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Designing a Lab for the Unknown

Flexible lab design plans accommodate current needs, future possibilities

Jeffrey Zynda

Jeffrey Zynda is principal, Northeast regional practice leader, science and technology at Perkins&Will.

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Adana Johns

Adana Johns is associate principal, practice leader, science and technology, at Perkins&Will.

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Perkins&Will; Julian Roman and Thang Nguyen

What type of research environment is needed to support the development of technologies that will not exist for another decade? This was the exact challenge faced by the project team that designed the Integrated Engineering Research Center (IERC) at Fermi National Accelerator Lab in Batavia, Illinois. 

In the world of particle physics, advanced devices, hardware, software, and technology development for multi-national projects such as the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE), laboratory planners and designers don’t have the luxury of asking researchers, “What do you need?” Often, there are not definitive answers. Researchers may only be able to share a concept for an experiment that will be funded and designed years down the road—perhaps as many as 20 years in the future. 

Physics and engineering laboratories like IERC often have unique needs, highly specific to equipment requirements and functional capabilities. With these kinds of ever-evolving constraints, the design of successful next-generation facilities demands a change in perspective and approach, starting with a robust and adaptable framework that can be augmented to meet the specific needs of today and the speculative needs of the future. 

In contrast to life sciences laboratories—where the range of activities and needs can be reasonably predicted, and the type of flexibility can be anticipated—project-based physics and engineering laboratory environments must speculate based on the trajectory of the science. To deliver a facility that will meet the needs of today’s known programs and provide future flexibility, one must first dive into the drivers of science and engineering. 

A modular approach

At IERC, this process was based on programming around the “scientific use-cases” of project types that were planned on a 20-year horizon. The IERC is the first building at Fermilab that intentionally brings together multiple departments and capabilities to foster a cross-departmental and cross-divisional collaboration platform. From this perspective, a broad look at current needs and future potential created a strong set of guiding principles for the design of this unique facility. 

Rather than embracing the idea of flexibility—attempting to anticipate every future need and incorporating features that meet these speculative needs—the IERC takes a markedly different approach in providing an adaptable framework that removes obstacles to future augmentation as new research and development needs emerge. 

The Liquid-Argon Cube Laboratory will test detectors that are destined for the “far-site” in Sanford, North Dakota as part of the Long-Baseline Neutrino Facility.
Perkins&Will; Julian Roman and Thang Nguyen

During the course of reviewing more than 400 use-cases and determining the types of spatial support that projects might need—such as clean-class requirements, assembly capabilities, fabrication, equipment, and services—the design team began to analyze the data to identify commonalities and distinct differences in capabilities. Based on the spectrum of use-case potential needs, the team developed a modular approach to space allocation and building systems. The outcome was a program that included clean-class fabrication space or project labs, core instrumentation and tool laboratories, and function-specific electronic fabrication laboratories, as well as adaptable dry-bench lab space for small electronic design and fabrication.  

The project labs were conceptualized as large workshops for the development and testing of novel technologies in support of Fermilab’s initiatives. Individual project labs are anchored by a central support “spine” that delivers critical service needs such as power, laboratory gas (nitrogen, CO2, compressed air), fiber-optic data, and exhaust capabilities for specialty needs. Flanking either side of the support spine, individual project labs were designed with three generations of project support taken into account. Each project lab was designed to be ISO clean-class capable. Rather than installing expensive building infrastructure that may never be used, space was set aside to add air-handling units, ductwork, and HEPA or ULPA filtration units. This ability to construct for the known needs of today and in the immediate future controls cost while providing the means to adapt the facility to future requirements.

The ground level of the IERC has been designed to facilitate fabrication for large-scale project needs, expressed in a series of project laboratories. Overhead cranes were provided to utilize these spaces for the fabrication, assembly, and movement of large-scale detectors and vessels, such as dilution refrigerators. Each project laboratory is designed with utility service panels in the perimeter walls providing power, data, compressed air, nitrogen, and system-process chilled water on an 11-ft. module. Service distribution trenches are provided in each laboratory to enhance delivery to equipment, instrumentation, and workbenches, all while eliminating tripping hazards and allowing the end-users to readily access services on an as-needed basis. 

First signs of success

While the true test of this level of adaptable design and planning will come when the IERC opens in 2022, its approach to adaptability has already been tested during the design process. After the preliminary design phase of the project, the project team learned of significant programmatic changes to accommodate new DUNE-related initiatives and emerging technology developments—which required little to no re-design of the building. Some simple re-configuration of utility requirements and specific instrumentation accommodation met the new program needs, underscoring the value of this adaptable approach and its potential to support generations of unknown research needs. 

The project team developed a toolset of “core capabilities” to support the development of future projects and eliminate needless duplication of resources. Programmatically, this was aptly named Shared Core Lab and provides the ability to support common needs across the spectrum of project labs, such as coordinate measuring machines, wafer fabrication tools, and similar commonly shared equipment assets. To support the widest range of known requirements today, these tools are housed in an ISO 7 clean-class environment that is future upgradable to ISO 5. 

Today’s researchers, including those at Fermilab, are working to deepen humankind’s understanding of the universe so that scientific discovery can advance our global society. Buildings like IERC have the potential to set an example for how architecture—and specifically, the thoughtful design of physical spaces for scientific inquiry—might support and advance these altruistic goals.