The study of biology at Penn will get a major boost next fall when the $61.2 million Phase One of the Life Sciences complex opens its doors.
The building -- currently under construction between the BioPond and University Avenue behind the Quadrangle -- will provide the Biology Department with about 57,000 square feet of usable lab and office space.
The Life Sciences project is intended to "create a hub for research and teaching in the life sciences," according to the College of Arts and Sciences Web site.
"We are excited and pleased that this project is coming to fruition," said David Balamuth, associate dean for the natural sciences in the School of Arts and Sciences. "It will benefit students, faculty, and post-docs. Everybody wins, including the public that benefits from the research when it's done."
The 217,065 square foot complex -- estimated to cost in excess of $100 million -- has been broken up into two phases. The first phase began last summer and will create a 107,515 square foot, five-floor research facility, including offices for faculty and "vanilla labs" specifically designed to facilitate collaborative research.
"This whole building is designed to foster collaboration," said Balamuth, who is also a Physics professor.
According to Greg Guild, a professor in the Biology Department and head of the various committees formed across the department to consult with the architects, "Phase One will have two floors down into the ground and three floors above ground," he said.
According to Guild, the sub-basement will house the department's plant specimens, while the basement will hold small animals -- mice, fish and frogs.
Guild had good things to say about Ellenzweig Associates, the architectural firm hired to design the building.
"Ellenzweig is terrific. They have experience building labs and educational buildings," he said.
"We were really working hand in hand with them to make sure every square foot was used," he added.
The second phase -- not scheduled to begin for at least a year -- will demolish the Kaplan Wing and Mudd Laboratory buildings, and connect the phase one building with the Leidy Laboratories. It will also provide space for Psychology faculty and give the Penn Genomics Institute a home.
After going through what administrators called a "crunch" of space, the Biology Department is looking forward to moving into the phase one building.
"We are bursting at the seams," said Department Chairman Richard Schultz. "This helps our ability to hire, so this would enable us to expand [in terms of faculty.]"
"In general, it is very important both to recruit first-rate faculty and first-rate students, and to do that, you need first-rate facilities," said Balamuth. "The truth is our facilities for biology have become outmoded."
"The improved lab space will increase both the quality and quantity of research being done in biology," he added.
The Life Sciences Complex will also allow the Biology Department to move in its desired strategic direction.
"We're interested in evolution and genomics. There is a connection there," said Schultz.
Biology is also "moving into the connection between genes and behavior," he added.
The collaboration between Biology and Genomics "will represent an entirely new phase of biology," said Balamuth. "This is basically a way of understanding a sort of numerical prescription for building an organism, which is a fundamentally new way of studying biology."
But while the new building will increase research facilities, there will be little change in teaching space until phase two.
"The new building will not resolve our problem [of classroom space]," Schultz said.
"When phase two is completed, [however,] it will add some nice classrooms," he said.
Undergraduate biology students will still benefit directly from phase one.
The Biological Basis of Behavior Program "will now be physically located in one area," said Schultz. "It's going to be very good from an undergraduate's perspective to have BBB in one place."
Because the building would be in such close proximity to the BioPond, concerns were raised about the effects the new building's shadow would have on the plants in the garden.
"We will probably lose some of the sunny gardens we have, which means that we will not be able to grow some of the species in the garden," said Tracylea Byford, the BioPond Garden manager.
Attempts were made to minimize the effects of shade when the building was being designed.
According to Guild, shade studies were conducted which asked "How does this building affect shade on the garden?"
"A lot of money and time and effort has been spent to make sure that the garden is preserved," said Balamuth.
Another issue is the land itself. For this particular project, a small portion of the garden -- three per cent of the total land area including about a dozen trees -- as well as two greenhouses close to the University Avenue side needed to be removed, according to Byford.
Officials considered other options, but in the end, removing part of the garden was unavoidable.
"I think one of the problems we have as the garden becomes more and more a giant courtyard, enclosed on all sides, is that we are losing our ability to grow a variety of species," said Byford.
For some, the fact that it was the Biology Department that would occupy the building was part of the reason for the careful approach to the BioPond.
"Because the biologists study living systems, they've always ... been strong and consistent advocates of making sure that the construction will have the smallest possible impact on the garden," said Balamuth.
Mark Wilson, the managing director of Design and Construction Management said that the amount spent on preservation will be about $200,000 by the end of the project.
"It should be noted that this is much more than would have been expended had the garden not been designated 'sensitive' by the University," he added.
Aside from ecological concerns, engineers had to make sure the garden wouldn't "lean into" the construction site.
To alleviate this concern, the construction company built a retaining wall made of steel I-beams, wooden boards and horizontal cables shot into the garden to anchor the wall to the ground in the BioPond area.
"They stabilize the wall so we can build the true foundation wall inside," said Wilson.
"The [preservation] required relatively complex design effort for the screening, mulching and stoning necessary to protect the affected trees," he said in an e-mail interview.
As for the pace of construction, Wilson said the project is on schedule.
"We are proceeding at the appropriate pace. We have not experienced any major issues. You always have things you have to deal with during the construction process, but nothing that we haven't been able to deal with," he said.
"We're delighted that construction is underway. Everything is basically moving along at a good clip and we're delighted to see the rapid progress," said Balamuth.
Ultimately, the construction of the Life Sciences will allow the Biology Department to expand, while maintaining its position as a broad department that studies the entire living world.
"One of the reason why the department has been so successful is that this is a unified department," said Balamuth.
And, in spite of concerns, it appears that the planners managed to minimize its environmental impact.
"This building is unusual in that an unusually high level of attention has been paid to these types of matters," said Balamuth.Comments powered by Disqus
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