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Being a pioneer means breaking new ground

July 2019

At the Biozentrum, he is known as “Mister Neubau”. Representing the users, Roger Jenni, Head of Technical Operations & Logistics, has accompanied the new building project since its inception. In this interview, he talks about the brilliance and the Achilles heel of the new building, about the next steps and changes and about what happens when one sets out to find the source of the Nile. 

What is your first thought when you think about the coming relocation?
A new home, setting off to new horizons and a new beginning. I think that above all the many meeting zones will give new impetus to our exchange and cooperations. The old Biozentrum was built at a time when this happened as a matter of course. There were no computers and a microscope could not be reserved online, so we had to ask people directly if we could use it. Also, since the Pharmazentrum was added, we no longer have our own main entrance and so we bump into each other much less these days. So I'm already looking forward to the new entrance situation, where mornings and evenings you move through groups of people, and to the social meeting zones on the floors. I am sure that in the new building, we will again develop much more of a common identity than in the old one.

Let’s stick to the old Biozentrum building: As a Biozentrum veteran, how do you feel about actually leaving it?
When the excavator arrives and starts demolishing it, I’ll  be a little sad. I have been here for 40 years now and the Biozentrum has become an important part of my life. I've had many jobs here, ranging from laboratory technician, a position in the administration to IT. I married during my time here and I was called out of a Biozentrum meeting when one of my sons was born in the hospital next door. In short, I am very closely connected to this place. Nevertheless, the excitement about the new building dominates. 

What will be the biggest changes in daily work for the Biozentrum employees?
For one thing, the utter transparency. Inside, virtually everything is made of glass. So, for example, from the researcher’s desk space outside the labs you can see what is going on in the labs and vice versa. And from every position you can see outside. This is very helpful for one’s orientation in this large building (he laughs). Then, of course, in a high rise building how you make your way around also changes, for instance, going to the third underground floor of the basement to get to the highly specialized scientific devices, such as the NMR or the sensitive electron microscopes of the C-CINA. The centralized media kitchen is a big change, not only for the researchers, but especially for the staff of the media kitchen itself, who worked until now in small teams on separate floors and will then all work together. The research groups will also get new “neighbors”. This will naturally bring changes in interactions.

We are moving from the fully air-conditioned old building into a Minergie-compliant construction. How will that affect us?
In terms of energy use, we can only gain, because, frankly, the old Biozentrum is a real energy guzzler. I estimate that the new Biozentrum will not even use half as much energy. Specific and stable temperatures will only be produced and maintained in the new building where this is really necessary, for example, for work with cell cultures or microscopes. Otherwise, the internal climate will vary with the outside temperatures. However, to prevent it from getting warmer than 25°C, the vertical blinds respond to the sunshine and close automatically. This means that on sunny days, some people will not be able to see out in the morning and others in the afternoon and this mechanism cannot be overridden. This might be something we will all have to get used to.

What is your absolute highlight on the new building?
Exactly that, which makes it so complicated: its flexibility. Molecular biology research places highest demands on energy, cooling, stable temperatures, vibration-free conditions and much more, and since we  have a broad spectrum of research, the needs vary from group to group. Since the initial planning, for instance, some research groups have left and new ones have joined and we have been able to flexibly adapt the conditions to suit their needs. The new building is a masterpiece of thinking ahead in technical terms and in what should be achievable tomorrow, for who knows what “rocket science” the future will bring.

Is this technical masterpiece the reason why it is taking so long? From the outside, the new building has looked finished since a long time.
If we simply built an office building, it would have been finished three years ago and would have amounted to about one fifth of the cost. But here, various factors play a role in the interior design and construction. It's not just the leading edge technology itself, but also the challenge of getting it to work reliably. The research work needs 100 percent stability and precision from the start, otherwise the experiments don’t work. Furthermore, as we are building in a city and are restricted with space, we need to build upwards and on top of this house some university facilities, such as IT-Services or the animal facility, which would usually be in different buildings.

Was this not foreseeable? 
When they set off in search of the source of the Nile, they too didn’t know what would await them at the end. Experience is the father of wisdom. If you set off to achieve something new, you always break new ground. And the new Biozentrum construction is visionary. There are no models and so even top experts are faced with big questions. Already today, others, who in the meantime are meeting similar challenges, are turning to us and are grateful that they can profit from our experience.

Should we not have lowered our sights a little? 
No. From the research point of view we are not talking about «nice-to-haves» but rather «need-to-haves», in order to continue carrying out cutting-edge research and to thrive in the global academic competition. 

So what is the most important thing for the Biozentrum at the moment? 
It is important that we make no compromises in quality, only in order to quickly reach completion. If we do not maintain the necessary attention to detail in the last 10 percent, on the finishing straight, then all the efforts of the last five years have been for nothing. That would be like giving up and turning back 100 meters from the goal when searching for the source of the Nile.

The new Biozentrum building project is divided into different phases, such as the preliminary project or construction and execution phase. In which phase are we currently? 
We are now in the commissioning phase. It is very complex. In line with the Swiss Association of Engineers and Architects guidelines, we now have to check whether everything is in place and working properly. The closing phase will be next. We are talking about millions of assembled parts and 700 units. Then the integral tests are carried out. Take the cooling system, for instance, which functions fine as a unit on its own. But does it also work when connected to the ventilation or the electrical system? What happens if the power shuts down? Everything is closely interconnected. All together, there are seven integral tests. The authority approval only comes after this. 

Can we move in then?
Not yet, because that is when the so-called quality phase begins. During this phase, all the technical systems are tested to check their functional stability over a longer period of time. This is a prerequisite so that a research experiment can begin at all. It is the moment to start up the IT networks, check whether the emergency scenarios work, carry-out a technical rehearsal in the media kitchen, train Technical Services staff and much more.

Again: Can we finally move in then?
Yes (he laughs). But some patience is still required. It will take about six months to be settled in over there. The sheer volume is the reason. We are talking about 230 labs, as well as 70 pieces of special equipment, which can only be moved at all by a few experts worldwide. The move has been planned to be carried out underground in a continuous flow, through a tunnel between the Biozentrum and the Pharmazentrum. This is for safety reasons and because we would not be faster above ground. Each research group will have five days for packing, two days for moving and five days to unpack. The next group follows two days later. Then the time will come for the special equipment, which can, in part, only be carried out at night and with special precautionary measures, such as dismantling the overhead tram wires. 

You have accompanied the new construction project from the start. What impressed you the most? 
First and foremost, the flexibility built into this building, which is both its brilliance and its Achilles heel. I think it is ingenious that it has finally come together without sacrificing the vision. Of course, with such a complex building there are thousands of smaller, impressive details. Perhaps I should write a book about the construction. I already have a title in mind, but that remains my secret for now.