Mortimer B. Zuckerman Research Center

Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York, USA

Air quality analysis for a major cancer research center in Manhattan

The Mortimer B. Zuckerman Research Center (ZRC) is an advanced cancer research facility in New York City. Completed in 2009, the ZRC substantially expanded the Sloan Kettering Institute’s cancer research capacity, doubling its research laboratories and enabling new programs in immunology, computational biology, and cancer biology and genetics. Composed of two separate towers and located across the street from Memorial Hospital, the LEED Silver-certified ZRC includes both high-tech research spaces such as radiochemistry and cell engineering labs, and convening spaces such as a conference center and 350-seat auditorium where experts can share their work and forge new links between basic science and clinical care. 


  • The Challenge

    Locating an advanced research facility in a densely populated urban environment like Manhattan helps the facility function as a hub for scientific and clinical collaboration. It also presents technical challenges. If managed improperly, emissions from exhausts such as laboratory fume hoods, diesel generators and animal holding rooms can cause pollutant and odor issues for neighbors. They can also present problems inside the facility if shifting weather conditions cause emissions to be drawn back into building air intakes. At 23 stories and 420 feet, the larger of the ZRC’s two towers is among the tallest research facilities in the world; its unusual height, combined with the complex airflow patterns caused by adjacent buildings, demanded careful study and management of air quality risks.

    The project’s design team engaged us to carry out detailed exhaust dispersion and building-air-quality studies in order to ensure that the ZRC’s air intake and exhaust systems performed optimally. The systems had to protect the safety and comfort of the buildings’ own occupants, as well as users of neighboring buildings, which included (in addition to Memorial Hospital) several residences and a church.

    In addition to modeling airflows in and around the ZRC to support the design of the ventilation and exhaust systems, we were asked to analyze wind pressure effects on the research facility’s taller tower, which was subject to complex conditions because of its height relative to neighboring structures.

  • Our Approach

    The ZRC was developed in two phases. Phase One produced the 23-story, 690,000 square-foot tower where most of the lab space would be located. Phase Two produced the nine-story, 180,000 square-foot research facility that would include labs as well as conference spaces and academic offices.

    Our team worked closely with both the architectural and mechanical teams to ensure that throughout both processes, design choices were informed by modeling and analysis that gave a detailed picture of how the structures and their systems would respond to their dense and intricate urban context.

    During the design of the taller building, our primary focus was roof exhausts. In addition to ensuring that fumes and pollutants from diverse laboratory applications could be safely dispersed without affecting neighbours or being drawn back into the building, we also needed to ensure that exhaust from cooling towers would not compromise the performance or efficiency of the air quality system.

    To ensure adequate combined performance of the whole range of exhaust equipment necessary to service a tall building containing diverse and intensive laboratory activity, we carried out wind tunnel testing using tracer gas. This approach enabled us to make precise recommendations about exhaust design, as well as the design and placement of upper-level building air intakes.

    The massing of the tower developed during Phase One presented challenges for the low-rise building that was the focus of Phase Two. (These challenges were unavoidable results of the L-shaped parcel of land where the facility was situated.) In order to ensure safe dispersion of exhaust from the low-rise building, the exhaust would have to be routed through ducts that traveled hundreds of vertical feet to the top of the Phase One tower--unless a better solution could be identified.

    All parties in the design team--including architects, designers, mechanical specialists, and our wind and air-quality experts--worked together to review concepts and discuss strategies at various stages of the Phase Two design process. When seemingly viable solutions were proposed, we conducted wind tunnel testing and produced detailed reports on their performance to support the team’s continued work. Ultimately, through this iterative and collaborative process, we were able to turn the complex airflow patterns around the building to our advantage, using them to create a safe and efficient exhaust-dispersion solution for the low-rise building that did not require cumbersome ducting. RWDI’s wind-tunnel testing not only helped to develop and refine this solution, but to prove that it would deliver the necessary results in terms of safety and comfort for the neighbourhood.

    Just as the complex airflows in the ZRC’s dense neighbourhood presented unique possibilities for exhaust dispersion, they presented unique wind conditions for the taller tower that had to be quantified and incorporated into design decisions. In addition to our air quality work, we performed wind tunnel studies of cladding wind pressure and wind-induced structural response on the Phase One tower, and provided recommendations to the cladding designers and structural engineers based on our analyses.

  • The Outcome

    The $503-million Zuckerman Research Center has been operating successfully since 2009, facilitating interdisciplinary collaborations among scientists who work in different areas but have a shared focus on cancer. The facility houses the work of 100 lead researchers and their teams, and serves as the home of the Louis V. Gerstner, Jr. Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. The facility’s air systems continue to keep researchers, students and neighbours safe as the experts inside the building work to deepen their understanding of cancer and their capacity to treat it.