Better physics through improved infrastructure at Small Hall

  • Big tour of Small HallSeth Aubin gave an overview of his ultra-cold atoms project to (from left) Rector Jeffrey Trammell, Leigh Pence, Michael Tang and other members of the Board of Visitors.

    Photo by Joseph McClain

    Big tour of Small Hall

Small Hall is no longer too small.

“We were just bursting at the seams in terms of space,” said David Armstrong, Chancellor Professor of Physics and department chair. “We had faculty sharing lab space. We had difficulty finding lab space for new faculty members. We had a premium on office space.”

A state-funded expansion and renovation project has solved the space problem, adding 21,000 square feet to the home of William & Mary’s Department of Physics. The auxiliary classroom trailers between Small and Jones Hall, dubbed “Smaller Hall,” are no more, replaced by a new 17,320 square-foot laboratory wing. A soaring 2,550 square-foot high bay laboratory addition gives the department a much-needed large workspace for assembling and testing large-scale devices.

 Armstrong said the high bay facility will make it easier for William & Mary physicists to participate in the large-scale, ongoing experimental particle and nuclear physics investigations at accelerator facilities such as the Jefferson Lab, Fermilab and Brookhaven National Lab.

He explained that university groups contribute to the research at the big accelerator labs by designing assembling and testing components.

“These experiments require physically large detectors,” Armstrong explained. “We just could not do that with some of these larger things when constrained by size of the typical door of the typical lab into the corridor.

The high bay facility is designed for work on large detectors. The big room is equipped with a crane and has huge garage-door-like openings right off to the loading dock.

The high bay lab is shared space, not dedicated to a single working group in physics. It came on line early in the renovation/expansion process. It has already been used for two projects in the year that it’s been in use, Armstrong noted.

More research and teaching labs

Almost all the research labs are concentrated in the new wing, which opened up space for teaching labs in the existing portion of the building, alleviating headaches that resulted from teaching labs being shared by more than one course.

“It’s not just a scheduling problem—it’s the swapping in and out of equipment,” Armstrong said. “If you have an astronomy lab sharing space with a practical physics lab, you’re going to have to move pieces of equipment in and out, sometimes several times a week. That’s time consuming—and not so good for the equipment. We were able to expand the number of teaching labs to prevent that. Each course that has a teaching lab now has its own lab space.”

Armstrong points out that Small Hall isn’t just for physics and physicists. Some researchers from the Department of Applied Science also have labs in Small Hall. Many undergraduates use the physics building, too. William & Mary’s Board of Visitors toured the better and bigger Small Hall in September. Armstrong told them that odds are good that any William & Mary undergraduate student will take a course in one of Small’s two lecture halls, just off the building’s lobby.

“This semester there will be 1,800 students who will take a class in one of the two lecture halls in Small Hall,” Armstrong told the board. “We’ll have classes here from kinesiology, chemistry, classics, math, biology, government, art history, religion and of course, physics.”

Not just bigger, but more modern

Small Hall is no longer too antiquated.

The original building was constructed in 1963 to accommodate “Sputnik-era science,” Armstrong said. All science has advanced since JFK was in the White House, and the old Small Hall couldn’t provide the infrastructure required by modern computers and lab instruments. Even the heating and cooling system was a problem.

“When Small Hall was constructed, the scientists didn’t care much about the temperature control,” Armstrong explained. “Now, especially with laser optics and precision measurements, the tiniest change in the spacing between two lenses when the room temperature changes by a few degrees Fahrenheit becomes a limiting factor in some experiments.”

The problem was compounded by modern physics’ heavy use of electricity to power devices ranging from high-powered lasers to massive computer clusters. “When you deliver electrical power into a lab, most of it ends up being turned into heat, so you have to remove the heat,” Armstrong said. “The older building was incapable of housing many experiments because they would make the room so hot that the electronics would quite literally fry.”

Armstrong noted that Small Hall’s antique infrastructure prompted William & Mary physicist Henry Krakauer to locate his computer-driven Center for Piezoelectrics by Design at the Applied Research Center in Newport News.

“Now, we were able to design into the building as a whole—particularly in certain spaces in the expansion—specially cooled labs where we have high-performance computer clusters housed,” Armstrong said.

Researchers studying theoretical nuclear physics and experimental particle physics are heavy users of high-performance computers and Armstrong says the machines can operate safely, protected by Small’s new dedicated HVAC systems that provide stable temperature controls.

Designed for science, by scientists

Small Hall is no longer too inconvenient.

Science has become increasingly collaborative and Armstrong says most of the research in the physics department is done by teams of various sizes. “A team might be a faculty member and two students. It might be three faculty members, two post-docs, six graduate students and four undergraduates,” Armstrong said. “They need to meet quite often to discuss, to look at their results, plan what they’re going to do next and exchange ideas and data.”

Meeting was a challenge in the old Small Hall, which only had one perpetually-booked meeting room. The groups often scrounged time in classrooms and hallways—“and it’s a silly use of space to take a 40-person classroom and have a six-person meeting in it”—but the renovation/expansion incorporated a set of meeting rooms of various sizes.

Armstrong said the lab configuration of the new wing is more versatile. Attention to design and routing of utilities resulted in a more modular arrangement to the lab spaces. Power, HVAC, compressed air and other utilities were routed down exterior walls or from the ceiling. Now, as the needs of William & Mary’s physicists evolve, it will be easy to adapt the lab space for them.

“At some time we’ll need to make a particular lab bigger,” Armstrong said. “At other times we may need to partition off part of a larger lab. Because we’ve run the utilities along the exterior walls, this will be relatively simple.”

The lab wing was designed to minimize vibration. Armstrong says the most in-demand real estate in a lab building is on the ground floor or basement, out of concern for the effects of vibration on the experiments. “But by making the new wing as vibration-free as we did, we can use the first and second floor, because they’re essentially free of vibration.”

He noted that the department’s extremely vibration-sensitive SQUID—superconducting quantum interference device—was installed successfully on an upper floor.

Armstrong credit’s the success of the project to a successful collaboration of William & Mary people, architects Burt Hill Inc. and contractor WM Jordan. “Wayne Boy’s office was wonderful,” he said, referring to the College’s director of planning, design and construction. Armstrong also noted the contributions of Mark Brabham, the project manager: “Mark was the perfect interface between we physicists, the architects, and the contractors,” he said.

He also said the physics faculty were involved in the planning, noting that he spent a lot of time working with former Chair Keith Griffioen, Professor Todd Averett and others on the Small Hall planning. “It was grueling at times,” he said.

And…it didn’t break the budget

And, finally, Small Hall is on—or under—budget.

The latest figures show the renovation/expansion to be well under the $28 million budget. There is some work to be done yet, Armstrong says. The lobby will be renovated and the observatory will get an upgrade, with a new dome and new telescope and controls. He expects the whole project, down to the final touches, to be finished by mid-October.