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NIH Record In the Mind's Eye
NIH, Howard Collaborate on Architectural Problems

By Constance Burr

"Our aim is intelligent architecture," Professor Joseph Taylor said, as his third-year architecture students defended their designs for the proposed National Neuroscience Research Center. Taylor, professor of architecture at Howard University and health care building specialist, directs students in the NIH and Howard University Architectural Academic Collaboration Program, established to improve minority representation in the field. The volunteer program he oversees with architect Kristy Long of NIH's Division of Engineering Services, ORS, offers students experience and resources as they work on a real project with client-based requirements, then enter their plans in a juried competition. They receive critiques by NIH architects, engineers and scientists at a series of presentation "pinups," awards for best designs, and photos for their portfolios by medical arts photographers. "If my students can tackle this project and master the process, they can do anything," Taylor said.

And master it they did. In only 8 weeks, five 2-person teams each designed a hypothetical lab building of 9,290 square meters to replace Bldg. 35 that includes biomedical and instrument laboratories, vivariums, administrative space and a conference center. Since science and technology change faster than buildings take shape, the teams were charged with planning a flexible space that would address the current needs of scientists while allowing for potential structural and mechanical changes. Located on the west side of campus, the project also had to connect to Bldg 36. Students used NIH design guidelines, observed site constraints such as setback requirements from Old Georgetown Rd., and incorporated an environmental review in their proposals for a functional, safe and aesthetically pleasing structure.

The designs reflect myriad concerns. "Students considered the philosophy of the occupants, as well as building specifications," Long said. "They had to ask if scientists would want closed or open labs and how the building would foster or hamper interaction. They had to weigh the juxtaposition of labs to offices, understand how a generic lab would be set up, and know where sinks and waste would go, so the mechanical structure would accommodate them. They needed to know that instrument size and type can determine laboratory size, rather than personnel or bench needs; that nuclear magnetic resonance equipment requires enough separation to avoid interface with computers; and that electron microscopes and mass spectrometers must be in isolated, vibration-free areas." Furthermore, the structure had to complement two adjacent buildings and the site — gently rolling topography framed by mature trees, one of the few natural settings on campus.

At pinup sessions during the fall, Howard teams illustrated their ideas with elevations, floor plans, and scale models in white corrugated cardboard for the new concept and brown cardboard for existing buildings. Five different design solutions evolved, some changing dramatically as NIH architects and engineers critiqued them. "Design is like a prescription — the result depends on how good the process is," Taylor explained. The judges grilled students on building support, interstitial space, air supply, drainage, loading docks, elevators, egress, atriums, fenestration and fašades. And they queried them on the intangible qualities that make a building an agent in the pursuit of creative scientific discovery: Will it be a good place to work; will it bring people and ideas together; and is it in the community's best interest?

The proposed facility would house scientists from NIMH, NINDS, and other institutes under one roof. The complex aims to increase research associated with the brain and its translation into therapies for neurological and psychiatric disorders. How then, at this preliminary stage, can architecture students contribute to the initiative? According to Long, "Students give us a fresh eye, or an opportunity to see other possibilities without constraints. When we see ideas we like, we can take them to the architectural firm hired to design the final project. That happened with the neighborhood concept used in Bldg. 50, the first project we did with Howard students in 1994." The NIH day care center was another idea from Howard students that became a reality, Taylor pointed out. He applauded "the students' unbridled creativity," maintaining that "because someone is in private practice doesn't mean they have a lock on creativity."

Bertina Calvin explains plan for a hypothetical National Neuroscience Research Center. She and teammate Tenika Felder won first prize in the architecture contest.

First-prize winners Tenika Felder and Bertina Calvin created lab modules that face light-filled galleries sheathed in glass, while rust-colored precast concrete panels add warmth to outside walls. "If I didn't go into architecture," said Felder, a Lanham resident, "I would have chosen medical research or biomedical engineering, so working in the NIH environment was a perfect fit." Calvin, from Baton Rouge, has a BA and an MA in business from Howard. She left the insurance business to develop her talents in architecture, "the best decision I ever made," she said. "Learning about the requirements of scientific researchers and designing a neuroscience lab have opened new doors for me."

Second-prize winners Michael Johnson and Edward Vanwright based their plan on visual and structural connections linking buildings, scientists and the community. A wedge-shaped entrance that projects from a curve expresses that concept. "It's a welcoming area that invites people in," Washington native Johnson explained. "The glass and stainless steel exterior reflect elements in the research lab," stated Vanwright, who is from the Bronx. He believes that the best part of the project was the process. "You bounce ideas off each other, you argue, solve problems together, make decisions. That's the way architecture works."

A building may begin in the mind's eye of an architect, but like scientific research, architectural design is research-based and collaborative. Through the NIH-Howard University program, students gain real-world experience that can apply toward a job in the private sector, expert advice and professional contacts. As James H. Johnson, Jr., dean of the Howard architecture school, put it, "We bring students the world through design."

Models and illustrations of the proposed neuroscience laboratory will be on display in Bldg. 36 this spring.


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