Recently opened lab with functional MRI (fMRI) merges high-tech with soft touch, created with comfort of young patients and their families in mind.
Nationally renowned architecture, art and advisory firm Svigals+Partners has announced the completion of a major retrofit for a life-sciences research facility at the University of Connecticut’s main campus. The 4,000 square foot, two-story windowless concrete structure now contains a state-of-the-art functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner—used for measuring brain activity—and the infrastructure to support its use in groundbreaking medical research.
The research planned will focus mainly on children with learning disabilities, putting the university at the forefront of a pioneering field of neurological study.
Originally completed in 1968, the David C. Phillips Communications Sciences Building has long housed UConn’s hearing and speech clinics. The renovation project led by Svigals+Partners, which specializes in laboratory and research facilities, introduced highly sensitive building technology essential to fMRI research.
“UConn already has a reputation as a strong research university,” says Bob Skolozdra, AIA, LEED-AP, principal-in-charge for the new facility. “Bringing this fMRI technology to the campus helps elevate the university’s national profile, putting them on the map in this nascent field of research. A prestigious project like this can help UConn attract top research talent and major grants.”
Retrofit for High Tech
For the new facility, the University of Connecticut team along with Svigals+Partners managed a web of interconnected design challenges. For instance, the concrete structure needed to be shielded securely against intrusion from radio frequencies and magnetism, typically achieved through the use of silicone, steel and copper. However, fMRI research requires a chamber containing no exposed metal for two reasons: to limit the exposure of ferrous metals to the powerful magnet, and because shiny surfaces can distract a subject and interfere with scan readings.
Skolozdra and his team addressed the shielding challenge in the main chamber, known as the scan room, by designing an interior wall of non-reflective, noise-attenuating panels. These panels are less likely to cause the kind of visual stimulation associated with exposed metal surfaces that could impact fMRI research. The shielding itself had to be inspected and deemed secure before the fMRI machine itself could be set up, even though installation requires removal of a large section of exterior wall to bring in the large sections of equipment, positioned in the facility by crane. After installation the wall was rebuilt and tested.
“The architects were able to utilize the existing building structure alongside sound-dampening materials and fiberoptic lighting to provide a cutting-edge MRI Scanner room,” says Dr. Peter J. Molfese, director of MRI Operations at UConn. “Their work will help to facilitate the needs of researchers from a variety of departments for conducting research on the human brain.”
The Svigals+Partners design team also successfully addressed the existing facility’s infrastructure challenges, says Ron Cooper, project manager for the facility. “The project was originally conceived as an interior fit-out. But it became apparent that, in order to support the highly-technical requirements of the fMRI equipment, major building infrastructure would need to be upgraded,” he says. “The university wound up asking us to complete an upgrade of electrical infrastructure for the entire building, which made sense: in surgical terms, the ‘patient’ was already open.”
This meant building a 10-foot-by-10-foot addition to the original building, to serve as an electrical room. The design team clad this small addition with copper panels and trim, sizing and arranging the panels to reduce the apparent scale. The resulting aesthetic simultaneously complements the original building and hints at the shielding system within the walls.
Aesthetics, Emotion and Scientific Research
Perhaps most important, the scan room and support spaces had to be made as welcoming and unimposing as possible. Because anxiety registers on the fMRI — and because much of the planned research will involve children as subjects — the design team needed to find ways to mitigate the imposing nature of the secure facility and the machinery. In short, it had to be kid-friendly and as calming as possible.
“It couldn’t have turned out better,” says Jay Rueckl, director of the Brain Imaging Research Center at UConn, “and we can thank Svigals+Partners for that. The design is just right for our needs, and that’s because the team at Svigals+Partners really listened to us and understood what we wanted.”
The firm utilized a number of strategies, especially in support spaces where the added touches would not affect scan readings. These ameliorative touches included the use of color and plentiful daylight to create ‘a nurturing environment for the young subjects of the fMRI scans,’ according to the project team. “Svigals+Partners really did a wonderful job bringing natural light into the space,” notes Molfese, “using a combination of transom windows and open floor plan design.”
Other strategies were also employed for making the facility appearance warmer and less imposing. For example, Cooper notes, “We introduced rich maplewood portals in the interior, which reduced the scale and created a more welcoming feel.”
In these ways, aesthetics served the needs of groundbreaking research being conducted by UConn, with the design team studying the effects of design choices inside and outside. Every choice was considered: The seamless resilient flooring in the scan room, for example, introduces lively colors and patterns to help make the room less clinical and more comforting.
The support spaces include a control room, changing area, behavioral testing rooms, and offices. They also feature a mock scan room with a full-size fMRI machine mockup, an ersatz apparatus used only to help acquaint subjects — mostly children — with the process and environment before their actual testing takes place.
Svigals+Partners is uniquely suited to address these kinds of challenges, Skolozdra adds. The firm’s significant laboratory design acumen is enhanced by its philosophy of architecture as a healing force — an approach that has served the firm’s role as architect for the new Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut. It has also become a way to bring uplift and inspiration to a range of civic works, new public buildings and many healthcare and educational projects that serve people young and old.
Based in New Haven, Connecticut, Svigals+Partners is a full-service architecture, art and planning firm dedicated to building sustainable communities that uplift and inspire people. The firm is known for its success in the design and construction of educational facilities, community projects, research and science buildings and corporate workplaces since its inception in 1983. Known for their original and imaginative integration of planning, design, and artwork in the service of broad client goals, the firm is committed to creating meaningful change in the world. Svigals + Partners offers a complete range of architectural services from master planning, site selection and feasibility studies through design and construction. In the firm’s portfolio are major laboratory projects as well as 30 years of new and renovated private and university research buildings.