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Designed for Science
Yale is wasting no time making good on President Richard Levin’s commitment to enhance the sciences at the University. Slightly over two years ago, on January 20, 2000, he announced that Yale was dedicating a whopping $500 million to new facilities in science and engineering. The engineering component has been marked over the past year by a flurry of high-level hires (see Apr. ), and the sciences are now the beneficiary of a path-breaking new building. Dedicated on October 26, the Class of 1954 Environmental Science Center (ESC), at the foot of Science Hill, provides a very physical taste of targeted academic enterprise.
The best work in the environmental sciences, said Levin in his speech at the dedication, is “inevitably and increasingly collaborative.” The ESC, which represents the completion of the first phase of what is expected to be a 20-year-long building campaign in the Science Hill neighborhood, is a facility specifically designed to help collaborations happen. But as people toured the facility—and admired such touches as fossil-bearing limestone wall accents, the surprisingly bright corridors illuminated by skylights, natural history mosaics in the terrazzo floors, and a ferocious dinosaur skeleton suspended in the stair tower—they may not have been aware that the ESC is also the solution to a very old problem: the overstuffed (and underutilized) Peabody Museum of Natural History.
When biologist Alison Richard became the Peabody’s director in 1991, she inherited a sprawling collection of insects, birds, dinosaur bones, Indian artifacts, animals in formaldehyde, rocks, and pressed plants—more than 12 million specimens in all. The Peabody houses a priceless archive of the world’s biological and physical diversity, and collectors and donors continue to add new material to the trove. “A museum is never done,” says Richard, who is now the University’s provost.
But a good museum quickly runs out of room. “The current building opened its doors in 1925, and from the word go, it needed more space,” Richard says. Indeed, the Peabody’s annual report that year noted that, “while the new building is highly satisfactory, it is already filled.” Expansion, said then-director Richard Swann Lull, was “sorely needed.”
But for a number of reasons ranging from philosophical to financial, that need, and a number of others which only became apparent much later, wouldn’t be met until this past February, when the ESC formally opened for business. The $42-million building, designed by David M. Schwarz ’74MArch, is a three-story, 98,000-square-foot facility that fronts Sachem Street and occupies the footprint of Bingham Laboratories, which were razed for the new construction. Project architect Brian O’Looney ’90, from David M. Schwarz Architectural Services, of Washington, D.C., along with Yale facilities managers Kemel Dawkins, Tom Draeger, and Kari Nordstrom, and University Planner Pamela Delphenich, oversaw the day-to-day building of the ESC by Linbeck Construction, a Texas-based firm.
The ESC, which is connected by walkways and corridors to both the Peabody and the Kline Geology Laboratory (KGL), has features that allude to neighboring buildings and to the rhythms of Yale’s neo-Gothic architecture, notes Schwarz. “We wanted it to reflect the spirit and feel of Yale,” says Schwarz, “and to help integrate Science Hill back into the main campus.”
The forms of the windows hark back to those of the vintage buildings designed by James Gamble Rogers, as well as to Philip Johnson’s 1964 Kline Biology Tower. The castle-like turret on the south end of the ESC is a play on Osborn Memorial Laboratories. And the variegated brickwork recalls that of the Peabody and KGL.
About half of the ESC will be used by the Peabody, chiefly to better house and conserve many of its collections and make them more accessible to scholars and students. In addition, the facility will provide office, laboratory, and classroom space for the departments of ecology and evolutionary biology, geology and geophysics, and anthropology, as well as the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies (FES) and the Yale Institute for Biospheric Studies (YIBS).
Major funding for the new facility came from the Class of 1954, which designated $25 million for the building from the historic $70 million Tercentennial gift it made to Yale last year (see “Giving and Getting,” Feb. 2001); the Class has also earmarked $25 million for a chemistry research building that is expected to open in four years. Three additional facilities—one for FES, one for engineering, and one for molecular, cellular, and developmental biology—are in the planning stages as part of the President’s Science Hill upgrade.
Alison Richard, who has played a leading role in the ESC project for the past ten years, explains that there was nothing ad hoc about its mix of tenants. “The facility was conceived, planned, and built as a fundamentally interdisciplinary facility,” says Richard, the Franklin Muzzy Crosby Professor of the Human Environment and one of the world’s experts on lemurs, a group of primates found primarily in Madagascar.
At the heart of the ESC is something few people will ever actually see: $3.5 million worth of custom-designed cabinets. There are more than 2,000 of them, and into these will go, when all the moving is done in about two years, the Peabody’s collections in vertebrate and invertebrate zoology, invertebrate paleontology, botany, paleobotany, and entomology. (Other material will either remain in the museum or be moved to a nearby storage area.)
During a recent behind-the-scenes tour, Tim White, the senior collections manager for invertebrate paleontology, discussed some of the features that he and Delta Designs, of Topeka, Kansas, incorporated into each metal box, most of which are four or five feet tall, four feet wide, and 30 inches deep."Specimens such as fossil plants and invertebrates can be heavy, so we got very sturdy drawers with special Teflon-painted drawer glides that make them easier to handle,” says White.
The cabinet units, which generally are stacked in pairs nine feet high, sit on reinforced concrete floors supported by massive steel girders and engineered to withstand loads of 350 pounds per square foot. (A more typical load in an office building would be 100 pounds per square foot.) The cabinets also are attached to chain-driven tracks on the floor and can be moved easily by turning a hand crank.
The well-organized set-up is a far cry from the haphazard situation that has too often been the collection manager’s lot. “For most people involved with our collections, this new arrangement is like going from hell to heaven,” says White.
However, before any material—anything from preserved dragonflies and dried grasses to field notes and specialized library books—can be moved into the ESC, it has to undergo a four- to five-day stint at sub-zero temperatures in a Peabody freezer. “We want to start with a fresh slate,” says White. “This means killing any lurking bugs that can eat specimens and then practicing what we call &ldsquo;integrated pest management’ to keep the collections areas as pest-free as possible.”
In the past, insects have been controlled through the use of pesticides, moth balls in particular, but concerns about their effects on the health of the humans who use the collections have prompted museums to attempt to phase out chemicals. Besides the freezing treatment to avoid importing pests, the ESC will isolate the collections—the “people” area and the collections area are separate parts of the building—and use the facility’s sophisticated air-handling and climate-control systems to create temperature and humidity conditions that are not conducive to insect life.
Keeping things cool and dry is also critical to preserving the material. The fact that various environmental factors couldn’t be controlled with any kind of precision in some of the Peabody’s storage areas was leading, says Richard, to disaster.
“Early in my tenure as museum director, I saw first-hand the deterioration of many of the specimens,” she says. “Here we had this superb record of the history of life, and right in front of our eyes, rocks and fossils were disintegrating and turning to dust.”
At the time, conservationist and philanthropist Edward Bass ’67 had recently given the University $20 million to bolster its work in environmental science. One result of his gift was the creation of the Yale Institute for Biospheric Studies, an interdisciplinary endeavor designed to recruit faculty, train students, and fund research in a variety of environmental areas.
As YIBS was being developed, then-Peabody director Richard, FES dean John Gordon, and YIBS director Leo Buss joined forces to propose that the Bingham Lab be refurbished to become an environmental science center. The group also suggested that Yale could build a “shed” on the Bingham parking lot to house some of the Peabody’s collections.
“Doing nothing was unacceptable,” says Richard.
Still, the proposals sound preposterous today. Bingham Labs, although built in 1959, was then at the end of its useful life, and as for the shed, well, those were desperate days marked by steep deficits in the University budget and a prohibition on new buildings (a shed didn’t count).
Bass, who served on the University’s Peabody committee, was well aware of the dilemma and instead proposed using half his gift as seed money for a more ambitious facility. As Yale’s financial position improved, and the ban on new construction was lifted, the “germ of an idea,” says Richard, began to evolve into the ESC.
One key principle that guided the creators of the building was greater access to the collection. “It’s an enormous resource that the University goes to great expense to maintain, but because of infrastructure obstacles, it wasn’t getting used enough,” says Richard Burger, the Peabody’s director since 1994 and a “co-conspirator” on the ESC project since its inception.
The fact that specimens will soon be easy to find and retrieve will help make the Peabody more of a participant in Yale’s research agenda, says Burger, a professor of anthropology specializing in Peru. In addition, recently developed technologies in such areas as molecular biology, population genetics, and isotope analysis (laboratories for investigating these subjects are included in the building) are making it possible to ask new questions about the Peabody’s holdings and about the natural world in general. “We’ve deliberately brought together people interested in studying the environment from a variety of complementary perspectives,” says Burger. “We’re building a community, and we hope this will stimulate new kinds of interactions.”
Michael Donoghue, the chairman of the department of ecology and evolutionary biology (EEB), is especially excited about the prospects. “On the first floor, EEB ecologists will have offices and labs in close proximity to theircolleagues in forestry,” says Donoghue, who holds a professorship named in honor of the late G. Evelyn Hutchinson, a Yale biologist credited with being one of the founders of ecology. “The way the building is set up, researchers will always be running into each other, and they’ll be right across the hall from the collections.”
The EEB chair and his colleagues interested in systematics and evolutionary history will be on the third floor in close proximity to each other and to the specimens they study. Donoghue investigates plants and new schemes in taxonomy, and he already has ongoing collaborations with Jacques Gauthier and other geologists who will occupy the second floor of ESC. “There are many researchers in the environmental area who already know they want to work together,” he says. “The physical arrangement of this building will make it easy to happen.”
The ESC is also designed to better integrate the Peabody with undergraduate education. “When we teach environmental science courses, we can easily bring material in from the collections for students to use in the building’s labs,” says Donoghue. “And we can also make a very underutilized resource—the collections managers—a part of our teaching efforts.”
Provost Richard, whose academic office is in the south turret, is particularly pleased to see the building come to life. “This is a dream come true,” she explains, “and a sign that after a brief interlude, Yale is reasserting its leadership and historic concern for education and research about the natural world.”
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