New lab built for NIH vibrates

Bayview building may be unsuited for sensitive equipment

Sun exclusive

October 15, 2006|By Jonathan Rockoff | Jonathan Rockoff,sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- Portions of a $250 million federal laboratory under construction in Southeast Baltimore cannot be used as intended because excessive vibration in the building would compromise test results of highly sensitive research instruments.

Now researchers, who were supposed to move into the new facility this fall, are waiting to hear whether they will be able to, government scientists said.

The Biomedical Research Center, being built on the Johns Hopkins Bayview campus by the National Institutes of Health, has been promoted as a state-of-the-art facility for research programs on aging and drug abuse, and it is a cornerstone for redevelopment in the neighborhood.

But internal records obtained by The Sun spanning more than two years document the concerns of scientists who have complained that the building has fallen victim to cost-cutting, fails to meet NIH guidelines and could severely impede their research.

"A substantial number of instruments and various types of experiments are at risk," according to a February document relating scientists' concerns about the vibration problems.

Last week, NIH officials refused requests for interviews about the project and declined to answer written questions submitted by The Sun. Instead, NIH spokesman John T. Burklow issued a brief statement that acknowledged some of the problems.

"The NIH is aware of the vibration issues in the Bayview building that would affect certain types of highly specialized research instrumentation," Burklow said. "We are identifying the specific areas of the building that will not accommodate such research. Given NIH's critical need for biomedical research space, we will be able to make full use of the building with other types of science."

Burklow would not say how much of the building is now considered unsuitable for the research originally intended there. Neither did he identify the source of the vibrations. But vibrations caused by anything from elevators to a structure's height to people walking can be a serious threat to cutting-edge scientific research when it relies on supersensitive instruments and is not accounted for in building plans.

Mark P. Mattson, chief of the neurosciences laboratory, said scientists were given the impression that the open design of the building may have contributed to the vibration problems. "It's like a trampoline. If you don't have a lot of internal walls, then a given amount of vibration will be more of a problem," he said. Mattson said he was waiting to hear whether his lab, which investigates Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, will move into the new building as planned.

An internal review, prepared in advance of meetings about the project in March, suggested that a "forensic" analysis should be performed on the building's mechanical systems to assess "vibration isolation" measures. It noted similar problems at another new NIH building, the Porter Neuroscience Research Center on the agency's campus in Bethesda, and said that shortcomings between the building plans and actual construction "had a large role in creating the vibrations that caused so much trouble in that building."

"There's no reason to believe the same, or worse, is not happening" during construction of the Biomedical Research Center, it concluded.

The 10-story building overlooking Interstate 895 was designed to replace NIH's nearby Gerontology Research Center. Besides taking in government scientists studying the aging process, the new building is also to house their NIH colleagues who study drug abuse and addiction. The original plan called for 500,000 square feet of research and office space to support the work of nearly 1,000 scientists and their staff.

A $166 million construction management contract was awarded in September 2004 to Skanska USA Building Inc., an international contracting firm with U.S. offices in Parsippany, N.J. The architect was listed as CUH2A, an Atlanta-based firm specializing in buildings for science and technology organizations. Officials from those firms were not immediately available for comment yesterday.

Local supporters cheered the project early on, saying it would generate demand in the neighborhood for new homes, condos and townhouses for the hundreds of workers. At the groundbreaking in October 2004, Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni, the NIH director, also emphasized its significance to research.

Discoveries made in the new building could have "major implications" for Americans addicted to drugs and those suffering from age-related diseases and disabilities, he said.

"We anticipate that it will be a dynamic environment which will foster significant basic and clinical research into the many conditions associated with aging," Dr. Richard J. Hodes, director of the National Institute on Aging, said at the time.

The building was supposed to be completed this fall. Now, according to the NIH Web site, its opening has been delayed until early next year.

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