Lord Aeck Sargent Designs an Employee-Friendly Research Lab

Lord Aeck Sargent’s redesign of a virus research center features an unusual open plan.

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Lord Aeck Sargent’s (LAS) unusual redesign of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center (ADARC)—its third in as many decades—features light-filtering windows including one with a dramatic 11th-floor view. Courtesy © Pavel Bendov

There’d be no discussion of wellness without research, so it stands to reason that facilities where research happens could be among the best places to observe wellness-driven design. A case in point is the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center (ADARC) at Columbia University, which was being relocated and redesigned by architecture firm Lord Aeck Sargent (LAS) in early March when one of New York City’s first confirmed coronavirus cases was reported at the university hospital across the street.

“This is when we were told to get on an airplane and go home,” recalls Larry Lord, the Atlanta-based firm’s cofounder and a specialist in research laboratory design.

It was also the point at which the architects determined the updated lab must be designed to handle an emerging shift in its research priorities.

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Because this was Lord Aeck Sargent’s third update for the center (LAS designed the first ADARC in midtown Manhattan in 1991), the architects’ initial design already included functionality needed to help it pivot to COVID-19–related work while continuing its AIDS research. That included a state-of-the-art biosafety level 3 (BSL-3) lab, which, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is rigorously designed to protect researchers and prevent the spread of pathogens. This is enabled by the clean room’s dedicated airflow system—separate from the rest of the building’s—that circulates clean air, and two sets of locked doors that seal it off from the rest of the center.

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Asked for worker-friendly interiors, the design team incorporated lounge areas and connected the lab’s two floors with a staircase, studded with artworks, such as one depicting a DNA helix that’s actually a rug created by late LAS designer Jack Owens for the lobby of ADARC’s first location in midtown Manhattan. The largely open floor plan is full of daylight from windows on the perimeter and prioritizes views for worker health. Including windows in the biosafety level 3 lab is a departure from traditional research facilities. Courtesy © Pavel Bendov

Beyond the complex engineering, ADARC also needed space that would enhance the well-being of its researchers, who tend to carry out meticulous, repetitive tasks for long periods of time. Lord Aeck Sargent’s solution exemplifies a new philosophy in laboratory design: Instead of a series of sterile clean rooms hidden in a basement, the two-story, 28,050-square-foot center is largely open and filled with light from windows that also provide sweeping views of New York City. Adapting the 45-year-old spaces (specifically the 10th and 11th floors of Irving Medical Center’s Hammer Health Sciences building) entailed a gut renovation of the previous warrens of dim corridors and partition walls. The new open plan, in contrast, fosters the idea that “the best research happens when you bring disparate people from different fields together,” explains Ben Elliott, Lord Aeck Sargent’s director of science and technology innovation. It also reflects ADARC’s multidisciplinary approach to research, which brings virology, immunology, molecular biology, and clinical medicine together under one roof.

The architects prioritized bringing uplifting natural light into the space so much that they created a line item in the project budget for window-washing services. “Cleaners had to use acid to clean them—that’s how dirty they were,” notes Lord, who describes his role as the project’s “fiscal realist.”

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Courtesy © Pavel Bendov

The huge value of a seemingly basic feature wasn’t lost on David Ho, a virologist named Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1996, who leads ADARC. Ho says that he’s thankful for his new lab’s big, clean windows, especially during grueling long days: “From one conference room, we can see the whole Manhattan skyline as well as the Hudson River. It’s really fantastic.” Ho is also impressed with how the architects found a way to infuse light into a BSL-3 facility through tightly sealed windows—a departure from most others, which tend to be dark, claustrophobic rooms.

The most dramatic intervention involved boring a hole through the 11th floor and building a staircase to connect the two levels—a feature that Ho requested. “We wanted the two floors to function as one unit,” he explains. “If you had to go push an elevator button and ride down one floor, it wouldn’t feel that way.”

Complementing the center’s congenial architecture are several vibrant works from the art collection of the center’s original benefactor, the late Irene Diamond. One eye-catching wall tapestry that features a DNA model, however, is by late LAS architect Jack Owens. Originally designed as a rug for ADARC’s former location, it bears special significance: Owens died of AIDS in 1992. “We really found that these kinds of artistic features give some relief to all of this tedious work that people are doing,” says Lord.

Ho, who has worked closely with Lord Aeck Sargent throughout all three of its iterations over the past 30 years, believes that the space’s design contributes to the quality of scientists’ work. “The engineering aspect has to be there, but there’s no reason why you wouldn’t make a lab pleasant as well,” he explains. “I think people work better in a nicer environment, and that’s what Larry’s firm has done for us with the laboratory.”

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