Friday, June 20, 2008

New physics building - suggestions? ideas? horror stories?

My university is in the design phase on a new physics building. This is exciting - first, it's a rare opportunity to design new lab space literally from the ground up. Second, new space will make possible some targeted expansion in the experimental directions in our department as well as in the experimental physicsy part of our electrical and computer engineering department.

Anyone out there have suggestions on building design, particularly with regards to laboratory facilities, utilities, HVAC, electrical service, vibrations, etc.? We're already looking at several recently constructed buildings elsewhere to learn lessons about best practices. If you have thoughts on physics buildings that you think are particularly well done (e.g., the electrical wiring system for the labs at the new nano building at Purdue looks extremely clever and well done), or, conversely, specific examples of design ideas that are lousy in practice or implementation, please post in the comments or email me.

16 comments:

CarlBrannen said...

Make sure the ceilings are high enough that you can put a clean room in without having to cut pieces out of it like I had to when I installed a clean room at U. Ark.'s electrical engineering department for Omar. You want interior lab room that is spatious in the vertical direction. Benches should be mobile, I think, though others may disagree.

And that reminds me, hauling 25' steel beams through that building was a nightmare. (Though I did build up some muscles.) Take the floor plans and imagine carrying very long equipment through them. Of course every room needs double doors.

A very practical thing that no one has is a way of bringing stuff in through the windows. That would be a strong point on the roof from which to hang the rigging, and modular windows so that you can remove a wall at a time. And of course you want the ability to drive at least a flatbed truck around the facility.

It is almost inevitable that someone is going to need space that is absolutely as vibration free as possible. I knew one grad student whose torsion bar experiment could detect the weight of a human walking in the hall outside the lab. I guess there's nothing you can do for that, except distance or a gravity shield.

All said, the uglier the better.

thm said...

I know you're primarily interested in design that facilitates your department's experimental program, but one thing that shouldn't be overlooked is the way the building influences human interactions--which in turn could profoundly effect the overall mood of the department, and the grad students in particular, which in turn could be decisive in recruiting students to what I understand is an under-rated department.

When I was in grad school, the math department--and of course I know that math culture and experimental physics culture are very different--moved buildings. They had been in an old building with a sort of rabbit warren of offices and hallways: sometimes going between two third-floor offices required a trip to the second floor. However chaotic it seemed, the department did have a well-developed sense of collegiality. In the new building, offices were arranged more "logically." The lounge was on the top floor near the faculty offices, and instead of being a focal point of the department, became virtually vacant. The sense of collegiality declined.

The point is, human behavior is very much influenced by the details of the built form, often in counter-intuitive ways. Whether you want to encourage interaction, or whether you want to encourage grad students to stay in the labs, the layout will need to reflect empirical behavioral reality, and not just look flashy on paper. Just because an architect draws people sitting or standing in some place in some artist's conception doesn't mean that real people will use the space in the ways that the architect wants you to believe they will.

A good starting point for the way that humans respond to the built environment is Christopher Alexander, et al.'s A Pattern Language.

Doug Natelson said...

carlbrannen - thanks for your thoughts.

thm - we've already had lots of discussions about this: the need for good meeting space, good social interaction environments, etc. The tricky bit is to avoid certain trends in building design. The architects floated the idea of an "open office" architecture for many grad students, for example, that sounded to most of us like some Dilbertesque cubicle warren nightmare. That may encourage some social interactions and be trendy, but I really think that grad students need some sense of personal space as well as the ability to have semiprivate conversations....

Anonymous said...

Doug, speaking from experience: I hugely preferred being one of four persons in a grad-student office to the half-privacy of a cubicle.

CarlBrannen said...

Yes, grad students need a door with a lock, even if its shared.

Aaron said...

I am guessing the building will be on a reinforced concrete slab. If so, the choice of metal reinforcement is important. Mike Lilly had to have the slab under his lab at CINT reinforced with a strong plastic (maybe fiberglass) instead of the steel or iron used elsewhere due to magnetic field concerns.

Also, pay attention to small things like how many electrical outlets are located on each wall of the lab (and how many are single phase, 3 phase, etc.) At CINT, we found labs that had no electrical outlets on two of the four walls (one room eventually decided upon to be an SEM room had NO OUTLETS), meaning electricians were needed to come out and add these. You cannot have too many electrical outlets (well maybe you can). When it comes to a science building, it is function before form! Or as carlbrannen once said, "the uglier the better."

One other story. To try and make the CINT building more energy efficient, the labs' lighting was tied to a light sensor to turn lights off when enough ambient light was present. Unfortunately, the light sensors were placed right under one of the lighting fixtures. Every time the lights turned on, the light sensor would turn them right back off. This "feature" was eventually removed.

Anonymous said...

What ever Rice does, please please don't hire prima dona architects like Frank Ghery. Otherwise, you will end up with monstosities like the Stata Center, which chewed up $300 million, a lot of land for a building with no privacy and tons of leaks. Likewise, please don't design a building like Stanford's Clark Center which is both wasteful in terms of space and has absolutely no privacy for grad students.

As for the Harvard LISE building, I feel that the building could have been a lot cheaper if it were practical. Basically the cleanroom is under a grassy field and there is a tiny building attached to the side. It would have been a lot more practical to build a single 3-4 story building.

Anonymous said...

An isolated portion of the nano-related research building at my University was built on a seven meter deep, reinforced concrete slab. This resulted in all labs neighboring (but not built on) the slab suffering from important vibration issues. The vibrations are similar to what you would experience while standing on a bridge. Even instruments that are not usually sensitive to vibrations had to be moved out of these labs.

sujit said...

speaking of harvard physics buildings, I remember reading this funny paragraph in "hacking matter", a pop book on nanoelectronics. I don't think you will face this problem...

"The Lyman Physics building... was also the first dedicated physics lab ever constructed in the Americas, and was built entirely without iron nails. This was supposed to facilitate research into electricity and magnetism, but then it turned out that the building's brick facades drew their red color from a hefty dose of iron oxide, a ferromagnetic mineral more commonly known as rust. Oops. It's a kind of fable of American science. Still, Lyman has been the site for numerous breakthroughs in the fields of optics and acoustics."

Anonymous said...

Ask the grad students about the noise in Duncan -- the workday ends at 4:30 or so on days where there's a reception following something in McMurtry.

Also, make sure that the chalkboards or whiteboards are actually accessible. In Herman Brown, it's nearly impossible to get at them since it's 3 people to an office for space/astro/solar/etc. But at least it's a mild step up from the dungeon in the basement.

Matthew said...

Actually, speaking of whiteboards -- it wouldn't have occurred to me until seeing that last post, but I have to chime in that more whiteboards is more better. Our lab (which spans two fairly large rooms, even though one is mostly an electronics graveyard for us and surrounding groups) has precisely two, one of which is mostly covered in contact information for various lab members. There's not one in the attached office that the grad students use, although our professors two floors up get one. It's kind of a hassle to be limited in what you can draw out if you're discussing things with more than one person, and there's really no excuse for not having one in the office.

Tom said...

Oh, the horror, the horror. I've been involved in the construction of a facility, similar to what a research lab, though I think I've blogged about it only once or twice — not sure of how much detail I'm comfortable divulging.

It became clear that several subcontractors had not read the specs carefully — they kept talking about "industry standard" and that normally means office space, where you don't care about temperature control, or clean power, or a bazillion other details. Fortunately the contractor was good about holding their feet to the fire to get them to do things right, and we kept on top of things on a daily basis to make sure no-one pulled a fast one.

thm said...

I've come to believe that architects tend to assume that everyone does their work the same way that architects do. Or at the very least, I think that hip, creative design-types tend to imagine that everyone wants to work in an environment conducive to hip, creative design. I look at the office furniture sections of the yuppie housewares catalogs and all the mock-ups are about designers of some sort.

Anonymous said...

I work in a new physics building at a large Big Ten school, and I have too many horror stories to share in this forum.

Major lessons - there needs to be someone competent looking out for the department's/university's interest throughout construction, spend money on good HVAC design (unbalanced air systems are bad for optical tables), and don't put any lab space under a loading dock.

Doug Natelson said...

Last anon - you must be talking about OSU....

Anonymous said...

I may have come across this too late but I cannot overemphasize the importance of retaining qualified consultants - NOT FIRMS - that have user references for similar types of projects and write them into the contract so you are not left with the replacement team.

Chris Papadimos