Perspectives September 17, 2021

Design experiment: the future of laboratories

Practice Leader Jeffrey R. Zynda discusses what type of research environments are needed to support the development of technologies that will not exist for another decade.
Exterior rendering of Fermilab

When designing the Integrated Engineering Research Center (IERC) at Fermi National Accelerator Lab, our team faced the challenge of designing for the future.

In the world of particle physics, advanced device, hardware, software, and technology development for multi-national projects such as DUNE (Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment), laboratory planners and designers don’t have the luxury of asking researchers what do you need? —as there often are not definitive answers. Researchers may only be able to share a concept for an experiment that will be funded and designed years down the road—perhaps as many as twenty-years in the future.

Physics and engineering laboratories like IERC often have unique needs, highly specific to equipment requirements and functional capabilities. With these kinds of ever-evolving constraints, our approach must now start with a robust and adaptable framework that can be augmented to meet the specific needs of today and the speculative needs of the future.

The design of successful next-generation facilities demands a change in perspective and approach.

In contrast to life sciences laboratories—where the range of activities and needs can be reasonably predicted, and the type of flexibility can be anticipated—project-based physics and engineering laboratory environments must speculate based on the trajectory of the science. In order to deliver a facility that will meet the needs of today’s known programs and provide future flexibility, we must first dive into the drivers of the science and engineering.

At IERC, this process was based on programming around the “scientific use cases,” of project types that were planned on a 20-year horizon. The IERC is the first building at Fermilab that intentionally brings together multiple departments and capabilities to foster a cross-departmental and cross-divisional collaboration platform. From this perspective, a broad look at current needs and future potential created a strong set of guiding principles for the design of this unique facility.

Rather than embracing the idea of flexibility—attempting to anticipate every future need and incorporating features that meet these speculative needs—the IERC takes a markedly different approach in providing an adaptable framework that removes obstacles to future augmentation as new research and development needs emerge. In other words, the IERC design approach leaves functional placeholders and space to accommodate future adaptation to needs when they can be clearly defined, rather than guessing about future uses.

During the course of reviewing over 400 use-cases and determining the types of spatial support that projects might need—such as clean-class requirements, assembly capabilities, fabrication, equipment, and services—the design team began to analyze the data to identify commonalities and distinct differences in capabilities. Based on the spectrum of use-case potential needs, the team developed a modular approach to space allocation and building systems. The outcome was a program that included clean-class fabrication space or project labs, core instrumentation and tool laboratories, and function-specific electronic fabrication laboratories as well as adaptable dry-bench lab space for small electronic design and fabrication.

Fermilab Lab Space
A view into the laboratory space.

The project labs were conceptualized as large workshops for the development and testing of novel technologies in support of Fermilab’s initiatives. Individual project labs are anchored by a central support “spine” that delivers critical service needs such as power, laboratory gasses (nitrogen, co2, compressed air), fiber-optic data, and exhaust capabilities for specialty needs. Flanking either side of the support “spine,” individual project labs were designed with three-generations of project support taken into account. Each project lab was designed to be ISO clean-class capable. Rather than installing expensive building infrastructure that may never be used, space was set aside to add air-handling units, ductwork, and HEPA or ULPA filtration units. This ability to construct for the known needs of today and in the immediate future controls cost, while also providing the means to adapt the facility to future requirements, which bolsters Fermilab’s mission to support evolving science and engineering and provide a platform for needs not yet fully understood.

The ground level of the IERC has been designed to facilitate fabrication for large-scale project needs, expressed in a series of project laboratories. Overhead cranes were provided to utilize these spaces for the fabrication, assembly, and movement of large-scale detectors and vessels – such as dilution refrigerators. Each project laboratory is designed with utility service panels in the perimeter walls providing power, data, compressed air, nitrogen, and system-process chilled water on an 11’-0” module. Service distribution trenches are provided in each laboratory to enhance delivery to equipment, instrumentation, and workbenches, all while eliminating tripping hazards and allowing the end-users to readily access services on an as-needed basis.

While the true test of this level of the adaptable design and planning will come when the IERC opens in 2022, its approach to adaptability has already been tested during the design process. After the preliminary design phase of the project, the project team learned of significant programmatic changes to accommodate new DUNE-related initiatives and emerging technology developments—which required little to no re-design of the building. Some simple re-configuration of utility requirements and specific instrumentation accommodation met the new program needs, underscoring the value of this adaptable approach and its potential to support generations of unknown research needs.

The Northernmost laboratory will initially house a testing lab connected with the DUNE project. The Liquid-Argon Cube Laboratory will test detectors that are destined for the “far-site” in Sanford, North Dakota as part of the Long-Baseline Neutrino Facility, or LBNF. This lab is a two-story bay to accommodate large detector panels (1.5 x 3M) being immersed into Liquid Argon with a cryostat (~3M in height) and tested, simulating the conditions of detector vessels upon arrival in Sanford. This unique laboratory space provides direct access to cryogen sources, and after the initial project needs, provides a space that can accommodate multi-story fabrication, assembly, and testing of detectors and arrays. At the same time, this space provides a visual learning laboratory for the public and community to engage with the critical research and development Fermilab brings to the world—supporting the ongoing celebration of research and development at Fermilab.

Argon Cube
Argon Cube

The project team developed a toolset of “core capabilities” to support the development of future projects and eliminate needless duplication of resources. Programmatically, this was aptly named “Shared Core Lab” and provides the ability to support common needs across the spectrum of project labs, such as coordinate measuring machines, wafer fabrication tools, and similar commonly shared equipment assets. To support the widest range of known requirements today, these tools are housed in an ISO-7 clean-class environment that is future upgradable to ISO-5.

While the science and engineering capabilities of the IERC are of paramount importance, the new laboratory’s location on FNAL’s campus also required careful aesthetic design consideration and deference to Fermilab’s iconic Wilson Hall. Designed by Fermilab’s first director, Robert Rathbun Wilson, Wilson Hall’s brutalist design reaches to the sky with a soaring form and clean modern lines, establishing a strong architectural context. Embracing the proportions of Wilson Hall and incorporating a complimentary design response—while maintaining its own presence—was at the heart of our aesthetic design challenge. The end- result is a building that takes strong cues from Wilson Hall but maintains its own identity and presence on campus, marking a new direction for Fermilab.

Today’s researchers, especially at Fermilab, are working to deepen humankind’s understanding of the universe so that scientific discovery can advance our global society. Buildings like IERC have the potential to set an example for how architecture—and specifically, the thoughtful design of physical spaces for scientific inquiry—might support and advance these altruistic goals.