and retain the brightest scientists in the field. And without all of the above, a medical center will struggle to meet its intrinsic goal: To find solutions to the health-care problems of today-and tomorrow.

For the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, these issues were coming to a head. Its Center for Comparative Medicine-a facility involved in research efforts in the fields of infectious disease, genetic disease, immunology, atherosclerosis, experimental oncology and toxicology-was growing in age and had seen some of its offices become spread out among multiple buildings. Without an upgrade, it was evident to the college that the center would struggle to stay competitive.

The college decided that a new facility was needed, one that centralized all of their research operations and offered a well-engineered facility with more options for the future. With one of the primary responsibilities of the center being to house transgenic mice needed for experiments, an emphasis was placed on making a secure, redundantly-supplied and well-controlled home for the mice.

After defining their goals and beginning the structural design of their new facility, the college-at the suggestion of the architects on the project-looked to Affiliated Engineers, Inc. (AEI), Madison, Wis., to develop the complex indoor environment.

According to Christina Durovich, the project's manager for the Baylor College of Medicine, AEI worked to meet the strict needs of the college and came out with a successfully integrated project that has given the college a stronger presence in its field.

"They [AEI] thought through options and were able to explain differences in those options with regard to first-time capital costs, overall maintenance costs and life-cycle analysis. They are among the highest tier of engineers I've ever worked with," says Durovich.

For AEI's work on this modern medical facility, they have earned an Integrator Award in the institutional category.

The new Center for Comparative Medicine occupies over 80,000 square feet of space-on one below-grade floor-and contains 57 transgenic animal rooms in 12 suites, all requiring tight environmental control for its inhabitants.

High-rise research buildings surround this new facility, a part of the famous Texas Medical Center in Houston. In fact, the project was created underneath the only substantial green space left on the campus. After the building was constructed underground, the courtyard above it was relandscaped with mature trees and new entrances to the surrounding facilities.

Protecting their investment

For the college and the veterinarians, protecting their investment in research means making sure that the mice live in a clean, controlled environment.

In fact, one of the requirements from the beginning of the project, fairly standard in research facilities, was that each animal room could not vary from its specified temperature by more than 2°F in either direction. Another requirement included the need to recirculate the air in the room at a minimum of 10-15 air changes an hour, as stipulated in National Institutes of Health (NIH) guidelines.

In following these requirements, the engineers created a centralized heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) system that allows for strict control of each individual room.

In designing the system, the engineers' first concern was air intake and outtake. "We had to make sure that the air being drawn into the vivarium was clean and unpolluted," explains Jerry Markham, P.E., project manager with AEI. "Also, with an underground facility, we had to be certain that the exhaust air was not taken back into our facility-or interfere with the surrounding facilities."

After a series of computer simulations, the engineers decided that the air should be expelled through exhaust stacks that went above the line of surrounding buildings. The air intake-despite initial concerns about damaging agents coming from a nearby roadway-is located at ground level near the entrance of the courtyard.

From past designs, the engineers found that mechanical failure, such as the temporary loss of one of the air-handling units, will often decrease HVAC system efficiency. As a result, the engineers provided the system with redundancy by designing each animal room to perform 20 air changes per hour. This assures that even in the event of a mechanical failure, the room will meet NIH standards.

Another requirement, as requested by the researchers, was that each room have the capability to switch from positive to negative airflow and vice versa.

"Positive airflow is a necessity for the mice that need to be kept from any outside-air influences," says Steven Frei, P.E., principal in charge of the project for AEI. "On the other hand, if the mice become sick, a negative airflow ensures that the germs will not spread to the rest of the facility."

In addition to tight control of the HVAC system, the design fully integrated the building-automation functions to include control over lighting levels and an important reporting/recording function. This automatic tracking was specifically requested by the owners as a way of monitoring their research subjects-even when the researchers would not be present. The function also serves as an easy way of recording vital project information needed to validate and present results.

Other areas that required special design considerations included systems for chilled water, steam, electrical redundancy, access control and fire/life safety.

The chilled-water and steam systems were critical to the success of this project, because as the backbone of the HVAC system, a malfunction of these systems could result in loss of research. As a result, in addition to the college's standard chilled-water service, a local energy source was brought in as a backup provider of chilled water.

The electrical system, which was designed by the A/E firm PageSoutherlandPage Architects, Houston, offers redundancy for the life-support systems in the vivarium. An emergency generator is in place that serves all loads-heating, cooling, ventilation and lighting. Another utility service also serves as a backup power supplier. All of this redundancy offers a vast improvement over the former site in terms of protecting the research from possible electrical transmission issues.

Security and access control are major issues at the Center, especially for the research staff and their interests in the integrity of their work. AEI incorporated a card-reader system into the facility-integrated with the college's existing system in the surrounding buildings-that ensures only authorized personnel will be able to gain access to the research rooms. The system also limits staff to only the specific rooms where they are conducting research.

Additionally, the engineers took special care to provide two emergency exits and a sprinkler system for fire- and life-safety concerns.

Robotically challenged

All of these systems offer support not only to the research and medical rooms, but also to a robotic cage-wash room that has the ability to process 4,500 cages a day.

Following a full-scale cost analysis, it was determined that despite a higher initial cost, an automated system would cut overall costs over the long run by eliminating up to six full-time service employees. This is not only because of the wages adding up over time, but research also found that current employees washing cages in the medical center run into various health problems, such as back pain and allergies, that end up costing money to the college. The automation system is expected to pay for itself in a little over four years.

The robotics were engineered specifically for this application, having never before been used in this type of system. As a result, the support needs of the system-which include hot-water, chilled-water and electrical service-were being worked out literally on the job, even during the design and implementation of the building. It posed a challenge because as the needs changed, the design did as well.

"We had to remain very flexible," says Markham.

Another necessity in the cage-wash area was a method of disposing of the bedding and additional waste materials from each individual cage. The chosen solution was a vacuum propelled bedding-transfer system that was integrated with the ventilation system. All of the waste is removed pneumatically and transferred automatically to sealed dumpsters outside of the facility.

At all points, the engineers were looking for places to help the Baylor College of Medicine cut costs and energy usage. Because the NIH bases the government funding of research facilities on cost efficiency, the facility needs to be very aware of its spending. The cost analysis and the resulting engineered solution provided by AEI went a long way in accomplishing this for the college.

"They excelled in partnering with vendors who developed new products, particularly the robotic cage-wash and dispensing systems," says Durovich.

Integrating systems-and the process

Integration on this project was key, even extending to the working relationships among the engineers, architects and contractors. One of the most challenging factors in this project was designing the distribution system for the centralized utilities in an underground facility. This is because the interstitial zone between the ceiling of the facility and the courtyard above has a floor-to-floor height of 17-1/2 feet-as opposed to the typical 21 feet. Into this space, ducts, pipes, wiring, structure and maintenance work zones were woven together while still leaving enough room for future expansion.

During the design phase, deciding how these systems needed to coexist-and give the required high level of service-became a major issue. After a computer modeling of the interstitial zone was completed, the engineers also had a full-scale model built to ensure the utilities in the area not only fit together, but also were going to be serviceable for maintenance purposes. These issues were intensified when the process went into the installation phase.

"I spent a lot of time in Houston on this project, working with the architects and contractors, making sure we all worked as an integrated team," says Markham.

An improved environment

In moving from its old facilities, the Center for Comparative Medicine has accomplished its primary goals of protecting valuable research, remaining cost-efficient in its processes and creating a modern facility that will not only attract the best researchers, but give them the best opportunity for finding important health-care solutions.

In addition, the Center has improved a number of systems and services.

"Their new facility is now better suited, both to the animals and the researchers," says Markham. "This building provides them with new features, such as multiple sources of energy, greater reliability, easier maintenance and flexibility for the future."

With the facility currently functional and quickly filling up with inhabitants, Durovich is more than satisfied with the end result.

"Simply put, they [AEI] developed practical solutions for technically complicated spaces."

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