The bug lab boom: Canadian design

Winnipeg architecture firm Smith Carter capitalizes on surging demand for research labs that keep bugs in and bioterrorists out.

The first time you walk into the lobby of the Canadian Science Centre for Human and Animal Health in Winnipeg, you could be forgiven for thinking it was just another ordinary government building. Canadian flags hang limply from floor stands scattered around the reception area, along with a couple of chronically under-watered potted plants and one very grim-looking security guard clad in a stiff navy-blue uniform waiting for his next visitor to sign in. This, however, is no ordinary government structure.

Several concrete planters flank the front doors, necessary, as CSC communications officer Elaine Krawchenko puts it, “to prevent a car from ramming right through the building.” In the reception area alone, panes of strategically placed bulletproof glass separate indoors from out. Visitors must also pass through a plated glass door. Once you're inside, ceiling-mounted cameras track your every move, and security signals are scrambled daily to prevent any less-than-well-meaning individuals from cracking an employee's top-secret access code. And that's just the lobby.

Situated next to a residential community near this Prairie city's north end, the 29,300-square-metre facility (about the size of five football fields) is home to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's National Centre for Foreign Animal Diseases, and the Public Health Agency of Canada's national microbiology laboratory. In addition to more routine research, this is also where some of the world's deadliest viruses and bacteria are studied: pathogens such as Ebola, Marburg and Lassa fever. Locals call it the “bug lab.”

Not surprisingly, of the more than 400 people who work in this $172-million state-of-the-art facility, only about 20 have access to the human health division of the ultra-high-security Containment Level 4 lab — Level 4 being the highest level of security and containment in Canada, required for the study of such dangerous pathogens. Here, viral pathologists in pressure-positive “space suits” examine germs in airtight rooms. Upon exiting, suited scientists must take a three-minute chemical shower using a Lysol-like product, followed by a two-minute water rinse. Every nut, bolt, air duct and door seal in the lab has been strategically designed, engineered and manufactured to ensure it stands up to the rigorous protocols of a Level 4 facility.

Similar to the building itself, the Winnipeg-based architecture firm that designed the Canadian Science Centre is anything but ordinary. Founded in 1947 by a pair of local architects — Ernest Smith, now deceased, and Dennis Carter — Smith Carter Architects and Engineers Inc. started out designing elementary schools, eventually expanding to hospitals and health-care facilities. But it was the completion of the CSC, in 1998 — a project the firm considers “seminal” — that cemented this local architecture firm as a leader in the design of highly secure laboratory facilities for disease research. Now, as the threats of bioterrorism and infectious diseases such as avian flu loom large, Smith Carter has found itself smack dab in the middle of a major opportunity.

In the past five years, the company has won contracts worth more than $1 billion in construction value in the biocontainment market alone, watching revenues jump to more than $4.5 million in 2005 from about $1 million in 1999. Of the 15 or so high-containment labs that exist worldwide today, Smith Carter has been involved, either through consulting or design, in about three-quarters of them. These include the Levels 3 and 4 lab facilities the firm designed at Atlanta's prestigious Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the first Level 4 facility at the University of Texas Medical Branch, home to the World Health Organization's Center for Tropical Diseases. Delegations of government officials from India to Australia have made the trek to Winnipeg to learn more about Canada's top-notch infectious disease lab, and to figure out how Smith Carter can help them build their own. In April, a major coup: the firm's U.S. office, together with American alliance partners CUH2A and Hemisphere Engineering, signed a US$480-million contract — Smith Carter's largest ever — to design a medical research lab and vivarium, or animal facility, for the U.S. Army's Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.

The offers and expressions of interest keep on coming. But is this a short-term trend, driven by hype and fear — or a sustainable niche created by the ongoing threat of disease and bioterrorist attacks? No one knows for sure, but the challenge now for Smith Carter is figuring out how to respond.

It's a milder than usual March morning (for Winnipeg) and Scott Stirton, Smith Carter's chief executive, hobbles around the firm's gorgeous 50,000-square-foot headquarters on crutches. The 41-year-old Winnipegger has a broken ankle and will spend the next six weeks in a cast — something he appears less than thrilled about. In fact, going at a pace anything other than light speed doesn't seem to sit very well with Stirton. He joined the firm in 1986 and rose through the ranks under the tutelage of Smith Carter's former CEO Jim Orzechowski, who died in 2003. Stirton was one of three Smith Carter principals at the firm's satellite office in Atlanta on Sept. 11, 2001. He saw first-hand the speed with which U.S. government officials responded to a terrorist threat on home turf, and how fast the money for biodefence and security initiatives followed. Smith Carter happened to be on the receiving end.

“Unfortunately, we did capitalize on a pretty terrible event from a business point of view. A lot of it was just being in the right place at the right time with the right people,” he says. Stirton's “aw shucks” assessment of Smith Carter's success belies his passionate commitment to his business. He is also unafraid to turn down projects — even lucrative ones — that don't fit into the company's long-term niche as an innovator. As Gord Ferguson, who joined Smith Carter in 1985 and is now one of the firm's leading principals, puts it: “We are not a cookie-cutter kind of place.”

The commitment to INNOVATION is definitely paying off. In addition to the half-a-billion-dollar contract awarded by the U.S. Army, the firm is also working on the Canadian Museum for Human Rights — a $311-million project being championed by Winnipeg's wealthy Asper family — and the new headquarters of Manitoba Hydro, a joint effort with Toronto's KPMB Architects. Other recent projects include an ambitious renovation of CancerCare Manitoba — Winnipeg's leading oncology treatment centre — and the design of 3,500 square metres of incubator lab space within the larger MaRS Discovery District in Toronto.

Clearly, Smith Carter can compete at a high level in other niche design areas — namely health care, workplace and government. But it is the firm's biocontainment market that is growing the fastest. In 2005, biocontainment projects accounted for approximately 35% of Smith Carter's annual gross revenues. Add to that the firm's estimated 65% market share position in the North American biocontainment area, and it's clear the lucrative aspects of this market are hard to ignore. But how long will the bug lab boom last?

“[Predictions are] tough because it's moving out of a North America boundary to an international boundary,” says Stirton. “So is this an event or an industry? To me, it's an industry. But will it be the lead profile issue for 2000 to 2010 and then will there be new world issues? I don't know.”

Frank Plummer, who worked with Stirton in his role as scientific director general of the National Microbiology Laboratory at Winnipeg's Canadian Science Centre, is more bullish. “It's going to be a growth area for some time,” says Plummer. “Over the last 30 years, there have been 30 new infectious diseases, including Ebola, Marburg, Lassa, Nipah and SARS. These threats are constantly emerging. Recognizing them, and containing them quickly, is key to stopping the problem.”

The threat of infectious disease is also beginning to hit home with countries such as China and India, which have traditionally relied on North American experts to diagnose and develop vaccines for emerging and re-emerging pandemic diseases. With avian flu spreading rapidly across parts of Asia, the Middle East and Europe, devastating poultry stocks and killing more than 100 people to date, that attitude is starting to change. “A lot of those pandemics emanate from Asia. But the responders to them right now, to some degree, are for the most part in North America. These countries are all realizing that they can't rely on North America to support them forever,” says Stirton.

These countries' desire for their own labs presents another potentially lucrative business opportunity for Smith Carter. But like any business toying with expansion, Stirton says Smith Carter is aware of both the up- and downsides of competing in a global market. Demand looks strong. Unlike here at home, where disease research is conducted under one national research institution — the CSC — China conducts its disease research on a province-by-province basis, creating potential demand for dozens of individual biocontainment facilities. Media reports also suggest India, which currently has only one high-security animal disease lab located in Bhopal, is in desperate need of additional laboratory space. Considering the construction value of each Level 3 or Level 4 lab facility Smith Carter has completed so far averages about $160 million, it is not difficult to see why the firm is keeping a close eye on the international market. Says Stirton: “Our business will morph, and our ability to leverage what we've done in the human health sciences will evolve. We have to look outside North America.”

Yet Stirton is also acutely aware of some of the unseen challenges of becoming an international player. Staffing difficulties, regulatory headaches and cultural integration challenges were just some of the issues the firm discovered the hard way when it made a push (albeit, an unsuccessful one) into the high-end housing market north of Beijing in the late 1990s. Stirton is also very conscious of maintaining Smith Carter's reputation as a leading outside-the-box architectural solutions provider — something he hopes will differentiate the firm from its competitors.

In North America, Stirton cites only two other major companies — Chicago-based Perkins+Will and HOK Group, headquartered in St. Louis, Mo. — who bid on the same kind of sophisticated, highly contained laboratory spaces necessary for infectious disease research. It's a market that remains relatively uncrowded — for now. After all, the expertise and relationships Smith Carter has spent nearly two decades cultivating within the North American scientific community are not the kind of things that happen overnight. But that hasn't necessarily stopped companies such as HOK — ones Stirton refers to as “come-late-to-the-party” firms — from trying to grab a bigger piece of the lucrative biodefence pie. This holds particularly true in the U.S., where billions of dollars are being doled out by the Department of Homeland Security and the National Institutes of Health to protect Americans from emerging infectious diseases and the threat of bioterrorist attacks similar to the New York and Florida anthrax scares in 2001.

“The U.S. architectural and engineering industry is very business-minded, and they're not scared to go after something they don't have a lot of experience in,” says Stirton. That said, Smith Carter is not exactly taking a wait-and-see approach. “We want to win two out of every three major projects we bid on,” says Stirton. “We want to be seen as the innovators.”

Although Stirton isn't particularly worried about the North American market “drying up any time soon,” he is also aware that the majority of the biocontainment projects Smith Carter is involved in are funded by the public purse, be it through national defence, or public health and safety dollars.

Despite the current surge of interest, and money, particularly from the United States government, there are subtle signs that public support for such expensive facilities could fade. For example, Duane Lindner, a program director who oversees chemical and biological national security at Sandia National Laboratories in California — a government-owned national security lab operated under the umbrella of the Department of Energy — says that despite a huge building boom in the U.S. biocontainment market, there is also a growing backlash from scientists, who charge that the billions of dollars being spent on bioterror could better be spent on infectious disease research.

That risk, coupled with the uncertainty regarding continued demand for biocontainment facilities, means Stirton will continue the firm's focus on its three other niche design areas: workplace, health care and military. Stirton is also looking into mobile labs that can be transported to and deployed quickly in foreign countries. He is also keeping an eye on the agricultural and food protection market — but adds that both have traditionally been chronically underfunded in both Canada and the United States. Eventually, however, he predicts infrastructure upgrades will be necessary. Stirton is also hopeful that the U.S. government's US$5.6-billion BioShield initiative — money, for the most part, being place-held for pharmaceutical and biotech companies to help spur the development of new vaccines and disease treatments — will create demand for infrastructure.

Industry experts such as the CSC's Plummer point to potential spinoff opportunities for Smith Carter in the private sector, including large pharmaceutical companies interested in building biocontainment facilities for vaccine development, and even electronics companies who require “super-clean buildings” to manufacture computer chips. And then there's the stuff that may still seem somewhat Star Trek-ish to even the most seasoned biocontainment expert, such as “smart buildings” equipped with sensors that can detect noxious substances and trigger an immune-like response that either shuts down existing ventilation systems or chemically neutralizes the threat.

For Stirton, a man who's pretty much seen it all when it comes to high-containment solutions, concepts such as smart buildings make sense in a world filled with growing biological and chemical threats. But when hype and fear drives people to buy duct tape to seal their homes, or to consider biocontainment options for houses, well, that's pretty out there, even for him. “Most people tend to forget there's one thing missing in hermetically sealed buildings that's absolutely necessary for staying alive — and that's air,” says Stirton with a laugh.

For that reason, Stirton says jokingly, residential biocontainment is not one he sees holding any immediate promise. But therein lies Stirton's — and Smith Carter's — main challenge to expansion: figuring out how sustainable the demand for biocontainment buildings actually is, where the fine line falls between hype and reality, and how the firm should best respond.