New building awaits grand opening

Joel Sawyer

The gala opening of the $62.7 million Basic Sciences and Biomedical Engineering Building on October 11 could usher in a new era of interdisciplinary scientific research at the University.
Gov. Carlson, University officials, state legislators and business leaders are expected to be on hand for the unveiling of the building, which stands next to Coffman Memorial Union on the south end of Northrop Mall.
The facility will bring together students and 70 faculty members from various science departments to perform research, exchange ideas, and collaborate on a variety of scientific projects.
The building is a state-of-the-art research facility that will provide “great flexibility in biomedical programs for the next 50 to 75 years,” said David Hamilton, a professor of cell biology and neuroanatomy, who played a key role in drumming up support for the building.
Faculty members from nine basic science programs will be housed in the facility and will concentrate their studies around five broad themes: neuroscience, structural biology, immunology, biomedical engineering, and cellular and molecular biology.
These five areas, according to Hamilton, are research strengths that the University’s Academic Health Center, which consists of seven health care schools and University Hospital, hopes to nurture. “These are areas, in general, that the University has been strong in,” he said.
The nine programs to be housed in the building include cellular and developmental neuroscience, neurobehavioral studies, cellular and molecular biology, immunology, biomedical engineering, and structural biology.
Hamilton predicts the facility will attract prominent researchers, increase grant funding for biomedical programs and bring prestige to the University.
Hamilton said that when he came to the University in 1977, administrators promised him that Jackson, Owre and Millard halls, buildings that housed biomedical programs, would be renovated. But budgetary constraints at the University in the late 1980s prohibited renovation, so Hamilton began lobbying for a new building.
With the help of former Medical School Dean David Brown, Cherie Perlmutter, a special advisor for faculty affairs in the Academic Health Center, and health center Assistant Vice President Vilis Vikmanis, Hamilton spearheaded efforts to gain funding and support for the building.
In 1990 the Minnesota state Legislature agreed to allocate $52.7 million for the building’s construction. Hamilton also enlisted the assistance of 5th Congressional District Rep. Martin Sabo, DFL-Minneapolis, who helped secure a $10 million grant for the project from the U.S. Department of Defense.
With financial backing secured, University officials studied several research facilities across the country, including those at the Mayo Clinic, 3M and Stanford University, “to get a sense of what people were seeing as the future of biomedical research,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton and planners from the St. Paul firm BWBR Architects then came up with a design for a seven-story structure that pays homage to other buildings on Northrop Mall. Traces of neoclassical architecture can be detected in the building’s columns and exterior. Architects also used building materials, such as brick, that match other neighboring structures.
“It blends in well,” said Hamilton, who was told by University officials that the building must conform to the general architecture of the mall.
The building consists of a laboratory wing and an office wing divided by a glass-enclosed circular court that extends from the second floor to the ceiling skylight.
The central court areas will have comfortable furniture and tables that will allow colleagues to mingle, eat lunch, or relax with a view of the Minneapolis skyline. “The building was designed for casual interactions with people,” Hamilton said.
The office tower has 20 offices on five floors, each fully equipped with electrical outlets, telephone jacks and ethernet connections for computers. Each level also has a large conference room overlooking the central court area which will be interactively linked with a 160-person seminar hall on the second floor. This interactive link will allow researchers to view and participate in presentations or meetings in the seminar hall from the conference rooms.
The high-tech laboratory space on each floor is open and well-lit, with plenty of space to perform research projects, according to Hamilton. Ceiling lights dim or brighten automatically in response to the amount of light filtering in from outside the building.
Rooms which house microscopes and cleaning and refrigeration equipment are pressurized, creating a vacuum that blows dirt and dust out of the room to keep it from settling and contaminating the equipment.
The first floor of the building will be dedicated to what Hamilton calls “high-powered analytical instrumentation.” The floor will house one of the largest and most advanced nuclear magnetic resonance labs in the world, Hamilton said.
Nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers provide images of the atomic structure of biomolecules.
The floor will also have space for confocal and electron microscopes mounted on a floating, vibration-free mantle of bedrock and will have labs for X-ray crystallography, fluorescence-activated cell sorting, and a surgery suite.
Another area of the first floor will be occupied by the East Bank supercomputer laboratories.
The building’s designer, BWBR Architects, specializes in large projects with high technological requirements, said Ernst Ibs, BWBR’s project’s coordinator. The new building, Ibs said, is flexible enough to be used for many years because of its sophisticated telecommunication capabilities, ventilation systems and handicapped access.
The official move-in date is set for Dec. 1, Hamilton said, adding that when they arrive, faculty and the building’s 400 support staff should be able to begin work right away. “All they’ll have to do is walk in, plug in their equipment and start working,” Hamilton said.