The final judges of how well a vivarium has been designed and constructed are its users—the personnel who work in it on a daily basis and keep it operating 24/7/365.

As the newness wears off, how the staff, managers, researchers, and maintenance personnel operate in a new facility changes, either because protocols change in response to research needs or because the users adapt their procedures to the facility. A well-designed and executed vivarium should support the protocols and procedures discussed during the design phase. It should also accommodate changes to those protocols and procedures with a minimum of disruption and/or physical changes.

Going back to a facility after it has been occupied and operational for a period of time, preferably a year or longer, is the best way for a vivarium designer to understand how well it is meeting the users’ needs. Formal post-occupancy surveys produce a great deal of useful, detailed, quantitative and qualitative information; they are usually negotiated as part of the design contract. However, much more informal means—phone conversations, meetings with the users, tours of the in-operation facility, email exchanges, etc.—can also be very effective.

We recently interviewed representatives of the users of a vivarium that has been occupied for about 1-1/2 years to learn more about their likes and dislikes, ideas they’ve had for improving the facility, and thoughts on what they would change if it were just now being designed.

The Indiana University School of Medicine opened its newest Lab Animal Resource Center (LARC) facility in 2008 as part of a multi-disciplinary center focused on cancer, neuroscience, and immunobiology research. The 13,320-cage vivarium houses mice and rodents,with capability to house aquatics studies in the future. General holding is accommodated in wall-mounted and mobile rack-mounted IVCs. Two procedure rooms serve general holding, and were designed to be convertible to holding rooms should the need arise. Survival surgeries are conducted in a four-room suite. A multi-use suite can be configured as conventional holding rooms, a barrier facility, or an ABSL-2 suite, depending on research requirements or population size. There is also an ABSL-3 suite that can support multiple, concurrent studies.

A number of changes were made from the original design (see sidebar “About the Facility”),most of them reflecting the evolution of the users’ protocols and procedures during the latter part of design and through completion of construction.That the number of changes was fairly small, and those changes were relatively minor for the most part, speaks to how engaging the users in the design and construction process from start to finish resulted in a facility that has met the users’ needs well. Among the most significant changes:

  • The holding rooms were originally designed around IV Cracks in a library configuration. A wall-mounted IVC system was purchased instead, resulting in a significant gain in capacity (Figure 1).
  • Since the vivarium now houses only mice and rodents, the surgery suite was changed from its original two-operatory configuration, to four smaller operatories with a common prep area and additional storage room(Figure 2).
  • The doors from clean cage storage into the main corridor were deleted, allowing easier flow to and from the room.
  • TheABSL-3 suite is currently being used for quarantine, as noABSL-3 studies are currently being conducted. Although use of IVCs inside the cubicles had been discussed, only static caging is being used.

wall mounted caging system

four small operatories

automated bedding dispenser

tunnel and rack washer

User Feedback
The users are generally very pleased with the facility, and their comments provide valuable insights which may benefit designers and users alike for future projects. Here are the most significant comments—in no particular order.

Holding and Procedure Rooms
The wall-mounted IVC system is well-liked—vivarium manager Dawn H. called it “a great concept.” It allows increased cage density, more maneuvering space in the rooms, and the flexibility to add equipment, in-room storage, or additional cages (in conventional IVC racks) if necessary. Exhaust port and electrical/data connections had been installed based on the original library configuration. This resulted in some conflicts with the wall mounting system components, and some exhaust port locations were not coordinated with the blower locations.

Cage Wash and Equipment
IB facility manager Angela B. said the bedding dump station is “awesome” and “we love the bedding dispenser” (Figure 3).

Equipment reliability has been variable, but some of that is attributable to how it has been used, according to cage wash technician Michael P. The bedding dump station works well “if (procedures are followed).” The bedding dispenser is “a little quirky”— the continuous flow of the dispenser does not always respond well to changes in cage types or sizes coming out of the tunnel washer. The tunnel washer and rack washer are “always reliable, but sometimes sipper tubes get caught in the (tunnel washer) belt.” Unsatisfactory down time for the roll-through sterilizer was mentioned by both users and maintenance personnel.

The LARC has an automatic watering system (AWS), but it turns out a large number of water bottles are being used, too—a bottle filler has been installed to make processing and filling the bottles more efficient. In clean cage wash, racks of processed cages being moved away from the bedding dispenser and toward the roll through sterilizer use up space that would otherwise be used for assembling the cages and staging the racks. More room off the end of the bedding dispenser for catching, assembling, and holding the cages would make this process more efficient.

Michael P. noted that the lack of doors on clean cage storage has occasionally resulted in items “disappearing” from this room.

Staff Support
The toilet/locker rooms are a good size, with adequate room to move around, but lockers were thought to be too small (women’s side) and not enough of them (men’s side). Also mentioned was sound transmission to and from the adjacent break room.

The conference/break room is “a nice space, comfortable like a kitchen,” says animal health technician K’ream M. However, while it’s fine for breaks, it is only large enough for small meetings.

Office areas are generally quiet, with adequate workstation and computer access most of the time, but more than one user reported that additional computers and phones would be helpful at certain times.

Corridors and Support Spaces
Wide hallways and the use of color contribute to a more open feel for the vivarium. The extra width and continuous bumper rails make maneuvering equipment, carts, and people easier with the two-way traffic flow.

At the same time, noise within the facility is well-contained, resulting in a quiet environment. Michael P. noted “there is enough space to be alone if need be.”

Mechanical, Electrical, and Plumbing (MEP) Systems
The vivarium staff has complained of low humidity in the facility. The maintenance staff has had issues with the humidifier system, due in part to the quality of city water. Maintenance manager Rick P. said that “(controlling) the levels of the total dissolved solids (TDS)” in the system is essential to its proper operation. “Scaling of control probes” and that “the tank needs (to be) flushed and drained often” are significant causes of downtime for the system.

Service access to some of the large equipment was identified as an issue by both the vivarium and maintenance staffs.

The LARC is below the level of the city’s sewer system mains. The combination of hot, caustic wastewater from the facility and pump pressure has impacted performance of the sewage ejector system, which pumps the wastewater up to the mains.

An Opportunity for Learning
Drawing from both positive and negative comments, it’s important to turn the users’ experiences into ideas and recommendations that can be incorporated into future projects.We found the following ideas—again, in no particular order—to be likely to have the most positive impact for all of a project’s stakeholders:

Unless the users have committed to a specific type of IVC system, consider multiple options for caging systems in the design of holding rooms, and coordinate utility locations to allow for any or all of them.

Wider corridors make equipment and materials movement easier, as do wider and taller doors. They also contribute to amore open feel in the facility.

Support spaces are important to employee well-being and satisfaction and deserve the design team’s careful attention.

Provide sufficient numbers of adequately-sized lockers—if employees are expected to stow all of their clothing and belongings, including backpacks, boots, coats, etc., either the lockers must be large enough, or alternate space for the larger items, inside or outside the vivarium, needs to be provided.

In addition to enough showers, toilets, and lavatories to reasonably accommodate the employees at shift change, provide enough space in the toilet/locker rooms for the employees to move around easily. Staggered shifts may help alleviate this situation, if they otherwise meet the users’ needs.

Provide adequate sound control, both to and from the rooms. Significant noise generators such as break rooms and locker rooms need special attention. Spaces requiring acoustic privacy—private offices and meeting rooms—also need careful consideration.

Size meeting and/or break rooms to reasonably accommodate the expected number of meeting participants. Make sure other meeting space is available for larger meetings, either inside or outside the vivarium.

Simplicity helps reliability of MEP systems.The level of complexity of components and controls should be appropriate for the facility as well as for the staff that will maintain it.Many facilities cannot justify having maintenance staff dedicated to operating and maintaining the vivarium systems.

Equipment serviceability is as important as reliability—to the greatest extent possible, size and locate equipment maintenance access to minimize disruption to vivarium operations. Enclosing equipment service areas will cut down on disruption to normal operations, will lower noise levels in the adjacent spaces, and make those spaces easier to keep clean (Figure4). MEP systems equipment should be designed to allow most of its routine servicing to be done either from outside the facility, or from concentrated, enclosed areas inside it.

Both designers and users bring a wealth of experience and knowledge to the process of designing and building a new or renovated vivarium. Since design by itself cannot prevent or resolve all operational issues, and protocols and procedures cannot always overcome inadequate design, decisions and compromises drawing on that experience and knowledge will be necessary throughout the process.

Designers can best educate themselves for future projects by understanding how well those decisions and compromises have worked out for the users.

It doesn’t have to be difficult, it doesn’t have to be adversarial, and it doesn’t have to be particularly time consuming. All it takes is users willing to share their thoughts, and designers willing to listen—and learn.

about the facility

Jim Cartwright, AIA, is a Principal with Health, Education + Research Associates, Inc., St. Louis, MO. Throughout his 26-year career, he has planned and designed research laboratories, medical facilities, and special use facilities for academic and academic medical, healthcare, and private sector clients. Jim is a published author and frequent speaker on laboratory and vivarium design. For the LARC project, he served as vivarium design consultant to BSA Life Structures, Inc.

Bob Young, RVT, RLATg is Facilities Operations Manager, Lab Animal Resource Center with the Indiana University School of Medicine, Indianapolis, IN. During his 25 year career in the biomedical research field, Bob has supervised a toxicology group and worked as a study coordinator at a major Contract Research Organization. He has worn several hats at the School of Medicine LARC, hired as a facility supervisor in 1995, currently the Facilities Operations Manager. He particularly likes using his experience to help in the design process of new or remodeled facilities and is amazed at how often he learns new things about the facilities he has worked in for 16 years.