Aesthetics, Functionality and Purpose

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Written by Jessica Ferlaino

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Roybal Campus headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia is a perfect example of how a building can be designed and constructed to play a vital role in the health and well-being of society. The CDC is the leading public health institution in the United States. Its location was chosen for its proximity to the malaria outbreak that was affecting the southern United States in 1947, but it has evolved with the needs and priorities of the nation.
Healthy buildings and institutions are critical to the efficient functioning and performance of a healthy society. Buildings are more than about protection from the elements and safety. Buildings, when thoughtfully designed and well-constructed, can define a space or a community. From their design and layout to the materials and methods used, the construction team must reconcile numerous factors to realize an owner’s or developer’s vision.

The CDC is dedicated to disease prevention and control, which can extend to chronic disease, workplace health, environmental health, foodborne pathogens, terrorism preparedness and education. As one of only a handful of labs that are equipped to deal with the most dangerous germs, it is an important part of public health and safety. Beyond its essential function of housing this agency, the CDC campus was designed and constructed sustainably and exemplifies the importance of building design that incorporates both aesthetics and purpose.

The Roybal campus is made up of several remarkable buildings that serve the organization’s overall mission. What is most impressive about the various buildings at the CDC’s Atlanta headquarters that it each was completed by the highly-regulated public-sector entity within the confines of a budget.

Building 110 is home to toxicants bio-monitoring and was the largest and most complex LEED Gold-certified federal laboratory at the time of construction in 2005. The building was designed with flexibility in mind so it would be able to adapt to available resources and technology as well as being ready to respond to shifts in program emphasis.

Upon completion, Building 110 was acknowledged as the ‘Best of the Best’ for green interiors by the Georgia chapter of International Interior Design Association (IIDA). The design team was awarded the CDC Partners in Public Health award, the first instance in which a team outside of CDC research won.

The CDC Atlanta headquarters also contains Building 20, a five-story building that encompasses offices, as well as the organization’s health and wellness center. In the mid-2000s, there was a huge push for the organization to become a model of health in the public sector, and as a result, $21 million was invested in the new building, which included a state-of-the-art fitness center on the main floor.

The commitment to health has had positive results, drawing many employees into the facilities every day. Employees are encouraged to use the fitness center and well-being programs during lulls in the workday and music is played in the stairwells to inspire their use.

Now, not only does the CDC support public health safety, it extends the same to the thousands of employees who work at its Atlanta campus. It has also overhauled its culture to become the model of health.

While the campus is impressive and each of its buildings is a part in the CDC’s overall success, what happens when a building that is heralded as being the new standard in the public sector does not last as long as expected?

Recently, the CDC requested $400 million to upgrade Building 18, the Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory. The building was originally constructed in 2005 for over $200 million with an expected lifespan of fifty years. Thirteen years later, many people are left scratching their heads about what went wrong.

Regarded as the premier biocontainment facility of its kind in the world, it has the equipment, capacity and security features to handle the most exotic, dangerous and infectious pathogens. The laboratory works to understand disease outbreaks and protects the public from potential threats.

When it was designed, serious consideration was taken regarding coordinating the mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems. Even materials were carefully selected to ensure effective, safe operation. The project required specialized equipment and innovative construction techniques.

Building 18 received several awards, including 2006 Excellence in Construction award for a mega project by Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) of Georgia, 2006 Outstanding Achievement Award in the high-rise category by the American Concrete Institute and many more.

While security and safety were considered during design and construction, something that was not considered was that the building would be in operation at all times. Recently, the lab has been experiencing problems such as a decontamination shower failure in 2009 and a fire in a lower-level lab in 2015. What complicates matters is that it cannot be upgraded without completely shuttering it.

Many of the parts that are needed to repair and upgrade the CDC laboratory are no longer made. Due to the complexity of the systems, it would be better for a completely new facility to be constructed, repurposing the existing building once the new one is completed.

The general contractor on the project was responsible for creating an airtight environment and testing various internal components such as air pressure resistant doors and windows, bio-seal dampers, sealed electrical, plumbing and HVAC controls.

The facility is one of few facilities that have biosafety level 4 laboratories, the highest-containment labs in the world. An attached five-story building includes biosafety level 2 and level 3 laboratories, offices, equipment and a glass-washing area, as well as a central utility plant with mechanical, electrical and plumbing support.

The new building would require the same amount of lab space and security considerations. The design would include biosecurity level 4, 3 and 2 enhanced laboratories and high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters in the supply and exhaust systems, pressure cascade zoning, systems for collecting and treating effluent, chemical showers and other safety systems.

Early estimates put the construction timeline of a new facility at four years. The request is being made with some urgency as there is fear that the longer the process takes, the more likely there is to be a failure of epic proportions. This is only a preliminary budget and the project could cost far more. There is space available at the Roybal Campus for this expansion, but a final decision has yet to be made.

If the building is no longer performing as expected, the CDC’s ability to contain some of the most dangerous diseases in the world is being compromised, putting public health and safety at risk. If the facilities are not updated, not only will they not be able to serve a preventative role through the ongoing research and studies, but there is also a risk of these dangerous contagions breaching the security protocols meant to protect those who work in the building and the public.

The fact that even a well-designed building can have failures of this magnitude drives home the care that must be taken when redesigning and constructing a new Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory.

What can be done to prevent the same thing from happening? How can the design and construction teams ensure that the lifecycle of the building fulfills expectations? These are the questions that will need to be asked to make certain that public funds are not spent in vain and that the laboratory performs as expected for the long haul.



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