— By Theresa Duque
After just four weeks of intense off-hours construction, the Lab’s new Mediterranean-inspired cafeteria courtyard opened for business on October 1st. Thanks to a diverse crew of Facilities gardeners, laborers, structural engineers, and subcontractors, to name just a few, improvements to the courtyard’s safety, wheelchair accessibility, and aesthetics were accomplished with just $170,000 of year-end money.
The new courtyard concludes a rehabilitation project that began in 2012, when four 80-foot-tall trees towering above the cafeteria plaza were cut down after a certified arborist deemed them structurally unsafe. In late August of this year, when the construction crew broke ground for the new plaza, the laborers discovered that the roots of those old trees had wrapped around utility systems, including a fire alarm line. To avoid damaging the utilities, the laborers had to manually remove the tangled roots.
And to make matters even more complicated, the laborers couldn’t use big excavators such as a backhoe, because the northern section of the plaza sits on top of Room 143, an underground laboratory space for adjacent Building 70. Despite the complications, the project was completed on time and within budget, and now employees get to reap the rewards of a better space. “The best part is seeing people enjoying their morning coffee, a nice lunch with colleagues, or an ice cream in the afternoon,” says construction manager Eric Lahrs.
The improved plaza — which includes a re-installed wheelchair lift covered by Americans with Disabilities Act funding — will make it possible for everyone of all abilities to enjoy lunch or coffee outdoors. It will also provide a more inviting view for visitors staying at the Guest House, something that Facilities Division Director Reva Nickelson had wished for while residing there temporarily after relocating to the Bay Area. “From the view of my room, I worried about the safety of the people who were using the space, the lack of accessibility for people of all abilities, and saw the space wasn’t very inviting for collaboration. I definitely wanted to do something,” she explains.
Nickelson managed to get the funding needed to improve the plaza’s looks and accessibility. (Plans for the upgrade had been previously developed, allowing for a seamless year-end project.) In just a month, a team of subcontractors worked after-hours and weekends to turn trip-hazardous, root-ridden ground into a level surface paved with stabilized decomposed granite. Because of the complications from overgrown tree roots impinging on utility lines, “We couldn’t plant new trees. The same thing would happen. But we have an Italian plaza instead,” Nickelson says. Additional improvements include umbrellas for shade and new wheelchair-accessible picnic tables. Facilities gardeners also put a lot of effort into planting drought-tolerant and deer-resistant plants such as lavender, rosemary, and Purple Majesty in the terracotta urns surrounding the plaza.
The revitalized courtyard is a welcome change for many at the Lab, including ALS Division Director Roger Falcone. “I’m very pleased to see that we were able to develop an outdoor meeting space around the cafeteria. It’s a known phenomenon at premiere science and technology laboratories, companies, and universities that some of the best science gets started during lunch conversation. Any way we can engineer space at the Lab to encourage the serendipitous exchange of ideas is a really good thing,” says Falcone.