Daily Iowan: A Moveable High-tech Lab

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

By Claire Perlman
Daily Iowan

Chris Coretsopoulos' laboratory is not filled with stationary desks and immobile pieces of machinery sitting on the floor. Rather, he is surrounded by rolling tables, each covered in microscopes and smaller lab equipment.

"All of the equipment I have replaced is on wheels even though it may weigh up to a ton," the University of Iowa scientist said, describing his lab, which sits in the Iowa Advanced Technology Laboratories. The structure is next to the IMU and almost on the banks of the Iowa River.

UI researchers, worried that future flooding of this riverside building could ruin millions of dollars' worth of equipment — as in the case of the 2008 floods — have put everything on wheels in order to make a quick exit.

As the level of the Iowa River spiked past 20 feet last week, Coretsopoulos checked the water level every day to see if he would have to evacuate his lab — and the millions of dollars worth of equipment in it — for the second time in two years.

Unlike other UI buildings that will be replaced after the 2008 flood, such as Hancher Auditorium and the music complex, the Advanced Technology Labs sustained under 50 percent in damages, so the Federal Emergency Management Agency will not fund a new facility.

However, because of its proximity to the river, the lab building is in danger of flooding again. And next time, FEMA, which helped cover the $8 million in damages to the building and the $34 million of damages to the lab equipment — according to a report submitted to the state Board of Regents in February — would not pay.

World-renowned architect Frank Gehry designed the building. The metallic-colored, futuristic facility serves as an ideal working environment for the researchers.

Therefore, the labs cannot move to another building, Coretsopoulos said.

"This lab is very special — it cost a lot of money to construct, it has very stable power, very stable climate control, it has chilled water that runs to the equipment, it has dry compressed air, so it's sort of optimized to be a technology lab," he said.

The UI has implemented temporary measures, such as repairing the damaged sheet rock and repainting, to protect the building until a more permanent plan can be implemented. The UI worked with FEMA to create a proposal for the permanent recovery and mitigation plan for the facility, said Rod Lehnertz, director of planning, design, and construction at UI Facilities Management.

FEMA is still reviewing the proposal, which was submitted early this year.

Lehnertz said the university's proposal to FEMA includes a plan to replace and repair the damaged exterior sheathing of the building, and during that process, to construct a concrete barrier wall in the cavity of the exterior wall of the building

And the university has plans to create a flood barrier to reduce the risk of flooding, said UI spokesman Tom Moore. There is a plan to raise the sidewalk and to make it wider, and if the need arises, officials will place barriers on the sidewalk.

According to a report submitted to the regents in August 2009, officials estimate that full building recovery would cost $10 million, and mitigation, which can only begin once building recovery is complete, would be an additional $13 million.

While water levels have remained stable recently, researchers in the labs are still prepared for the worst.

"If the water exceeds a certain value, our equipment can be rolled out on a couple of days' notice," Coretsopoulos said. "It's like you're a renter forever."