October 12, 2010

New Physical Sciences Building: ‘Twenty-First Century Research’

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The neoclassical Baker Laboratory, rising above East Avenue with its grand columns and bold architecture, has a new, much more modern neighbor.  Adorned with bright white exterior windows, the new Physical Sciences Building is expected to be fully operational by late November.  However, recently, research teams have begun to work within this new modern structure.

The Physical Sciences Building is a joint project between the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Engineering. The Boston-based architecture firm Koetter, Kim & Associates designed the building to redefine the relationships among physicists, biologists, chemists and engineers.

According to Todd Pfeiffer, Weill Hall Facilities Director, the building will accommodate 15 to 20 research groups in the departments of Physics, Chemistry and Chemical Biology, and Applied and Engineering Physics.  It may enhance interdisciplinary research in nanoscale science, x-ray and accelerator physics, chemical biology and biological physics.

Professors in the three departments are enthusiastic, suggested that the building has been necessary for a long time. “We have an extraordinarily talented faculty; we have extraordinarily talented students. What we are desperate for is space – the kind of space that will allow people to do twenty-first century research. This is going to be a fantastic building for our superstar departments,” said Prof. G. Peter Lepage, physics.

The first floor of the new building will be devoted to undergraduate learning, and it will house nine state-of-the-art teaching laboratories for coursework in chemistry, physics and applied and engineering physics, according to Pfeiffer. “Some of these laboratories will be windowed so that passers-by can share the excitement of interesting projects. The building includes more than 80 research and teaching laboratories, a 120-seat auditorium, and new meeting, dining and gathering spaces.”

The building has been designed to create both a figurative and a literal connection between Clark Hall and Baker Laboratory. Shared staircases, hallways and pedestrian bridges both make navigating the building much simpler and contribute to its overall interdisciplinary atmosphere.

“The building is designed to deepen the already existing collaborations between the three departments and to bring people together. The doorways are designed to be kept open so you see what’s inside. This new building will allow us to achieve goals that seemed simply unimaginable until right now,” said Prof. Joel Brock, applied and engineering physics.

The new atrium is meant to encourage interdisciplinary relations and will provide students and faculty a place to relax. “The spacious eight-story, 6,700 square-feet atrium will include a café, comfortable chairs and adjoining tables … as well as a floor-to-ceiling wall of glass providing year-round natural lighting. The space will be great for studying and working, as well as, for grabbing a bite to eat and talking with friends,” Pfeiffer said.

New technology laboratories will complement the nationally famous research space in Clark Hall. However, the building’s new laboratories are unique in their extensive buffering and floor work. Many of the basement laboratories, for example, have ten-thousand pound concrete slabs, which are isolated from the surrounding area.  These slabs eliminate vibration and interference from electromagnetic fields, allowing for controlled experimentation.

The laboratory built specially for Prof. J.C. Seamus Davis, physics, contains this slab and other advanced technology.  He works with atomic-scale fabrication and manipulation using sensitive microscopy tools.  The walls of his lab are lined with special sound-controlling foam. The room also has an extra deep floor, which contains sound absorbing cylinders, making the room especially quiet.

Some of the smaller, undergraduate teaching laboratories too have some “pretty neat features.”  According to Pfeiffer, nearly all the labs contain occupancy sensors, which detect when someone enters or leaves the room. The sensors respond by increasing airflow when the room is occupied, and then decreasing it when the room is empty – an energy saving perk unique to the new building.

The building will become home to the Kavli Institute at Cornell (KIC) for Nanoscale Science, an interdisciplinary center for imaging and controlling nanoscale systems. With 1,400 square-feet of tools, the KIC will strengthen and improve the university’s work with nanoscale science and technology.

Though construction continues throughout the building, offices and labs on the lower floors are already occupied, and the smell of coffee fills the freshly painted halls. Pfeiffer expects the building to be mostly finished by late November with minor construction continuing for about another year.

“The café,” Pfeiffer said, “will be open after winter break, and that’s when I think the building will really be done.”

“The building,” said Prof. Hector D. Abruña, chemistry and chemical biology, “will hopefully allow us to pursue, collectively as a department, areas that would impact what I would consider some of the most pressing issues that we face as a society, mainly things related to sustainability, energy and human health.”

Original Author: Maria Minsker