By Danielle Herman
In two years, when the state’s new food, chemical and pest research and testing center officially opens in west Raleigh, some of the technologies and equipment planned for use in the building might have changed. But that shouldn’t be a problem, because the Agricultural Sciences Center is designed with plenty of room to grow.
The N.C. Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services broke ground in July on the 225,000-square-foot building on state-owned land at the corner of Reedy Creek and Edwards Mill roads. The three-story center will combine four divisions now housed in separate buildings. Most of the current facilities, totaling about 122,000 square feet and located downtown or off Blue Ridge Road, were built in the 1970s and had become cramped and difficult to maintain.
By contrast, the upgraded center will accommodate the latest technologies.
“This is one of the most — if not the most — complicated laboratories in the United States,” says Joe Reardon, assistant commissioner for consumer protection. The upgrades will help the agency attract new talent, Reardon and others say.
Inside, scientists will conduct routine tests that protect humans and animals, calibrate measurement devices and test motor fuels. In addition, the center will add capabilities such as whole genome sequencing, which helps scientists more quickly detect and trace foodborne illnesses such as E. coli. The veterinary division will have a new toxicology unit, and the center will include a sealed room where scientists can perform quarantined testing in the event of a virulent disease outbreak.
Planning for the center started in 2014. It is being funded by $94 million approved by voters as part of the 2016 Connect NC bond package and an additional $13 million from the N.C. General Assembly. About 170 scientists and administrators from the four divisions — food and drug protection; standards; structural pest control and pesticides; and veterinary — will work at the center.
“This lab is the front line of defense for the safety of all North Carolinians with regard to food, drugs, motor fuel, pesticides, pathogens [and] animal disease,” says Kristen Hess, principal and CEO of HH Architecture. The Raleigh-based firm was selected as the project’s lead architect in 2016.
The department’s state scientists, whom Hess calls “the best co-designers and co-pilots we could have,” were involved throughout the process. “We wanted to design the best lab possible to let them do a good job. Some of the buildings they’re in right now were not designed for the science they do.”
Despite the larger space, fitting more than 1,400 pieces of existing equipment while leaving space to accommodate new and future features has been a challenge, says Ron Willett, laboratory manager at the food and drug protection division, who will be complex manager. One lab the planners looked at had set aside space for the latest technology available, but by the time it opened, the equipment no longer fit in the designated space.
“It just shows how fast things change,” Willett says. “By the time you move in, the technology has changed, and they had to adapt space to fit. So we’re designing this building to be as flexible as possible.”
Another important task is making sure the building’s design prevents cross-contamination among labs while being as efficient as possible. The lab will combine some workspaces, and features such as north-facing windows to reduce heat and glare will improve efficiency.
“Everybody is really looking forward to having a nice, functional building where we don’t have to worry, ‘Is it going to be hot enough or cool enough? Are my environmental controls working so the humidity is where it needs to be?’” Willett says.
In addition to HH Architecture, eight companies — JE Dunn Construction Group Inc., T.A. Loving Co., HERA Inc., Integrated Design, Stanford White, Stewart, MBP and Facility Dynamics Engineering Corp. — are involved with the project. The center is expected to be complete by October 2020.