Introducing the VRC
By Rich McManus
On the Front Page...
Even with all the construction now under way, including a new hospital, lab building, utility pipe system going in (to be completed in August), and even a new power plant at the heart of campus, chances are that few NIH'ers will begrudge yet another major construction project soon to begin on the lawn just east of Bldg. 37. That's because Bldg. 40, the new 5-story Vaccine Research Center (VRC), will become a launch pad in the quest to create an AIDS vaccine.
Shovels will be broken out late this summer on a project that has been on a blindingly fast track since President Clinton pledged, during a graduation address at Baltimore's Morgan State University in May 1997, to launch a federal effort to make an AIDS vaccine within 10 years.
"This is the fastest-moving project I've ever been involved with," said Nancy Boyd, VRC project officer for the Office of Research Services and member of the Division of Engineering Services, Design Construction and Alteration Branch's Team 4 Research West. "People say they've never seen anything in the government move so fast."
Though the effort has been spearheaded by the Office of AIDS Research and two institutes -- NCI and NIAID -- many interests are involved. OAR's former head Dr. William Paul (now back at NIAID) was particularly forceful in leading the initial effort, said Boyd, as were the NIH immunology and virology communities, whose research needs, Boyd learned, are disparate. Three different working groups are also involved, enlisting the expertise of the campus' foremost movers and shakers in both the construction and scientific arenas.
Their labors will beget an 84,600-square-foot facility about the same height as Bldg. 37 (which itself is undergoing an 8-year modernization, both inside and out). With its glass "curtain wall/precast concrete" exterior, the VRC will resemble its neighbors Bldgs. 35, 36 and 37. The first floor will have an education/conference center -- deemed essential for international communication with other scientific groups, said OAR, which is paying for this portion of the VRC with French American AIDS Fund money -- featuring state-of-the-art audiovisual teleconference facilities, including a 100-seat conference room and a library. The rest of the facility, funded from appropriated dollars, includes a vivarium on the first floor. Above this floor will be a four-floor research tower of flexible "open lab" space accommodating some 150 researchers, along with their offices and meeting spaces. The top lab floors will have specialty labs including a biosafety level-3 containment facility and a process area that could be converted to a small GMP (good manufacturing practices) facility, which is a mini-vaccine production plant where a potential vaccine could be assembled, as in a pharmaceutical company; FDA advice has been helpful in planning this space, said Boyd.
Flexibility is a key element of the design, said Boyd, an 11-year NIH veteran whose recent projects have included the Bldg. 30 tower addition and several additions at the Poolesville animal center. "The interesting part of the job is that we don't yet know who is going to go into the building," she said. A search is now on for the VRC director, whose office will be on the first floor. "We're designing the VRC so that changes can be easily made to suit whomever directs the center."
The VRC will share with Bldg. 37 contact with a new electrical vault to be built between them, but otherwise won't touch any of its neighbors; there will be no passage from 40 to 37, Boyd said.
When the President made his announcement in Baltimore just over a year ago, the thinking was that a "center without walls" would be adequate. It was later decided that an actual, physical center would be needed to concentrate the effort. "It was also clear that the facility wouldn't be limited just to work on an AIDS vaccine -- it is to be used for crafting vaccines against other illnesses as well," Boyd noted.
ORS was asked how quickly it could come up with a VRC. "We said about 21/2 years after the program was defined," Boyd recalls. NIH director Dr. Harold Varmus then appointed a working group of 12 NIAID and NCI scientists representing the program needs of such a facility and set them to work with DES construction planners.
"We met many times in the first 60 days -- we interviewed the scientists intensely during this period," said Boyd. The firm of Spaulding and Slye was named development manager on Oct. 30, 1997, bringing with them a team including Clark Construction Group as general contractor and Hansen Lind Meyer -- the same firm that designed Bldg. 50 -- as architect/engineer. "We came up with a program report in December 1997, then proceeded to schematic drawings and design development," Boyd explained. A completed design is expected at the end of July, with construction set to begin in mid to late August, she said. Construction will wrap up in May 2000, with occupancy scheduled for late summer 2000.
As the fast-track project moves along, Boyd reports to the VRC executive committee any significant milestones attained, as well as any conflicts that need resolution. "So far, it's gone pretty smoothly," she said. Because the project will affect many neighboring buildings, particularly Bldg. 37, Boyd has presented construction plans to their occupants, alerting them to anticipated disruptions. As is done on other large projects, Boyd will create a listserv email network for broadcasting the latest pertinent information on construction to those with a need to know.
"It's a real exciting job," she says, "and it's been really nice for me because everyone knows the importance of maintaining the schedule and meeting all deadlines, so they are really putting in the effort to make decisions expeditiously. The cooperation has been outstanding." This is one building virtually everyone hopes will succeed, no matter how much dust it kicks up.
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