Lab Design and Furnishings

Professional Profile: Alexander Clinton

Lab Manager speaks to Alexander Clinton of Perkins and Will

MaryBeth DiDonna

Alexander P. Clinton, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, CDT, is senior laboratory planner, associate principal, with Perkins and Will in Houston, TX. Lab Manager recently spoke with Alex about his career, experience, and personal interests.

Q: How did you get started in your career? Did you major in your field in college, get an internship, switch careers mid-stream, etc.? 

A: I majored in environmental design at Texas A&M University. I enjoyed it and did well, but I had my eyes set on a career related to computer graphics for video games or movies (of course!). The summer after graduating, while I applied to graduate schools, I took an internship at a small architecture firm to earn some cash in the meantime. I was drafting construction details, building sections, building elevations, etc. in AutoCAD. One of the principals from the firm took me out to the jobsite of one of the projects, a pretty large ground-up fast-track animal vivarium project. It was going up at break-neck speed; as soon as we issued a package, they were constructing it. While on-site I witnessed a group of builders putting up the roof parapets, which I had just drafted maybe a few weeks before. It was in that moment standing in the mud in The Woodlands, Texas, that I discovered the rewarding, tangible aspect of the practice of architecture which still drives me today. My career ambitions changed direction immediately. After the summer I was offered a full-time position and took it without hesitation. That little firm ended up merging with Perkins and Will in 2004, and I’m still working side-by-side with the same principal that took that clueless kid to the jobsite back in 2001.

Q: If you weren’t in this profession, what job do you think you’d be doing instead?

A: Computer programming of some sort. I have always enjoyed programming; the aspect of breaking a huge, complex problem into its smallest pieces to solve it fascinates me. Designing a large, complex research building is very similar, and that is another aspect of the practice of architecture that I thoroughly enjoy.

Q: What’s a common misconception about your job? 

A: That every architect is a designer that sits down and sketches out pretty buildings. The practice of architecture is very complex and involves so many different facets of a business—strategic planning, business operations and administration, human resources, client management, project management, marketing and business development, quality control, technical design, building planning, interior design, and then “design.” There are relatively few “designers” in larger firms that sit down and develop the broader building design concepts. Working beside them is an army of talented creative and technical architects and designers who manage the project, plan the building, figure out how to put it together, and ultimately design every little facet of the building. Everyone from the principal level to the intern is a designer and applies that sense of design to their particular role on a project. Then supporting the design team is another small army that keeps the business running smoothly and assures that the design teams have everything they need to excel.

Q: What lab projects are you working on at the moment? 

A: I’ve been working on the National Bio and Agro-defense Facility (NBAF) for the USDA and Department of Homeland Security since 2007 when we kicked off the feasibility study. It’s 500,000+ square feet, and close to a billion dollars in construction cost. I have led the design of the Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) labs and large animal ABSL-4 space while providing other general high containment design input in the other areas of the building as needed. NBAF will be the nation’s first BSL-4 lab designed to allow for in vivo study of zoonotic diseases that affect both large livestock (like cattle and horses) and humans, opening up important new research capabilities. We visited the site a few weeks ago and it’s surreal to see the spaces virtually complete 13 years later. The project is scheduled to be complete at the end of this year. These labs where scientists work with the absolute worst known diseases are so impressive; this one in particular is something that it seems like the public should be able to walk through for 1 day only before it opens and be thoroughly amazed. Unfortunately, that can’t happen, but maybe one day the USDA will invite the press in for a feature on the building and the incredibly important work they’ll be doing there.

We just finished construction of the Global Health Research Complex at Texas A&M University. It’s a +/-100,000 square foot building we’ve been working on for close to 4 years. It has BSL-2, ABSL-2, BSL-3, and BSL-3Ag space to allow for the study of agricultural and zoonotic disease affecting species from pigs to bison. It’s been fun and challenging and looks absolutely amazing. The commissioning is wrapping up now and we’re helping the Owner learn their building.

We just completed design bridging documents for the new Iowa State Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, about the halfway point of the design before it is turned over to a design-build team to complete and then build. It was the toughest lab planning challenge I’ve ever faced. It’s a very process-driven building type. As a phased project, the adjacency needs of the spaces in the first phase program were the most critical. It was one of those “everything wants to be directly adjacent to everything else” situations where three dimensions just doesn’t feel like enough. Once we solved that, it didn’t leave us many other spaces to logically organize around it to create some semblance of a building. We ultimately arrived at a very nice building solution the whole team is happy with, but it took a lot of time from many sharp minds to get us there.

We are in the middle of design for the new Medical Education and Wellness building at LSU Shreveport. I’m leading the planning and design of the Emerging Viral Threats (EVT) Lab component of the project that includes high containment lab space for study and diagnostics related to viral pathogens. The EVT group at LSU is currently focused on COVID testing for the state of Louisiana.

Q: What kinds of hobbies or interests do you have outside of work? 

A: I’ve been a big BBQ fan since I was a kid, growing up in the southeast part of the US. When we moved to Texas, I was exposed to this strange thing called beef BBQ. I love smoking my own brisket, ribs, etc. My wife is sick of it, but the kids love it. As I travel for work, I’ve been traveling sampling different takes on BBQ around the US with a consciously and conscientiously open mind—but sorry, everyone, nothing comes close to good Texas BBQ. I’m also a huge music fan; I’ve played the guitar for years and have recently begun learning the drums. Last but not least, I’m slowly restoring the 1966 Mustang convertible I had back in high school; I was drawn to those cars from an early age and have managed to resist every thought or suggestion that I should part with it over the past 20+ years. One of the kids has taken to working on it with me, so I look forward to hopefully finishing it and handing it down one day.