GRAND RAPIDS — The concept of "designing a building from the inside out" is an appealing marketing ploy for architects and design/build firms in both the residential and industrial fields. However, an ethereal notion of people-centered, ergonomic design is quite different from the concrete, inside-out design challenge that faced Grand Rapids engineering firm Fishbeck, Thompson, Carr & Huber when a research consortium asked the company to build a home for its new $5 million nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer.
The facility, located on the southern end of Michigan State University's East Lansing campus, came into being thanks to the state's Life Sciences Corridor program. The idea behind the program is that building high-tech infrastructure for the health care and medical research fields will attract academic and corporate activity to the state. In this case, a unique partnership — comprised of such entities as the University of Michigan, Wayne State University, the Van Andel Institute and, of course, MSU — will share use of the facility's equipment.
The newly completed 8,400-square-foot Biomolecular Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Facility will house a 900-megahertz spectrometer, a piece of scientific equipment used in chemistry and biochemistry to examine compounds at the atomic level. When the project began in 2001, only one other such instrument existed in the world.
As such, FTC&H faced a unique challenge in designing the structure. Not only was there only one facility to use as a basis for comparison, the equipment itself presented specific design challenges. According to Daniel Vos, the FTC&H project manager who oversaw the design and engineering phases, the initial study for the project took over a year to complete. It featured 15 exterior "looks" before settling on the final design.
"It was a whole order of magnitude different, or more unusual, than your typical building," Vos said.
For example, minor environmental disturbances can affect the spectrometer, voiding the findings of an experiment. Vos said that the building's design needed to eliminate those disturbances.
"The instrument itself is essentially a huge electromagnet, so it throws off very large, very powerful electromagnetic fields around it," he said. "So powerful, in fact, that it can wipe out your credit card, or certain kinds of pacemakers can be affected by it. Not only that, but certain metal objects getting close enough to the instrument could affect an ongoing experiment. So, there's this mutual need to try to keep people away, and keep equipment from getting too close to this instrument and its magnetic fields."
Preventing magnetic disturbances meant using laminated wood beams instead of steel, and keeping all ferrous metals (those that contain iron) away from the spectrometer. Vos said that the facility's lighting was also designed to prevent interference. Light generated at fixtures outside the spectrometer's magnetic field bounces off the highly reflective ceiling. In areas where direct, spot-type light is required, the firm used ceiling-mounted, polished aluminum reflectors to focus the beams on work areas.
Changes in ambient temperature can also destroy experiments. Vos said that his firm needed to design the heating and air conditioning system such that the temperature in the facility would never vary more than one degree Fahrenheit. Fortunately for the firm, Michigan's brutal, bipolar weather tendencies were not the main concern. Vos said that the outside temperature has much less impact on the interior temperature than does heat radiation from computers, pumps and other electronic and mechanical equipment within the facility. Controlling the temperature didn't call for unique systems, just an eye for detail.
"It's not a real unconventional system," Vos said of the forced-air heating and cooling arrangement. "It's just a very finely tuned system."
FTC&H's fine-tuning has paid off. Not only did the firm's design bring the construction project in at less than three-quarters of its $2.6 million budget, it also garnered a couple awards.
The American Council of Engineering Companies awarded the firm with honorary mention at the state level. In nationwide competition, the project received national recognition from the council. While the firm has earned these distinctions in the past for civil engineering projects, this is the first time FTC&H has won for a building design.
That success, according to Vos, comes in part because of the firm's structure. FTC&H is home to engineers, architects and scientists, as well as a growing construction segment. Offering all this expertise "under one roof" gives the firm a competitive advantage.
"Having all of our services in house helped us step into the study phase as we did, because we could immediately look at all the different aspects of that job from each discipline's unique perspective," said Vos. "Another firm that didn't have all those disciplines in-house would not have had that advantage."
Vos said that his firm is one of "a small handful" in West Michigan capable of handling this type of project in-house. Although MSU chose an outside contractor for the construction phase, FTC&H was able to handle everything else.
"We did everything from the architectural to all the engineering: civil, structural, mechanical and electrical," said Vos. "We did the interior design. We did cost estimating. All of that work carried us right through until the contractor took over."
Even after the facility was complete, FTC&H engineers were back on site putting the heating and cooling system through its paces, making sure it would function as designed.
Four years since the initial feasibility studies, the facility is almost ready to open its doors to the research community. Only one thing is holding up the process. The instrument the facility was designed to house has not arrived. Manufacturing delays have set the delivery date back several months. However, Vos said, the NMR spectrometer is on its way and should be installed by the end of the month.