Putting science on display

Putting science on display

The University of Ottawa's new research complex was designed to put a state-of-the-art lab in the public eye
September 16, 2014

The late André Lalonde, a former University of Ottawa dean of science, had a clear-cut vision for the Advanced Research Complex (ARC), the University of Ottawa’s new home for photonics and geoscience research. It was to “put science on display,” recalls senior architect Stephen Jones of Cole and Associates, the Ottawa firm that designed the building at the corner of King Edward Avenue and Templeton Street. Indeed, passersby can see from the street — through a two-storey glass lobby — what’s going on in the Earth sciences laboratory that bears Lalonde’s name. It’s a stretch from most research labs, which are typically out of the public eye.

From the outset, the building’s concept has been about transparency, collaboration and breaking down barriers. “ARC offers an evolving model that fosters multidisciplinary research in the faculties of science and engineering, and supports the continuum from fundamental research to technology development,” says Mohamad Nasser-Eddine, director of the University’s Office of Strategic Development Initiatives, a small team that plays a critical role behind the scenes, along with the Strategic Project Management Group, in developing, securing and managing large-scale government-funded research projects.

A “forest” of piles were drilled into the bedrock beneath the
University of Ottawa’s Advanced Research Complex to ensure
maximum stability of the building.
Credit: COLE+Associates Architects Inc.

ARC brings together researchers and graduate students from the departments of physics and Earth sciences, as well as the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “The design was customized to the functional and technical needs of our researchers,” says Sylvain Charbonneau, associate Vice-president, Research, and a lead on the project. Scientists were consulted at various stages of the building’s design and construction, starting with the choice of the site from among five locations that were considered.

The idea for the creation of the building took root in the Office of the Vice-president, Research, led by Mona Nemer. To reach the University’s goal of moving into the ranks of Canada’s top five research-intensive universities, the office set out to provide fertile ground for research, focusing on four Strategic Areas of Development in Research, which encompass research in photonics and Earth sciences.

Two eminent researchers, physicist Paul Corkum and geoscientist Ian Clark, gave the project a healthy jump-start. In 2008-2009, they independently applied for and received a total of more than $26 million from the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Ontario Research Fund. Pooled together, their grants provided vital seed funding for the construction of the new research hub.

Building a five-storey centre for complex scientific research required a tight web of collaboration between the architects, the builders and the researchers. Chief among scientists’ concerns was the building’s stability, as the slightest vibration can throw off sensitive laser experiments. ARC’s centrepiece, the 44-tonne accelerator mass spectrometer used to detect and analyze trace radioisotopes, also demanded a rock-solid and very flat floor. The solution was raft slabs, a type of floating concrete floor up to 90 centimetres thick, which is anchored by scores of concrete-filled steel piles driven into the bedrock and physically isolated from the rest of the building. If the building shakes, the slab stays put.

Built by Pomerleau, a well-known construction company in Eastern Canada, the building extrudes from a hill in a clean, linear design. It symbolizes the stratification, or layering, of rocks. But it has an equally practical application: the photonics labs are nestled into the slope to shield them from ambient light that can affect laser experiments. Among other design features, the labs are equipped with diffusers that push air sideways instead of downward, also to avoid disrupting sensitive lasers.

The promise of such a leading-edge facility has already attracted accomplished researchers to the University’s doorstep and will continue to draw experts and graduate students.

“The Advanced Research Complex will provide the foundation for strengthening the University of Ottawa’s national and international leadership in the fields of photonics and Earth sciences,” says Nemer, who championed the construction of ARC from the beginning. “This incomparable setting will stimulate discovery and encourage our scientists to push back the frontiers of science.”

For photonics and geoscience researchers and their graduate students, the launch of ARC opens up endless new horizons.

ARC by numbers

Area: 14,000 square metres

Cost: $70 million

Number of raft slabs (vibration-resistant floating floors): 4

Number of concrete-filled steel piles drilled into bedrock for stability: 635

Amount of concrete used in the building: 350 cement truckloads

Number of times per hour air is recycled in clean rooms, where airborne particles are strictly controlled: 30 to 60

This story originally appeared in the summer 2014 issue of Research Perspectives, a publication of the University of Ottawa.

MAIN IMAGE: From left, the Hon. Gary Goodyear, then-Minister of State (Science and Technology), the University of Ottawa’s Vice-president, Research Mona Nemer and University President Allan Rock, mark the start of construction of the Advanced Research Complex (ARC) in September 2012. Credit: Robert Lacombe, uOttawa