The architect of a high-tech research laboratory must design with the difficulty level cranked all the way up.
It requires developing an understanding of the work to be done in the lab, and interviewing the scientists who will work there to make sure it has all the right facilities. The design must accommodate both the known and the unknown, because the discoveries of today undoubtedly will lead to unanticipated research and development projects in the future.
That’s the formidable goal achieved by architect Gary Shaw, a Maine native who worked at the firm Perkins + Will in Boston when he designed the new, 62,000-square-foot Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay. The building, which opened last spring, brings together research efforts that previously were scattered among multiple facilities.
Bigelow was one of Shaw’s last projects before his recent retirement. He has a background in biology and specialized in designing research and development facilities.
“These buildings are very program-driven, so there are very specific needs that they have to have,” Shaw said.
The research at Bigelow includes work on biofuel algae, climate change and the health of underwater ecosystems. The facility also serves as the world’s leading repository of phytoplankton, with about 2,500 varieties that must be stored at different temperatures. Plankton are tiny organisms that live in water; phytoplankton are plants, as opposed to zooplankton, which are animals.
Research conducted at Bigelow ranges from the study of single-celled ocean microbes to fieldwork on the open seas and analysis of satellite images of global ecosystems. Its primary research focus is on the biological, geological and chemical processes of the world’s oceans, and its stated goal is to advance understanding of the interactions among marine ecosystems, the global climate and the environment.
Because of the diversity of research at Bigelow, each area has unique requirements for temperature and humidity, air pressure, power and data connectivity, and specialized utilities, including filtered and unfiltered seawater that come out of a tap.
“Almost every square foot has got something that drives how you design it,” Shaw said.
Another important aspect of design for a research facility is taking into consideration the way people working in it will interact.
Various spaces within the facility must be designed to foster teamwork, Shaw said, while other rooms must enable quiet and concentration.
One of the solutions Shaw came up with to allow discussion and collaboration was to design an “indoor porch” at the end of each of the facility’s three finger-like wings.
The indoor porches are furnished with several tables and chairs behind floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the Damariscotta River. They provide the feeling of being out in nature, even though they are in the facility.
Another of Shaw’s design goals was to make it easy to reconfigure and repurpose lab space when one research project ends and another begins. One method was to have all power, communication and utility connections located in ceiling panels in the center of each room. The lab stations are separate pieces of furniture that can be moved around while still connected to the necessary hookups via the ceiling.
Every aspect of the laboratory was carefully designed, Shaw said.
“You look at each one of these rooms and everything that’s going to go on in there,” he said. “What equipment is going to be in there? What is the workflow? How do people move around the space? Where do things need to be located to make the room function the way it’s intended?”
Shaw also designed the Bigelow facility to have a low environmental impact, a goal he says is in line with those of the workers who populate the lab.
He used a variety of methods, ranging from covering the laboratory’s roof with solar panel arrays to clearing only the minimum number of trees.
“The intent was to nestle this (facility) gently into the topography,” Shaw said.
As a result, the Bigelow laboratory has become the first and only research facility in Maine to be certified LEED Platinum – the highest possible rating for green building design – by the U.S. Green Building Council. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.
Although he is proud of the laboratory’s elite environmental rating, Shaw said he looks forward to the days when such ratings will be obsolete.
“You shouldn’t have to make an issue about sustainability,” he said. “It should just be the way you do it.”
J. Craig Anderson can be contacted at 207-791-6390 or: