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Setting the Stage with Plenty of Space

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Molecular Staging''s labs in the up-and-coming genomics hub of New Haven, Conn., are designed to benefit from mingling.

Until 1998, New Haven’s George Street Technology Center was headquarters for the Southern New England Telephone Company. After a $20 million renovation, Yale University and property owner Winstanley Associates are using the building to lure biotech firms to the area.

Molecular Staging moved to its 30,000-square-foot space at the 300 George Street center from suburban southern Connecticut in September 2000, shortly before completing a $41 million financing round. The company’s core technology, Rolling Circle Amplification Technology, a process for detecting and measuring protein, DNA, and RNA molecules, has broad applications in proteomics, genomics, pharmacogenomics, and diagnostics because it is compatible with many instrument platforms.

Most of the building’s copper switching networks have been gutted, though Frederick Mott, who oversees its ongoing renovation, was quick to show me some rubber and copper spaghetti remaining in the basement. Remodeling left a convenient central artery through which run substantial air handling and piping systems for labs. Up to the penthouse and down to the basement, many core infrastructure components have been replaced, outfitted for reliability.

MSI’s challenge to laboratory architect Philip Koeniger of Jung/Brannen: create workspaces that give every opportunity to extract value from its core techno-logy. One factor in his favor: The floors, even on MSI’s seventh story, can support massive loads (2,000 lbs/sq ft). Building manager Mott attributes it to the building’s Cold War construction legacy. “The whole thing is a fallout shelter,” he says.

That floor plate gave MSI and Koeniger design freedom they needed. Primary workspaces fit into zones: executive offices, administrative staff, and a laboratory block.

These zones are not the facility’s most noteworthy elements, however. Surprisingly, what stand out are hallways — long, wide avenues that span the fullest possible extent of MSI’s space. In lab-planning jargon, this scheme is called a “racetrack,” functional space to the outside with a hall separating it from more utilitarian areas in the core. These corridors tie individual workspace zones to zones designed for interaction, whether collaboration or just conversation.

Between the primary zones (office, admin, and lab) lie large, open, functional shared spaces — a big bowl to toss MSI staff together. There’s an electronic library where researchers can access online journals and analyze experimental data. There’s also a giant all-purpose conference room/break room, split by a movable wall. Banks of wall lockers fill two intersecting corridors that run full-length through the space core.

Space predicates action. Execs walk a distance through halls and across open, shared spaces to their administrative help, or to the meeting room — same for lab staff and scientists. The hallways simultaneously manage flow and facilitate serendipitous discussion.

Step into the labs and look closely, and it appears that the flow of people is intimately tied to the flow of biological information, a result of the sizable information output enabled by rolling circle technology.

Within the laboratory block, hallways wind along windows and open up further as rows of airy but sturdy modular steel casework provide work surfaces for scientists. Each lab bench is capped at its window end by a computer workstation. Computer science is never far from life science; analysis always accompanies experiment.

Yellow walls give way to blue give way to green, as enzymology gives way to proteomics and bioanalytics gives way to cell biology. The corner sections between different lab areas act as buffers. A Beckman Coulter Biomek 2000 fluids-handling robot is parked in its wheeled housing in one corner buffer. A second buffer is slated to hold a new set of lab casework, offering a home for new hires.

“Proteomics is in growth mode,” says Jennifer Joiner, MSI’s vice president of marketing. There are six people in the group now, and 25 are expected when it occupies an additional 20,000 square feet after planned lab expansion.

Architects may have designed ultra-open lab space, but what really brings it to life is a centrally located pod, a set of non-partitioned desktops housing the senior research staff. Sightlines connect them to lab benches in both directions, so they’re easy targets for anyone with a question for them. Senior research scientist Girish Nallur likes being able to see what’s going on in his group. “It maks it easier for the impromptu meeting,” he says.

While the casework and staff pod line the windows, office-size rooms either for lab support or shared resources line the interior wall. Not surprisingly, shared resources in this core are also scattered and promote action. Everyone walks a ways to the shared chemistry space for carrying out oligo synthesis and circle synthesis, often the starting step for MSI’s experiments. The same holds for spaces devoted to cellular analysis and radioisotope work.

Shared production-oriented spaces receive precedence over the biochem and cell bio resources in the core. A Class 10,000 cleanroom houses machinery for producing microarrays. Prominent wall-mounted arrows guide users (air handling makes sure contaminants don’t run counter to the arrows) through the three-room suite, leading to a room with products of MSI’s joint venture with Amersham Pharmacia Biotech: a high-throughput SNP scoring system called SNIPER and a genome sequencing amplification kit called TempliPhi.

“We didn’t want our people cooped up in functional silos,” Joiner says. “So much of the learning going on in one group applies to everyone else here.”

Brad Stenger is a freelance journalist who researches human-computer interaction in computational biology at the Georgia Institute of Technology, designs bioinformatic interfaces for Yale''s Gerstein Lab, and works as a laboratory planner for architectural firm CUJ2A.

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