CIEMAS Building Adapts to 21st-Century Research Demands

DURHAM, N.C. -- Imagine a puzzle whose pieces can change shape, and whose picture can even morph from one image to another. Now imagine that puzzle in three dimensions.

Now imagine that puzzle formed of 19,000 cubic yards of concrete, 230 tons of structural steel, 1,700 tons of rebar, occupying nearly two acres and filled with more than 400 engineers and scientists.

Just such a dynamic architectural “puzzle” is Duke University’s new 322,000-square-foot Center for Interdisciplinary Engineering, Medicine and Applied Sciences (CIEMAS).

The building exemplifies a rare new breed of research facility that has intellectual ambitions far beyond the usual research building, say its designers and builders.

CIEMAS joins only a few other research buildings in the world that seek to seamlessly meld so many disparate disciplines. It will include biomedical, civil, environmental, electrical and mechanical engineers, medical scientists and applied science researchers. These researchers will form cohesive multidisciplinary teams to invent 21st-century technology in areas focused on light-wave communications and biologically inspired nano-materials, bioengineering and integrated environmental sensor systems and water quality.

“Such buildings present a fascinating new challenge for architects,” said CIEMAS’s chief architect D. Bartley Guthrie, of the Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Partnership. “They’re challenging because the design solutions are not as straightforward and discrete as most architectural projects are. They include trying to meet continually changing research demands and finding an architecture that can respond to those demands.”

Other such broadly interdisciplinary buildings include the 285,000-square-foot New Stanley Hall facility at the University of California at Berkeley scheduled for completion next year (and also designed by ZGF Partnership). That building will house biologists, engineers, physicists, chemists and computer scientists.

Also, Stanford University’s Clark Center for Biomedical Engineering and Sciences, which opened in 2003, integrates biology, medicine, engineering, physics, chemistry and information sciences.

“CIEMAS had to balance ‘generic planning’ flexibility with the need for specialized spaces for particular equipment and services, all without spending a zillion dollars,” Guthrie said.

“All architects today are dealing with this phenomenon of interdisciplinary work at some level,” he added. “It is a very powerful trend, and it is part of our national mission to be ahead of the world in science and technology, so we need to try to be there to advance this mission.”

In CIEMAS, Guthrie said, he and his colleagues knew early on that they would be part of a highly dynamic design process.

“We recognized that because the Duke faculty are innovative researchers, their interests and requirements are constantly changing. And it took a resilient architecture and a commitment to resilience in our working habits to keep the design flexible, yet move it forward. Because, after all, there has to be a point where the ideas become bricks and mortar.”

CIEMAS’s flexibility begins with the conventional practice of modular space planning. Virtually every piece of lab furniture except certain wet benches, exhaust fume-hoods and bio-safety cabinets is movable.

What’s more, in the two-building complex, the east building features substantially different laboratory layouts on different floors to accommodate both the bio-medical engineers and their collaborating medical scientists who will work there.

“We literally had to stack three different floor plates in that wing,” Guthrie said. “Because of the nature of their work, some engineers prefer dark laboratory space in the center of the building, with offices on the perimeter walls, whereas medical researchers want laboratories that have the natural light of exterior windows, with offices at the ends of the floorplates. So we sandwiched a floor of medical labs between lab floors for biomedical engineering, the Center for Biologically-Inspired Materials and Materials Systems, and ‘joint-venture’ labs for Engineering and Medicine within the three-story building.”

“It was critical to figure out how to design this sandwich without a lot of redundancy in mechanical and electrical services and piping that would drive the construction people crazy,” Guthrie said.

The west building design had to efficiently integrate with the laboratories and offices an auditorium, video conference room, nanofabrication facilities, future “clean rooms” and a “virtual reality” imaging facility. The last includes a “black box” studio where new forms of art that involve engineering can be created. In one recent concert, for example, dancers used infrared cameras, laser beams, aerial acrobatics, live music and video in their performances.

CIEMAS constitutes an extraordinarily effective response by the Pratt School of Engineering to the shifting demands of 21st-century research, said Pratt Dean Kristina Johnson.

“The plans for CIEMAS were evolving right along with our plans to rejuvenate the very organization of the school,” she said. “We recognized that the opportunities for the most revolutionary advances in technology exist at the boundaries between traditional disciplines. This recognition is why we evolved our four major strategic initiatives -- photonics and communications, bioengineering, biologically-inspired nanomaterials and integrated environmental sensing and simulation -- as interdisciplinary efforts,” she said.

Also, such opportunities inspired the establishment of research centers that cross departmental lines and also involve the recognized research strengths of the School of Medicine, Johnson said. These include the Fitzpatrick Center for Photonics and Communications, Center for Biologically Inspired Materials and Materials Systems and Center for Neuroengineering.

“We believe that CIEMAS will prove to be brilliantly designed to meet not only the requirements of these very multidisciplinary efforts as they exist now, but as our faculty will surely evolve them to meet new research demands,” Johnson said.

For example, she said, CIEMAS is already proving to be a powerful recruiting lure for new faculty, both in engineering and medicine. The attraction of CIEMAS is not just that it constitutes a state-of-the-art research facility for engineering, medicine and their collaborative partnerships. New faculty are also attracted by the fact that they can “shape-shift” their own laboratories and their collaborations with colleagues, even after the gigantic puzzle that is CIEMAS has become a concrete-and-steel reality, Johnson said.