Everything Old is New Again: GTRI Completes $18M Renovation of Cobb County Research Facility

Published: November 22, 2011

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Recent renovations at the Georgia Tech Research Institute’s (GTRI) Cobb County Research Facility (CCRF) have brought the 1970s-era facility firmly into the 21st century.

Meticulous cooperation between lab personnel and contractors and strict schedules — along with the nearly 2,500 gallons of paint, miles and miles of conduit, electrical wire and 300,000 screws — enabled the multi-year, $18 million infrastructure and mechanical update to be a success.

Located 12 miles north of the Georgia Tech main campus in Atlanta, CCRF houses members of the Sensors and Electromagnetic Applications Laboratory (SEAL) and the Aerospace, Transportation and Advanced Systems Laboratory (ATAS). Comprised of six buildings and several smaller structures, the facility offers an array of high-tech indoor and outdoor lab testing facilities.

The University Financing Foundation (TUFF) purchased the buildings from Lockheed Martin in the early 1980s with tax-exempt bonds. A large portion of GTRI’s research is defense-related, so the remote nature of the facilities and its proximity to Lockheed were a perfect match. Since then, GTRI has leased the 160,000-square-foot and 52-acre site to safely test radar, lasers and other sensors.

Out with the Old, in with the New

The road to renovation was two years in the making, beginning in 2009.

“Our lease was coming up for renewal, and we really felt the infrastructure needed to be renovated,” said Lisa Sills, GTRI Deputy Director, Support Operations. “Most of the operating equipment, such as the boilers and the chiller, was 40 years old. In addition, most of the repairs over the years had been Band-Aid solutions.”

As a result, TUFF offered to finance the renovation, adding the cost to the next 25-year lease. “That made it affordable to go ahead,” Sills said. “We worked a long time on the design, because we were looking at this as a whole project.”

The environmental upgrades included new chillers, sizing and zoning the HVAC units, updating the facilities to electric heat from a hot-water based boiler system, rewiring the buildings’ lighting and placing occupancy light switch sensors in the offices.

“Before the renovation, the hallway lights were always on,” Support Services Department (SSD) Senior Facilities Manager DeeAnn Reese said. “You would actually have to find the panel to turn off the lights on the whole floor. Newly installed sensors are dual-purpose: They detect both motion and thermal signatures, so the lights stay on when rooms are occupied.”

After the planning stages, contractors moved in to work in August 2010. Upon completion of a modular Mobile Office Complex (MOC), employees from each building rotated out of their offices into the makeshift office building.

The entire CCRF infrastructure received considerable upgrades to all mechanical and electrical systems, which not only affect quality of life for the employees, but also assist with reducing GTRI’s environmental impact. Along with installing electric heat, optimizing the sizes of cooling units for each building, and improving on the ductwork, a significant savings will be evident.

“Many of these buildings were built in the late 1960s and early ’70s, before the energy crisis of 1973,” said GTRI SSD Director Ellis Kirby. “The updating we’ve done to the original buildings’ equipment and installing modern controls will help conserve energy.”

Through an energy analysis, Kirby estimates the heating and air conditioning improvements alone will reduce overall energy costs by 30 percent. This, in conjunction with the other improvements, have GTRI’s estimated annual savings exceeding $180,000.

Keeping up Appearances

In addition, CCRF employees also have experienced another benefit: Because the project was kept on such a tight schedule—to the point of finishing two months early—contractors made many aesthetic and overall appearance upgrades to the facilities.

Employees returned to their buildings via newly updated hallways, updated building entryways and restrooms, in addition to new furniture and refurbished offices. “All of the offices have new paint and new carpet,” Sills said. “We even revamped the conference room in Building 1 and renovated all the bathrooms.”

According to Kirby, SSD moved 87 bookshelves, 87 storage cabinets, 100 high-back chairs and 120 side chairs into the renovated buildings, along with 86 modular office pieces.

Even with the improvements, Kirby says it was important to preserve the building’s history and design aesthetic, when possible. “We were originally putting new tile or carpet in the lobby, but when we pulled the two existing layers of carpet up we found this amazing black marble,” he said. “We had to clean it up, but it was great to be able to preserve the original features of the facility.”

A team of 25 people from across SSD—both at CCRF and the Atlanta campus, CCRF labs and Research Security Department (RSD) personnel, along with a 16-member core renovations group and the contractors developed the stringent project schedule.

“While there were some trying times, the collaboration was positive,” said Russell “Rusty” Roberts, director of the Aerospace, Transportation and Advanced Systems Laboratory (ATAS). “The contractors interacted with the researchers, and the overall sentiment was that the researchers’ concerns and issues were heard.”

“SSD, the labs, [the Research Security Department] and the contractors were exceptional in how they worked as a team,” said Bill Melvin, director of Sensors and Electromagnetic Applications Laboratory (SEAL).

According to Sills, there is still room for more updates.

“We still want to install a canopy over the door on Building 1,” she said. “Overall, though, it’s been a huge facelift for everyone out there.”