Building a patientless healthcare research center
The Edward A Doisy Research Center at St. Louis University (SLU) in St. Louis, Missouri, (Architect of Record: Cannon Design) is more than just another building on the university’s medical campus; it’s a beacon, both literally and figuratively. “Its campus is really divided by an interstate highway; its Frost campus, which is its undergraduate and graduate liberal arts campus from its medical campus,” says Kirk Warden, AIA, senior vice-president and partner at Clayco, Inc., the construction manager at risk for the Doisy Research Center. “This building, in my view and I think the university’s view, truly is a landmark on the medical campus that helps tie the two campuses together, simply because now you can see it. It’s visual evidence that SLU is on both sides of this highway.
“There is a beacon that is at the top of the corner of this teardrop[-shaped building], way at the top, which has the fleur-de-lis in it, which is the university’s symbol. You can see the university across campus, which is the north side of the highway, but now, there is this building and beacon that glows at night, which is very symbolic but yet physical piece to the architecture that really ties the SLU medical campus to the SLU main campus.”
But the building’s importance to the campus’ unity pales in comparison to the experiments and work being done inside the building—something Warden continually stressed, stating that this may be the most important building Clayco ever works on. The Doisy Research Center houses a number of scientists in its unique teardrop design, who are performing experiments to find cures and vaccines for bioterrorist chemicals, as well as other medical experiments.
Because of the importance of the work being done at the center, and the fact that it isn’t a patient-centric building, the design and construction of the research lab is drastically different from that of a traditional healthcare facility: security is tighter, wayfinding is less of a necessity, and support and mechanical spaces are given a greater importance. “The building is kind of a teardrop shape, where the fat end of the teardrop points to the east and the narrow end of the teardrop points to the west,” says Warden. “Along the north wall are offices. In the center of the teardrop are typically support spaces. Once you get above the main, entry-level floor, each floor is somewhat repetitive in layout.”
This design, however, inherently solves the security and wayfinding problems the building might have encountered. By placing the entrance at the narrow end of the teardrop, all visitors—of which there are very few for lack of any reason to visit aside from a small, attached clinic “that has its own entry, set aside from the rest of the building”—are funneled through the same entrance and are easily tracked.
Walker expounds on the various security measures taken in the building, “There’s really only one point of entry for the public besides the dock, which is restricted as well, as far as cameras and access cards. People have to buzz you in at different places. On top of that, the pure circulation of the building helps. Even if you work there, you can’t necessarily just go anywhere you want. Your card might be programmed to let you onto your floor. You can’t necessarily get into the stair tower unless there’s a fire alarm event or some emergency event. Then the doors will be operational and you can get into the stair towers to travel from floor to floor. If you’re in the stair tower, you can’t exit anywhere except at the bottom.”
Much like security, which simply involved taking the proper steps given the building’s design, so too was wayfinding easily solved without having to think about the ease of the patient. Because the elevator lobby is located in the narrow end of the teardrop with offices and labs extending outward, It was a simple point-A to point-B design: arrive at your floor and head directly to your office or lab. “[The building is] 10 floors, stacked on top of each other. Each floor is almost identical,” Warden says. “You get out and one hallway takes you down towards offices and the other goes in the labs. Each floor has a small elevator lobby that you get off on and then each lobby has two doors.
“Healthcare facilities are like a zoo. You can get lost easily. Pathfinding is so important: I am going to the green area, this way for radiology. There’s so much signage. Here, there are signs on the doors and one elevator lobby. You have one place to go and that’s your offices and your labs, that’s it. If you get to the right floor, you’re OK. There’s a sign on every door that tells you whose office or lab it is. A lot of those signs don’t even have names, just numbers.”
Most importantly, though, Warden notes how essential the mechanical systems are to the building, even moreso than a traditional patient-centric healthcare setting, something he states might be the most important difference between this research lab and the traditional hospital. “It’s unbelievably important that there’s never a loss of power or air conditioning and heating in this building,” says Warden. “There are generators that are provided here, redundancies that are provided here. All of that is part of security for the experiments. We’re not just trying to protect against people getting into the building, we’re trying to protect what is taking place in the building as well. These experiments could last three years and if something drastic was to happen to ruin the experiment after 18 months, that could be millions of dollars invested. It’s not just somebody’s uncomfortable for an afternoon.”
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