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Vol. LXII, No. 2
January 22, 2010

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‘Decommissioned’ Bldg. 3 Gets Ready to Shine Again

On the front page...

Facelifts aren’t common treatments at NIH. Unless you’re talking about buildings.

Bldg. 3, a structure in what NIH considers one of its two historic districts, is not only getting some cosmetic updates to its exterior, but also a full interior overhaul. Once used as laboratory space, the building will soon be re-tasked as administrative offices. But making the building ready for this shift in purpose hasn’t come without challenges.

“A building with so much rich architectural character, you can’t tear it down, although that would be much easier,” said Dexroy Chisim, an architect in ORF’s Capital Projects Branch who will manage design and construction phases of the renovation. “So we have to modernize the building’s interior and restore the exterior with the exact same features [it used to have].”


However, the job won’t be that simple. Decommissioned in 2002, Bldg. 3 and its renovation are now subject to post-9/11 security measures to ensure federal buildings can better withstand blasts and bomb threats. That means the building’s historic windows will need to be replaced with blast-proof glass. However, as the building also falls under historic codes, the windows must also retain their vintage design—no small feat.

Dr. Eric Dyson NIH director Dr. Francis Collins
Top, concrete floors and bare brick walls are all there is to see inside the historic structure.
At right, the stately Bldg. 3 awaits some much-needed refurbishing and renovation.

Loading dock walls will be strengthened, a surveillance system will be installed and a security gate will restrict vehicle movement at the back of the building. The crumbling mortar between exterior bricks will be replaced, decorative ironwork and scroll detailing will be refurbished and even the old copper light sconces will go back up after they’ve been restored.

Dexroy Chisim, the architect who will manage the design and construction phases of the project, talks about how much work will be necessary to make the building suitable for office space.

With this renovation, the building will also become ADA-compliant, adding an access ramp to the side of the front door, expanding the size of restrooms, installing an elevator and several other items Chisim says are old hat. “It’s standard code stuff,” he said. “For someone like me who’s done this for years, it’s like putting on your shoes.”

However, that’s just the beginning. Built in 1938 from the same appropriation that built Bldgs. 1 and 2, the structure was used mostly for labs and animal housing, a far cry from its future incarnation: office space for at least 4 ICs.

To get it ready for so much change, the building had to be gutted. That meant pulling up floor tiles, pulling down interior walls and ceilings and removing old plumbing, ventilation and electrical systems. Concrete floors, support pillars and exposed brick walls are now all you see inside the building—a shell of its former self.

But Chisim feels good about the drastic changes because by pulling out the old, he’ll be able to put in the new and raise a phoenix from the ashes. He talks about the building with fatherly pride.

A historic copper light fixture will need some polishing before it can be re-attached at the building’s front door.
A historic copper light fixture will need some polishing before it can be re-attached at the building’s front door.

“It’s a living, breathing being,” he said, running his hand over a section of brick wall that has stood for more than 70 years. “It’s designed to house us. Of course it’s alive.”

The only real foe Chisim faces is time, but it’s not because the building is in any danger. Even in its current form, the building isn’t going anywhere. But many times, people do.

“We had done a preliminary plan [for occupancy] years ago, but we needed to go back and verify that plan,” said Cyrena Simons, research facilities coordinator at ORF. She and other planning personnel met with staff of various ICs who had been placed temporarily in sites such as the Clinical Center, and recorded who needed what space.

“We went back and met with them, and some of them no longer had their administrative people,” said Simons. “From a facilities perspective, 5 years is short term, and from a research perspective, 2 years is long term, so it’s a challenge.”

For the moment, NIAID, NIDDK, NHLBI and NCI have committed to locating staff in the building. Other space will be held in reserve until a purpose presents itself. The entire project is estimated to take about 18 months.

“The building makes for lovely office space,” said Simons, using the renovated Bldg. 2—a near mirror image of Bldg. 3—as a reference point. “High ceilings, big’s going to be a good building.”

While he waits to see what the ICs really need in their work spaces so it can be woven into the engineering drawings, Chisim can’t help but speak admirably of Bldg. 3, despite its rusting decorative ironwork, peeling paint and ubiquitous warning signs directing folks away from the work zone.

“Once we clean up that façade, it’s actually a nice-looking building.”

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