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Instrument lab with color-changing lighting, currently set to red lighting.
Instrument lab with color-changing lighting.
Credit: Curtis Martin, Curtis Martin Photography.

Retrofit Brings New Life to a Historic Silversmith Building

Materials Characterization and Processing Facility wins Honorable Mention—Innovation in 2023 Design Excellence Awards

MaryBeth DiDonna

MaryBeth DiDonna is managing editor, events for Lab Manager. She organizes and moderates the webinars and virtual conferences for Lab Manager as well as other LMG brands, enabling industry...

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Johns Hopkins University’s Whiting School of Engineering had been in need of a consolidated materials characteristics and processing space for several years, as the school’s instruments were previously housed in three separate buildings across the campus. The school looked to an early-20th century historical building on campus as a possible new home for its program.  

The result is the Materials Characterization and Processing (MCP) Facility, an 18,000 square foot core laboratory facility with state-of-the-art electron microscope and scanning electron microscope research and equipment. The MCP is poised to become the most sophisticated facility in the mid-Atlantic for the processing and characterization of materials, according to the Design Excellence Awards entry.

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For preserving a historic building and adapting it to incorporate cutting-edge scientific equipment, Lab Manager has awarded Page Southerland Page, Inc. with Honorable Mention—Innovation prize in the 2023 Design Excellence Awards. Page Southerland Page, Inc. served as design architect/lab planner for the project for the Materials Characterization and Processing Facility at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD.

Preserving history

The MCP is located in the Stieff Silver Building, constructed in 1924 as a foundry for the Stieff Silver Company, with a warehouse-style addition in 1971. The building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The design team first met with the Johns Hopkins team in 2018, construction began in October 2020, and the lab was officially occupied starting in December 2022. 

The quiet corridor inside the Materials Characteristics and Processing Facility.
The quiet corridor inside the Materials Characterization and Processing Facility.
Credit: Curtis Martin, Curtis Martin Photography

There are 10 instrument labs in the 1971 building, as well as two control rooms for the instruments which are shared between four instrument labs. The instruments are positioned around a main “quiet” corridor that offers occupant flow and lab access. Machines that generate a lot of heat and noise, such as chillers, pumps, and server racks, are situated in the rear equipment chases. 

The “Big Four” and other challenges

The design team cited the main challenges of a project that deals with sensitive instruments, known as the “Big Four”: 

Vibration: The MCP is located near a busy roadway and shares a floor plate with other high-bay research labs, including a large wave tank. A vibration consultant performed a baseline survey of the space in order to determine the suitability of the location, and found a very stable slab, with qualities of upwards of 16 inches deep—the slab is actually six inches deep but built overtop of bedrock. The consultant advised the design team to minimize any disturbances to the existing slab. A utility chase strategy further serves to isolate the equipment rooms from the exterior wall and the adjacent street.

Electromagnetic interference: A main electrical room in the center of the proposed site presented alternating current (AC) sources, mitigated with quarter-inch thick welded aluminum panels installed on the walls, floor, and ceiling of the instrument labs. Direct current (DC) sources include the existing elevator, cars and trucks on the nearby roadway, and a nearby light-rail line. 

Noise: Acoustical interference can disrupt microscope images. Instrument rooms utilized a box-within-a box construction method in order to isolate them from other spaces in the building. The vertical walls employed double-wall construction, and the ceiling did not touch the building supporting structure—rather, vertical walls were used for support. All utilities passing through the ceiling or double walls used flexible connections in order to limit any transfer of vibration or noise into the room. Fabric-wrapped sound panels were installed inside rooms to absorb sound and deaden the space. Angled wall panels, instead of typical flat acoustical panels, were used at various arrangements to offer a high-performance absorption system.

Thermal environment: Extremely low temperature changes—as low as 0.8 degrees Celsius over 24 hours—are required by the instrument rooms. Chilled wall panels were determined to be the most effective way to achieve this kind of environment, so several four feet wide by 12 feet high panels were installed around the room. HEPA filtered panels were installed in the ceiling with low wall exhaust ducts, in order to offer a clean air environment and provide ventilation air to the rooms. These filters allow for a single direction of airflow and minimal mixing of the air. Each room has its own controls and three modes of operation—instrument in-use (very low flow), people occupied, and purge mode (when the room is cleaned before the instrument is used).

Scientists work in a lab at the MCP
The FIBSEM Instrument Lab in the Materials Characterization and Processing Facility.
Credit: Page Southerland Page, Inc.

An additional challenge of working with this existing building was performing renovations and retrofits while the building was occupied. The new MCP area would take up half of the lowest level of the existing building, with ongoing research and study located adjacent to and above the site. Additionally, the MCP site’s footprint housed dense mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and telecommunications systems—some of these were not needed and could be demolished, but others needed to remain in use in other areas of the building. The design team collaborated with the contractor during the demolition phase to properly categorize which systems could be removed, which could remain, and which needed to be relocated. 

Three instrument rooms required 13 feet of clear space to accommodate tall microscope columns, but the existing floor-to-floor height only offered 12 feet of clear space. In order to reach this additional height, new W-shaped beams were installed between the existing bar joists, and once the beams were installed the bar joists were removed. Mechanical ducts to these rooms were installed between the new beams to maximize the required clear space.

Combining aesthetics with functionality

The MCP instrument labs were designed to provide an “elevated look,” in addition to meeting functional requirements. The rooms are white in order to remain sterile, since dust is a major hazard to the instruments, but color-changing lighting was implemented for research purposes or simply to offer a splash of color. The primary user—a geologist by training—requested a space that reflects a geodesic dome or rock fractals. Acoustical panels were utilized as a main design element, with two ft. x two ft. panels angled from two to fourinches thick placed randomly around the walls and ceilings. 

The primary, “quiet” corridor enables access to each instrument room, with windows or video display monitors offering views of the instruments and research in select spaces. A dark space, geometric patterned carpet, oak wood slat wall accents, and a metal panel “starry-night” ceiling give a polished and aesthetic appearance while acting as highly functional methods to absorb and dampen sound outside of the instrument labs and mitigate potential disturbances to the work. The corridor and control rooms use circadian lighting to mimic the natural, changing light outdoors in order to provide a comfortable user experience.

Since users were not yet able to identify the equipment that would be placed in the MCP at the start of the design process, a future-proofed facility was needed. Users were asked to assemble possible instruments they might need in the future to accomplish their research, and the design team reviewed and classified these instruments into three categories. From there, three typologies of space were developed and codified into a Room Type Matrix to influence the design. The characteristics considered were electromagnetic interference, vibration, acoustics, temperature, and other detailed requirements.

Then, shared equipment chases were developed to promote longevity of the facility and allow for instrument turnover. Each instrument room shares a back-of-house space to place noisy, heat generating, and generally disruptive equipment. These shared areas permit the instruments’ supporting equipment to ebb and flow as new instruments come in and other changes are made. This enables the building to preserve its history while looking toward the future of science and technology. 

“We are honored and excited to win this award for such an innovative and unique lab project,” says Brian Tucker, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C, senior planner, higher education, principal with Page Southerland Page, Inc. “Complex microscopy and imaging space design is so often only driven by the technical and functional needs of the instruments—aesthetics taking a back seat. We are grateful that Johns Hopkins challenged our team of planners to create spaces that were both functionally and aesthetically innovative. Additionally, this project reinforces the unique opportunity that exists in reusing existing historic buildings for state-of-the-art modern laboratory spaces. The outcome is a showcase facility that truly stands out amongst its peers.”