Pardon Our Transformation

Pardon Our Transformation

How Wistar Will Continue Working During Construction

This year, The Wistar Institute embarked on an ambitious master plan that will not only add a massive research tower to the campus, but also completely modernize and upgrade the existing facilities through over 50,000 square feet of renovations. As if that were not remarkable enough, the Institute plans to make all of these dramatic changes while keeping its laboratories open for business.

“The Institute has never built anything like this — that’s what’s really unique about this project,” said James Verzella, Wistar’s construction project manager, who with experience building the Comcast Center and Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, was hired specifically by Wistar to oversee the master plan implementation process — all without any major impact on the operation of the Institute. 

“It’s like having a heart and lung transplant. You’ll be replacing all the organs but not killing the patient in the process,” Verzella said.

The Wistar Institute opened in 1894 in the four-story building that is — and will remain — a touchstone of the Institute. Through the Institute’s long history, this building has been expanded and renovated, most notably with the construction of the Cancer Research Building (CRB) in 1975. 

While both buildings have been continually renovated since, those renovations didn’t follow any plan other than making sure the spaces were functional. Given Wistar’s small footprint in University City, any major, comprehensive expansion would take either ingenuity or relocation to another area.

“Wistar explored every possibility from renovating the existing facility to leaving the site altogether,” said Jeffrey French, FAIA, project principal architect at Ballinger, the design firm orchestrating this project. He started working with Wistar on the expansion over six years ago. “Clearly there was such a wonderful legacy on the site and very compelling collaborations that Wistar investigators continue to have with other research groups in the area. That made it very difficult to imagine leaving the site.”

Instead, Ballinger and Wistar have created a master plan that will not only enlarge the Institute but also renovate existing spaces to maximize team science and collaboration, energy efficiency and sustainability, and the opportunities for inter-collaborative research throughout the entire campus. 

The master plan will be implemented in multiple stages through 2014:

Demolition of the Vivarium

The first step in the master plan is demolishing the current vivarium (animal facility) space. This has already begun as temporary housing for Wistar’s population of laboratory mice has been arranged at at two sites on the University of Pennsylvania campus. Once the vivarium is demolished, that space, combined with the current courtyard, will become the footprint of the new research tower.

Construction of the New Research Tower

The most dramatic piece of the master plan will, of course, be the new research tower.  

“In the spirit of Dr. Kaufman’s goal in team science, each of the floors is in essence a single open lab,” said French, “and each floor will have space for about four principal investigators and 35 to 40 total laboratory workers.”

The labs will include flexible benches that can be arranged and rearranged to meet changing research needs. On each floor, the research area will also be flanked by support spaces like tissue culture rooms, fumehood alcoves, equipment alcoves, and a shared cold room. Large open windows along two sides of the lab will let in natural light.

Construction of the New Vivarium

The new vivarium will be located in renovated space within the CRB. This new, 22,235 square foot, state-of-the-art vivarium will nearly double the facility’s previous capacity, up from 4,000 to 7,000 cages. The design also includes swing space that would allow Wistar to expand
to nearly 9,000 cages in the future. This space will be arranged to include 14 holding rooms with the option to create four additional holding rooms. 

A New Look from Spruce Street

With the new building, Wistar, then, will have two entrances: the original entrance on the 36th Street walk, and a new front door on Spruce Street leading to a soaring glass atrium and connections between all three buildings. 

“Wistar has this quiet presence embedded on the University of Pennsylvania campus in part because there was no street address,” said French. “The street address, and this new front door, will give Wistar an identity they have earned.” 

The new lobby will be a multi-floored space that will blend with the old lobby and create a new hub for the campus. “The concept is consistent with the vision — trying to tie these wings
of the building together — while orchestrating an upgrade of the systems infrastructure throughout the entire complex,” said French. 

Cross-Campus Renovations 

Because The Wistar Institute hasn’t undergone a major renovation since the 1970s, this project will involve a renovation of the existing spaces, renovations that are important to the goal of achieving maximum efficiency and cross-collaborations, says Verzella.

“When you’re in a facility for a long time, you do a lot of renovations and build a lot of walls that don’t contribute to an efficient and collaborative layout,” said French. 

The renovations to both the original building and CRB will undo the nearly 40 years of patchwork and piecemeal renovations to create new, efficient, streamlined, and upgraded space inside the current buildings. 

This project will involve more than knocking down a few walls, too. All of the infrastructure that services the building will be replaced, including: electrical systems, heating and cooling systems, and plumbing. “All the heating and cooling is being rebuilt so there will be all new air-handling units, which requires a lot of ductwork to be reconfigured while the building operates,” said Verzella. Even phone connections will be transferred to new wires. 

While this is a major undertaking that will stretch through 2014, Verzella stresses that the work will be done without shutting down The Wistar Institute. Renovations will generally be conducted on weekends or in “third- shift” overnight hours when the building is largely not in use.