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Four tips for renovating an occupied laboratory building

Creativity, flexibility, teamwork, and empathy are critical for making a challenging situation work for everyone

By Mike Heikkila

As we all know, the world of higher education is competitive. Really competitive. Schools strive to have the coolest amenities, the most interesting programs, and cutting-edge facilities in the hopes of attracting the best and brightest.

So when a university’s most well-used lab buildings become out-dated, renovations, in turn, become a top priority.

That’s exactly the situation we faced when Penn State hired our team to renovate the Mueller and Whitmore Labs on its University Park campus. These well-worn lab buildings were built over 40 years ago and had fallen behind the times. In fact, today’s incoming students likely had more modern lab facilities in their high schools than these undergraduate teaching labs.

So, deciding to upgrade these buildings was a no brainer for the university. The big challenge then became what to do with all the students who use those labs on a daily basis. The university couldn’t move classes elsewhere and shut down the buildings – they simply didn’t have the swing space. Instead, the project team needed to come up with a plan to complete the renovations while people were still using the building.

We did it, and the new and improved Mueller Building opened last fall. Its sister lab, the Whitmore Building, is wrapping up construction and set to open for the Fall 2016 semester. This experience of redesigning an occupied building isn’t the norm, so I learned a few tips that I can share for those taking on this kind of challenge:

  1. Be creative. Because the building continued to be in use throughout the renovation, we couldn’t simply install the new MEP systems in place of the old ones. At the same time, the building didn’t have room to add new ductwork for new systems. The solution? We put the ductwork outside. We designed ductwork on the outside of the building, encased in brick columns, to both protect the systems and to become an architectural feature. Not only did this idea create new space for modern, more energy-efficient systems, but it also actually improved the façade of what is a fairly simple building design. 
  2. Be flexible. Similarly, accepting a creative approach like this one means changing the “normal” way of doing things. Each project has its own circumstances, and it’s our job as designers to help make the right decisions for each one. While the outside ductwork was the solution for the Mueller Building, we didn’t need to take that measure for Whitmore. Rather, we could use existing chases to house the new MEP systems. What’s more, rather than focus on renovating whole floors while others remained occupied, we split the building in half vertically, renovating one side at a time. While it would have been easy to simply replicate our design from one building to the next, we looked at what made the most sense for each building and adjusted the design and construction approach accordingly.
  3. Be organized. Staging and teamwork with the contractor was critical to making sure the impacts of the renovation were as minimal as possible for those still using the building. Three of the six floors of Mueller were renovated in the first phase, allowing the other three to remain as office and classroom space. Using our design as the guide, we held regular collaboration meetings with the project team to work through each step, ensuring the progress remained on track and didn’t inordinately disrupt the building’s normal operations. Having these regular meetings right from the start did more than ensure the project moved along; it also helped us get to know each other and truly develop a trusted partnership and understanding for making this unique approach successful.
  4. Be understanding. Despite our best efforts to minimize the impact of these renovations on the building’s users, we knew it wouldn’t be seamless. So, to help make their working environment better, we included a number of upgrades into the project that improved the occupied floors as well. From new walls and ceilings to an upgraded HVAC system, the entire building’s environment and performance are vastly improved from the former outdated facility.

From what I’m told, the students and faculty in Mueller love the new building and appreciate the investment the university put into making it a modern, efficient facility that better matches the Eberly College of Science’s reputation. And we expect the same results with Whitmore.

This kind of feedback is why I’m an engineer. I like to solve problems, especially when I can see the direct improvements those decisions make to a community. And who knows – maybe one of these students will one day help find a cure for disease, or a new plant species that could create new medicines, or some other amazing solution to a global issue. Every little bit counts.

Mike Heikkila is a LEED-accredited mechanical engineer.

An illustration of the renovations to the Mueller Building

Each project has its own circumstances, and it’s our job as designers to help make the right decisions for each one.

The new and improved Mueller Building

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