Would a midtown New York City Rolls Royce dealership fronting a four-story parking garage be a likely candidate for conversion to a clinical research laboratory? Apparently so. When Weill Cornell Medical College (WCMC) decided to demolish its on-campus research laboratory and relocate more than 200 staff person to a more state-of-the-art facility, the dealership/garage was seen as offering the best opportunity.

It was within reasonable walking distance, its brick façade and steel structure could be retained to expedite zoning approval, and it could be doubled in space to 65,300 square feet.

The Gertrude and Louis Feil Family Research Building, as it was to be called, would accommodate research laboratories for cancer, diabetes, AIDS, cardiovascular disease, women’s health, geriatrics, Alzheimer’s disease, and obesity. It would be served by a flexible casework system allowing for “plug-and-play” natural gas, vacuum, compressed air, power, and data/telecom utilities.

The most difficult challenge the project faced was the scheduling requirement: The project would need to be completed in 18 months, from initial drawings to opening, to meet the demolition deadline for the new Belfer Research Building on the WCMC campus.

Stonehill & Taylor, a New York architecture and interior design firm, accepted the challenge, drawing on its three decades of experience providing design services to the city’s healthcare organization elite. The design and construction process was discussed recently by Henry Meltzer, executive vice president, in an interview with HEALTHCARE DESIGN Contributing Editor Richard L. Peck.


Richard L. Peck: Where did the idea originate to convert a midtown New York parking garage to a clinical research laboratory?

Henry Meltzer: Because Weill Cornell was planning to demolish its existing clinical laboratory in 18 months, this put a lot of pressure on the schedule, so they wanted a property that would allow them to bypass much of the city zoning approval process. It was determined that this could be expedited by retaining the brick façade and steel structure of a former Rolls Royce dealership and four-story parking garage near the main campus, and increasing its size for the new research laboratory.

We started by digging out the first floor down to the column footings, which enabled us to add columns without having to change the long-span, deep beams of the parking garage. This determined where we could safely cut holes in the structure to locate the new columns. We collaborated closely with the structural engineer, GACE Consulting Engineers P.C.

We then added a fifth floor of clinical lab space on the roof, with a 20-foot setback to meet zoning requirements. When plans for the local power company, Consolidated Edison, to provide steam power fell through, we added two more floors for mechanical equipment, including a boiler and air conditioning units. Finally, we replaced the windows.

When completed, at a cost of $1,100 per square foot, the building continued to meet local zoning requirements and meet WCMC’s laboratory needs. 

Peck: What were some of the major features of the conversion?

Meltzer: Locating the air conditioning units on the top of the building allowed space for a heat recovery system, which Weill Cornell insisted upon for the energy savings involved. Because air quality is of utmost importance in a facility such as this, fans were used to force exhaust up and away from the building. Because the building’s floor-to-floor heights at 12 feet 6 inches are considerably less than is typical of clinical laboratories, a state-of-the-art plug-and-play system for laboratory services turned out to be very helpful.

Basically, the system treats cabinetry as furniture, in that it can be located where needed for a particular lab or researcher and moved about when necessary. The cabinets can be set at heights ranging from sitting to standing, with service components inside connected by flexible umbilical cords at the top of the ceiling plate with plug-and-play connections to the electrical, data, gases, and vacuum services.

If researchers want to swap lab space or repurpose it—and this happened starting almost from day one—it can be done very easily. Space can also be left open to accommodate large machinery, if necessary.

Peck: Is the entire interior designed flexibly?

Meltzer: No, there are still special procedure rooms, such as tissue processing areas, that have the typical 12-foot-wide walls, with service pipes and conduits located within the walls.  Also, because of zoning regulations, the entire first floor is occupied by office space.

Also, office space is combined with lab space on the second and third floors. We divided the floors by locating the offices along the front of the building, which had windows and admitted a great deal of natural light. Turning in the opposite direction from the offices leads you to the laboratories in the interior. 

Peck: Would you describe the fast-track process that enabled you to complete this project in 18 months?

Meltzer: It started with the construction manager (CM), Tishman Company of New York, being hired in mid-2007 and initial drawings being completed by that December. This gave us 10 months to complete the conversion. Because the basic structure was worked out well in advance of the other drawings using a completely cooperative design effort with the structural fabricator and structural engineer under the auspices of the CM, the process was expedited considerably.

We did not use BIM or IPD—rather, the consultants received the AutoCAD files and recommended alternatives. Recognizing the time constraints, Weill Cornell had budgeted sufficient funds to allow for ongoing flexibility and changes to be made without having to raise further funding along the way. The fast track could not have been accomplished without that sort of commitment. I would say that if we had used the traditional process and built new, we would have had less square footage and would have added at least a year to the process. HCD

For more information on the Gertrude and Louis Feil Family Research Building, please visit www.weill.cornell.edu.