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Fruit of a Long Labor

An arduous building design project at the National Institute of Standards and Technology has resulted in some of the most advanced labs in the world for taking scientific measurements

By Tom Gibson

After exiting Interstate-270 in Gaithersburg, Maryland, I come to the National Institute of Standards and Technology a short distance from the highway. Driving through the vast campus, I see open grassy areas with people playing frisbee football, bicycling, and running on their lunch hour. A herd of deer cavort in another area.

Meanwhile, in a far corner of the complex stood three concrete buildings surrounding two open fields with funny-looking piping sticking up. The buildings blend in with the rest of the campus with its nondescript structures. With all the bustle and distractions, some people probably take these for granted, if they notice them at all. But rest assured the scientists that will soon work here don’t.

Some of the most technologically advanced buildings in the world, these comprise the new Advanced Measurement Laboratory (AML) nearing completion. The five-building complex consists of the three buildings you see above gro und and two underground structures -- the funny piping in the fields protrudes from these. The AML will feature sophisticated control of vibration, temperature, humidity, electrical power quality, and air cleanliness, allowing scientists to take quantum leaps in their research capabilities.

The AML has come to fruition after a long, ten-year project that had a team of engineers wearing many hats and coming together on a mission. Todd Snouffer, deputy project manager, says: “One of the things I most enjoy on the project is having to deal with different disciplines on any given day. At any one time or any given hour, we might be dealing with soils issues, structural issues, architectural and finish issues, vibration isolation and temperature control.”

Founded in 1901, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is a non-regulatory federal agency within the U.S. Commerce Department's Technology Administration. NIST's mission: to develop and promote measurement, standards, and technology to enhance productivity, facilitate trade, and improve public health and safety and environmental quality. They operate facilities in two locations, including the 578-acre complex in Gaithersburg, the headquarters, and another 208-acre site in Boulder Colorado. The organization employs some 3,000 scientists, engineers, technicians, and support personnel, who conduct research in a wide variety of physical and engineering sciences.

NIST’s Gaithersburg campus was built in the mid 1960s and ranked as state-of-the-art at the time. But the world of scientific measurement has advanced a step or two since then. Today, scientists and engineers can locate and manipulate single atoms on a surface; detect ultratrace amounts of chemicals; and measure optical, physical, and quantum properties of components for telecommunications devices and semiconductor chips. Deteriorating conditions in NIST’s older labs currently limit the quality, accuracy, and productivity of many of these efforts. The AML, a $235-million project, will give NIST the ability to provide industry and science with the best measurements and standards in the world. As Snouffer puts it, “The main thing we’re looking to do is take NIST for the next 30 to 40 years as far as their facilities go.”

Recruiting a Team
The AML began taking root in 1993, when NIST initiated a design project for a new facility. Chris Conley was chief of the Plant Division Facilities Engineering Office, and Snouffer worked for him. The division handled facilities planning, design, construction, maintenance and repairs. Conley and Snouffer, both mechanical engineers, were reassigned to form a new NIST Capital Improvements Facilities Program office, working under the NIST Director of Administration. Conley was made project manager for AML and Snouffer deputy project manager. Soon, two others, K.C. Patel, a structural engineer, and Nancy Snyder, a CADD technician, also came to the staff from the Facilities Engineering Office. “We were given a $105 million budget in 1993 and told to go for it. We had overall control of the design -- not the specifics of the architecture, but the technical requirements as far as the mechanical and electrical facilities in the buildings,” Snouffer recalls.

At the beginning, NIST hired HDR as the main consulting firm for the project. Headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska, HDR covers architecture and many disciplines of engineering through offices around the country, and they had previous experience in designing hospitals and high-tech labs. HDR’s local branch office is in Alexandria, Virginia, where most of the engineers are structural types. To fill out their project team, the firm brought in expertise from their offices all over the country.

As the NIST team’s first job, members conducted engineering studies to see if a new building was feasible. They sent a team through a number of standards laboratories in Europe to see what design concepts existed, pulling in ideas from different areas. Engineers and scientists also visited private and government labs in the U.S. to take stock of high-tech research facilities.

“The AML is more stringent in its environment than just about any other laboratory in the country,” Snouffer states in detailing the team’s design process. When it came to minimizing vibrations in the lab buildings, for example, they had to develop standards for vibration. This involved using finite element analysis (FEA) to model structures. “We were interested in maintaining very low levels of vibration, below one hertz.” Based on HDR’s design, they built a working mechanical mockup of a high-accuracy temperature control lab in an existing building. “We tested three different manufacturers’ controls to show that we would have multiple bidders to bid that.”

NIST and HDR completed design of the AML in 1997. But that same year, the government pulled funding for the project, putting it on hold. Funding resumed in 2000, and the team awarded a construction contract and broke ground, with the buildings going up in phases. Construction on the Clean Room (Building 215) started in December 2000 and finished April 2003, while work on Instrument East (Building 216) began January 2001 and ended November 2002. Instrument West (Building 217) started February 2002 and was completed August 2003. Construction on Metrology East (Building 218) was complete April 2003, and construction on Metrology West (Building 219) began December 2000 and finished October 2003.

In describing the experience, Snouffer relates, “It’s been a roller coaster, with ups and downs. The up periods came when we were working at a breakneck pace getting lots of things done, doing things people hadn’t even tried with the federal procurement system. That was very exciting to break down some of the barriers between the engineering staff and the procurement staff.” To facilitate matters, the two groups were put together in the same office. “That period was very exciting because we had upwards of eight or ten major projects going on at once. You hit the bottom when the funding goes away and you’re diverted to other tasks for a couple years. And then you’re back into the construction, so everything comes back up on top of the roller coaster again.”

Diverse Perspectives
For the last three years, Bruce Barackman has served as the on-site project architect for HDR, while Jim Bartlett has been the on-site quality assurance program manager for the NIST engineering team. Bartlett marvels at how Barackman shuttles back and forth all day between his office and the work site correcting problems that arise.

With a BSEE and a masters degree in engineering administration with a specialty in construction management, Bartlett brings a wealth of experience to the job. He spent 34 years in the federal government working for the Navy, including 12 years of active duty as assistant resident in charge of construction and 22 years in the reserves and as a civilian. He managed construction projects in far-flung outposts such as Vietnam, the Solomon Islands, and European countries. When he retired from the Navy in 2001, NIST hired him as a consultant for the AML project.

Their perspective leads Barackman and Bartlett to comment on the uniqueness of building the AML. “The complexity of this project far surpasses your typical commercial office building,” Barackman says. Bartlett adds, “The amount of heating, ventilating, and air conditioning in this project is just phenomenal. Part of the challenge was convincing the work force, the contractor, that this is not your normal, everyday construction project.”

Each of the AML’s five wings has one level housing laboratory space and one or two levels for mechanical equipment and environmental controls. The two sections below ground were put there for improved vibration isolation and temperature control. Snouffer points out that one problem they encountered in constructing a building underground is that it lies below the water table. They devised a 30-gallons-per-minute (GPM) pumping system that pumps out water from around the building around the clock. They also sealed the building as a backup in case pumps fail. Snouffer says, “We took a belt, suspenders, and safety pin approach.”

As Snouffer and Bartlett took me on a tour of the shiny new AML, construction and maintenance crews were cleaning up and laying floor tiles. First, we ventured into Building 217 Instrument West. They told how all the labs are on one level, rather than stacked on different floors, so they won’t impart vibrations to each other. In a typical lab room, Bartlett looks up and explains, “All the labs are modular. You’ll notice steel tubes running along the ceiling overhead. The walls fit in slots in those tubes. It can be changed around. That’s the key.” We then peered in a galley running through the center of the building with labs on either side. This houses utility lines that feed the labs. Snouffer showed how they can be reconfigured for different lab setups.

Next they told how achieving vibration isolation was accomplished by having separate concrete slabs up to two feet thick for floors and walls with isolation joints between them consisting of an elastomeric caulk. In some cases, they also set a slab on air springs. The reason for all this: to reduce vibration to sensitive experiments measuring atomic distances of just a few nanometers (billionths of a meter).

Moving on, we come to a Class 100 clean room that will provide the air cleanliness needed for more sensitive research. Dust or other stray particles can foul measurements on atomic-scale devices. Bartlett comments, “A dust particle is like a boulder compared to those atoms.” He adds, “We have to wear hair nets and booties when we work in there.”

Ventilation air comes straight down in laminar form from the ceiling and passes through vents in the floor to a plenum underneath. Mechanical equipment sits on the roof. This is no small affair, as some 50 to 60 air handling units comprise the system. Air passes through high-efficiency HEPA filters.

Next stop: Building 218 Metrology East, located underground. At one level appears a maze of ducts, pipes, and air handling units. Snouffer points out that ducts were hung with two-direction isolators to minimize their vibration; these use a rubber element in one direction and a spring in the other.

At another lab, Snouffer remarks, “This is a high-accuracy temperature control lab.” He explains the extent of the this. “The current temperature control in laboratories is about plus or minus two degrees F. at best. In the AML, as the baseline, each laboratory is guaranteed to have plus or minus a quarter of a degree C. minimum. We’ve got that throughout the building as standard. And we’ve got another 36 high-accuracy temperature control labs that are plus or minus one tenth of a degree C. From there, there are another 12 labs guaranteed to plus or minus one one hundredth of a degree C.”

Humidity ranks high as another variable to control because certain instruments, measurements, and chemical reactions are extremely sensitive to it. Systems will minimize humidity variations to no more than one percent in special metrology laboratory sections and five percent throughout the rest of the facility.

Improved electrical power quality also will come with the new labs. In existing NIST labs, spikes and dips in the voltage and current can affect sensitive measurements. The AML has an uninterruptable power system (UPS) and a 1000-kilowatt diesel generator to serve critical areas such as clean rooms. Critical experiments can continue to run in the event of a voltage fluctuation or power outage.

Grand Finale
Near the end of the tour, we come to a lab that may serve as the ultimate showcase. “This lab has temperature, vibration, and cleanliness control all in one,” Snouffer announces. It will house a molecular measuring machine used in semiconductor fabrication. Some clean rooms such as this will see 300 air changes an hour compared with six for a typical office. Snouffer points out that the ventilation system makes very little noise, only a slight hum, because they kept the air speed in ducts low by having many ducts, minimizing vibration. The labs had dual interior walls with return air flowing through the space between the walls. In temperature control rooms, light tubes will be used during experiments because they emit less heat than bulb-type lights. These look like a PVC pipe about five inches in diameter circling the room near the ceiling, with the light resembling black light.

Except for last-minute cleanup and touchup details, the labs appear ready to help scientists carry out their mission. NIST is in process of testing and commissioning the buildings, and they will outfit them in coming months, with relocation to be complete in June 2004.

The engineering team feels a sense of relief and satisfaction at the end of their long journey. As Barackman says, “It was an education for everybody. Keeping abreast of all the items and meshing everything together has been a full plate for the last three years.” Snouffer adds, “If the scientists can look into their apparatus and see something better than they saw before they moved into the new building, then we’ve done our job.”

As we walk back to the office, Bartlett reveals, “This is a heck of a project for me. It caps off my career nicely.” He doesn’t plan to retire just yet, but he knows he will soon. When he does, he and the other engineers will leave behind a project that will allow scientists to carry out cutting-edge research and help businesses for decades to come.

For more information on NIST and the Advanced Measurement Laboratory, visit

Progressive Engineer
Editor: Tom Gibson
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©2004 Progressive Engineer