New-Generation Purdue Biomedical Engineering Facility

A new generation of cross-disciplinary science and engineering facilities is arising to accomodate the blurring lines between fields of study.


Once upon a time, buildings on college campuses were called Chemistry, Biology, Engineering, Computer Sciences, Physics and so on, and we all knew what went on inside. The blurring lines between fields of study, increased collaboration between academia and the private sector, and rapidly changing pedagogy and research are resulting in a new generation of cross-disciplinary facilities.

Research and inquiry are in a state of flux. New avenues of research create new disciplines and the need for facilities that can accommodate disparate equipment and pedagogy. The static teaching and spatial models of the past are outmoded — they deal with what has been discovered and learned. Today’s educational environment is required to be fluid — adjusting to allow for new avenues of communication and exploration. The textbook cannot keep pace with project-based/team-centered learning.

Purdue University is taking science teaching and research to the next level in its Biomedical Engineering (BME) building, currently under construction in West Lafayette, Ind. Purdue President Martin Jischke discussed the university’s strategic plan recently by stating,“taking Purdue to the next level must involve superior campus infrastructure, including premier facilities that foster learning excellence.”

Biomedical engineering is a unique and emerging field that combines engineering and science disciplines with a focus on developing procedures and devices that ultimately benefit humankind. Purdue made a commitment to expand its fastest-growing department into a full-fledged school and create the state’s first undergraduate biomedical engineering program at a public university.“The new building will be an integrative force to bring together current faculty, who are distributed all across campus, with up to 20 new faculty, in a single teaching and research environment,” says George Wodicka, head of the department of Biomedical Engineering.

The challenge for architects and engineers at Purdue was not only to create a form to house new programs, but also to assist in shaping the new undergraduate curriculum. As Dr. Wodicka explains, “the multidisciplinary nature of Biomedical Engineering makes our facility needs different than most in academia. The combination of engineering with computer-based research and the life sciences centered around wet labs is unique and further pressured by the rapid growth curve in the field.”


Evolving Design

The design evolved around a number of key principles:

The corridor is obsolete. Corridors are based on creating minimal linkages between important spaces. They are deadly to learning — tight, cramped — and escape becomes a necessity. They live on through mistaken notions about efficiency.

Primary teaching areas need to be knit together into neighborhoods connected by a streetscape — diverse spaces that are extensions of the lab/class. These areas must have views, activity centers, points of interaction and eddies for group discussion. Cityscape is created to bring together people who may be traveling on parallel or related paths but have not connected. Discovery and learning is not confined to any specific area. The true measure of efficiency should be results-based.

The building is a machine. The building-as-machine mantra sounds futuristic and intimidating, but the goal is to remove barriers, enabling students, faculty and researchers to excel. A building is tunable. Its direction can be adjusted; occupants can change. The integration of systems and the movement of air, water, fluids and gases are critical to the building mission. Project-based connections and adaptability depend on an organized and rational layout of systems.

Security and safety need to be organized in layers. Working in the micro, molecular and nano levels requires various degrees of security and protocols. Teams have access based on roles. Controls are critical. Redundancy is vital for systems and processes that are irreplaceable. The design team identifies and zones the building in layers with a secure core and conceptually less secure outer rings leading to the public zones. This system of layers must coexist with the openness needed in the undergraduate teaching areas.

On the BME project, research labs are set on floors above the academic spaces in a flow-through design and contain a variety of flexible modules. They are buffered in total on each floor by multiple control points. Connecting the secure blocks of space is a vertical atria that brings light down into the building, offering multiple views, overlooks and bridges. The dynamic, internal streetscape allows for visual and personal connections essential to an academic community. These internal pathways also link the building to the surrounding campus fabric through movement and views, creating a broader sense of place and purpose.


Don’t Let the Building Affect Your Lab Results

Architects and engineers need to understand the metrics used by researchers. The building design needs to minimize potential interference of these measurements. Two examples from the BME project:

•Optics labs were placed on specialized, isolated concrete slabs in the lower level to limit vibration.
•Lighting at an upper-level lab was augmented by a secondary system of incandescent lights, because of the energy waves emitted from fluorescent lighting that could affect readings on certain experiments.

Even though flexibility is a constant request, specialized design may call for defined territories.


It’s Not Just About You

Researchers, staff and administrators all place demands on how the building must perform. But each addition to a campus also has a civic role:

•to connect to adjacent spaces and buildings,
•to strengthen the campus fabric,
•to inspire alumni and friends, and
•to attract faculty and students.

To simply meet a functional program is to deny the project’s greater potential. BME serves to anchor a future quadrangle and to become a gateway to a new campus entry. It is a transitional building between the pure research of Discovery Park on one side and the academic campus on the other.


The Design Process Can Benefit the Curriculum

While the design process explored the usual options concerning zoning, adjacencies, space proportion and form, these were not simply judged on the basis of abstract square footage calculations, but on how well they supported the department’s pedagogy. Each proposed layout allowed the faculty an opportunity to imagine how their classes would be affected and to give valuable critique to the design team. Conversely, proposed space layouts suggested alternate approaches to teaching.

One example: the relationship between sophomore-, junior- and senior-level instruction and lab work suggested two parallel teaching labs with shared support but with one containing fixed tables and one being an open “dance floor”-type arrangement for sophomores and juniors. The senior lab is a “black box” space wrapped in systems and supplies but able to be changed routinely as equipment changes. Each space is shaped to respond to faculty and student needs and located to facilitate movement. The relationship between different class levels was originally undefined. By reviewing pros and cons of multiple diagrams, the layout that most clearly supported the departmental goals was chosen.


Design Is About Removing Barriers

The measurement of success is in greater ability to teach, learn and discover. Any barrier that hinders this main mission must be removed. In teaching labs, utility connections cannot interfere with student/teacher interaction. Research spaces and offices need natural light. Pathways cross so teammates can meet. There are places to sit in private and reflect, and changeable rooms where teams can strategize. Half the furniture in BME will be mobile so that teams are not locked into only one way of working.

By using a design process that was not linear but evolutionary — and tying it to a concurrent effort centered on curriculum development — a richer, more adaptable solution was achieved for Purdue University and its Department of Biomedical Engineering.


Kalevi Huotilainen is a principal with the Indianapolis-based A/E firm BSA LifeStructures, Inc. He can be reached at kalevi@bsalifestructures.com.

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