NIH may use labs at old building

Vibrations a problem at new facility

work weighed at present site

Sun Follow-up

January 07, 2007|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- The National Institutes of Health says it is considering "extensive" renovations to an aging research laboratory in Southeast Baltimore because the new $250 million lab built nearby as a replacement vibrates so much that tests there could be compromised.

NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni acknowledged the severity of the vibration problems at the new Biomedical Research Center in a recent letter to Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who had inquired about the troubled project after reading an article in The Sun. The newspaper reported in October that portions of the building could not be used as intended because of excessive vibrations.

Zerhouni wrote that NIH is "currently exploring renovation options" for the older facility, the Gerontology Research Center, because many research instruments won't work properly in the building designed to replace it. Vibrations can skew results on highly sensitive microscopes and other instruments.

Zerhouni did not say how extensive - and costly - the renovations might be. A spokesman, asked for clarification last week, said that the NIH would not be able to provide further information.

It is also unclear how many instruments might be unusable at the new building - even with the help of special tables or other methods for minimizing the effects of vibration - and would have to stay at the current lab.

Rising 10 stories on the Johns Hopkins Bayview campus, the Biomedical Research Center was conceived as a state-of-the-art successor to the old gerontology facility nearby. A thousand government scientists investigating aging and drug abuse were expected to move to the 500,000 square feet of offices and labs.

The project was also hailed as a cornerstone of its Southeast Baltimore neighborhood's redevelopment.

But even before the new building's groundbreaking in October 2004, government scientists at the National Institute on Aging complained that the facility's design had fallen victim to cost cutting and that vibrations and other problems could compromise their research, according to documents obtained by The Sun. Initial measurements showed serious vibration problems.

In his letter, Zerhouni said early measurements did indicate problems but follow-up studies show the building meets the design's specifications for vibrations. Last year, specialists measured vibrations three times, he said, and found a majority of research instruments will work properly there.

Vibrations tend to decline in buildings as walls and other features are added at the end of construction, according to experts.

Yet Zerhouni, in an addendum answering Mikulski's specific questions, also said that a "large number" of instruments are significantly more sensitive than the building's design criteria allow. Zerhouni did not specify the number, but a consultant's presentation, obtained by The Sun, indicated more than 150 instruments needed to be shielded against vibrations.

Normally, the most sensitive instruments are placed in the basement to negate the impact of vibrations, but the Biomedical Research Center's basement isn't big enough to accommodate all of the instruments, Zerhouni wrote.

"The existing Gerontology Research Center (GRC), which requires extensive renovation to meet the requirements of [a] modern research laboratory, can house the NIA research that would not work in the new building," Zerhouni wrote. "NIH is currently exploring renovation options for the Gerontology Research Center building."

Mikulski, a member of the Senate Health committee, said through a spokeswoman that she is satisfied with the NIH's review.

Kenneth Drake, project manager for CUH2A, the Princeton, N.J., firm that finished the design of the building, said scientists were surveyed about their needs before construction started and the facility meets the criteria they gave.

Drake described the building as "state-of-the-art in many ways when it comes to vibrations." He blamed scientists' complaints on a reluctance to move to new offices, which might have less space.

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