The economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic has, like many recessions before, led to a slowdown in building projects, from education to retail to office towers. One outlier? The niche world of high-risk pathogen research facilities.
“The COVID pandemic has been a huge eye-opener,” says Paul Hansen. He’s a principal in the science and technology division of Flad Architects, which focuses primarily on buildings for research organizations, universities, and healthcare institutions, such as the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense in Maryland and the Department of Homeland Security’s National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Kansas. “I think the [facility] operators and the public health community is really asking how do we sustain this and ensure that we’re prepared for the next pandemic.”
Being prepared means building highly specialized facilities capable of diagnostic research on the kinds of pathogens that, if widely spread, could lead to another global outbreak. Categorized by their biosafety level, these facilities range from relatively modest labs at biosafety level 1—think high school science lab—to airtight rooms-within-rooms requiring safety suits and extensive decontamination equipment at BSL 4, where deadly viral diseases like ebola are studied. Hansen says COVID-19 is being studied in BSL 3 facilities, leading to a surge in demand from universities and public health institutions hoping to research pathogens and vaccines. “We’re seeing, across the industry, increased renewal and investment, a repurposing of lower containment spaces from BSL 2 to 3, but also additional investment in BSL 3 labs,” he says. Most universities are equipped with BSL 2 facilities, which are capable of containing disease-causing pathogens, with only moderate risk to lab personnel. Making the jump to BLS 3 would allow facilities to more safely study such pathogens. And the more lab spaces studying pathogens, the more likely researchers will be able to quickly develop vaccines to cure the diseases they cause.
Designing spaces that can be used safely to study such infectious and deadly diseases is no simple matter. One project currently being designed (though it was planned before the emergence of COVID-19) is the High Containment Continuity Laboratory, a new BSL 4 facility in Atlanta for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that will focus specifically on emerging high-risk at an estimated cost of up to $480 million. Designed by Flad in partnership with architects and engineers from Page and WSP, the facility will be one of only three facilities in the world designed and certified by the CDC specifically to research highly contagious viruses. It will feature highly filtered air systems with two layers of HEPA filters capable of blocking 99.99 percent of airborne contaminants, air pressure-resistant doors, systems for isolating and sterilizing test material, and chemical decontamination showers for lab workers. Construction is expected to begin in 2021.
The CDC’s state-of-the-art facility will be equipped with a variety of the latest safety features, but many other BSL 3 and 4 labs have the equipment and safety measures in place to conduct similar high-risk research, according to Ross Ferries, an architect and science planner at Flad who’s been designing research labs for more than 20 years. “Most of the biosafety comes from the protocols the people use as they’re working and as they’re entering and exiting the space. But understanding how those work is really critical to ensure that the design we do supports everything the users are doing to keep themselves and the community safe,” Ferries says. “That can be as simple as having a hand wash sink in exactly the right spot, so people aren’t touching excess things before they wash their hands, and also seeing the sink there as they leave reminds them that they always need to wash their hands.”
When the pathogens being studied can pass through the air as easily as the virus that causes COVID-19, the rooms themselves have to be able to contain them. Through pressure systems, filtering, and airtight doors and walls, the equipment and materials that make up these lab spaces are far more advanced than in a typical building. “As we get higher to level 4, we do a lot of work to design and detail every component to fit into airtight walls,” Ferries says. “And that means that an electrical outlet that is simple to put into your house becomes a fairly complex piece that ensures that no air can blow in or out through little crevices around the wires.”
The resulting lab spaces are compact and efficient, with an emphasis on easily cleanable materials like stainless steel and epoxy finishes. Ferries says a big challenge is the size of each room within the lab. The rooms, which are often decontaminated by gas, need to be small enough to efficiently sterilize, but also big enough to accommodate the bulky isolation suits lab workers are required to wear when dealing with highly contagious or deadly pathogens like ebola.
One way to balance out the meticulous precision of the lab–with decontamination and disrobing processes that can take up to 45 minutes–is to locate them near spaces filled with natural light. “A lot of them, adjacent to the containment area, have open atriums and spaces that are really relaxing and enjoyable because we know they’ve been in an intense environment,” Ferries says.
Though not all facilities will need the extreme precautions of the CDC’s new High Containment Continuity Laboratory, Ferries says many will likely begin paying more attention to things like air filtration, airtight gaskets around doors, and lab worker decontamination. The COVID-19 pandemic could have a similar impact to what he saw after the September 11th attacks. There were several instances of biological agents being sent through the mail, and he says labs quickly beefed up to be able to handle the potential threat. “The awareness of that risk spawned a huge boom in building and funding of containment labs,” he says. “I think the whole world now is aware of how important these issues are.”