Gulf of Maine Research Institute LabVenture Facility: A Complex and Collaborative Renovation

Ouellet Construction Renovates the LabVenture Facility at The Gulf of Maine Research Institute

Ouellet Construction works on projects of many different types and sizes, across multiple industries, and with varying degrees of complexity. Sometimes our involvement in a project is overwhelmingly expansive, while at other times, it seems quite small. We are equally passionate about each project we take on, whether we’re playing just a small part or the leading role.

The recently completed renovation of the Cohen Center for Interactive Learning at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) is a perfect example of our dedication to excellence regardless of the physical or financial size of our contribution. While our team worked on just one piece of the multi-million-dollar project, the intensity of our involvement was anything but small.

A Collaborative Renovation Effort

Grand Re-Opening Gulf of Maine Research Institute

Grand Re-Opening of LabVenture at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute

In mid-September 2018, Ouellet Construction helped put the finishing touches on what was an innovative, complex, and collaborative effort to renovate the Cohen Center for Interactive Learning at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland, Maine. A deep commitment to the success of this project was shared by all parties involved. The finished result is a testament to this shared sentiment.

We worked tirelessly alongside GMRI staff and multiple talented vendors from around the country, including: Upswell (Portland, OR), Education Development Center (Waltham, MA), Stanford University (Palo Alto, CA), external scientists Dr. Marissa McMahan of Manomet, and Curt Brown of Ready Seafood, Open Studio Collective (Portland, OR), Tenji Aquarium (Newcastle, ME), Art Guild (West Deptford, NJ), and local architect, Lassel Architects PA of South Berwick, Maine.

We were humbled by the many talented and skilled vendors involved and moved by the passion surrounding the project. Our team – and every individual involved in bringing the new LabVenture facility to life – put their heart and soul into creating a remarkable, state-of-the-art lab space.

The new LabVenture program at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute officially re-opened on September 21st.

The New LabVenture Program Space at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute

The LabVenture program has operated for 13 years, providing young Mainers (5th and 6th-graders) with access to science tools and research methods that go far beyond what most Maine classrooms can provide. Thousands of students visit LabVenture each year, working in teams using high-tech, hands-on research methods to gather evidence about the Gulf of Maine.

The space previously held interactive work tables surrounded by bleachers, which allowed for viewing student research on wall projection screens. However, the bleachers confined the space available for interactive learning, and over time, the technology had become outdated. It had been about ten years since they had made any physical updates to the LabVenture space and the interactive touchscreen technology.

The renovated LabVenture facility offers many more work surfaces available for the students to be interactive during research presentations. Students can measure and examine creatures of all sizes that inhabit the Gulf of Maine, as well as analyze and display data on a cutting-edge digital technology platform.

Students now also have the ability to use real NASA satellite data, combined with local fishery data, to explore some of the same questions about the Gulf of Maine as professional research scientists at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.

Renovating the Gulf of Maine Research Institute LabVenture Facility

This renovation was so much more than a facelift, and even the word “renovation” seems inaccurate. The project was a multi-million-dollar investment requiring the time and resources of several Gulf of Maine Research Institute staff, multiple project partners, vendors, and advisors, many of whom worked for three years on the re-opening of the LabVenture Program.

The goal was to re-create a state-of-the-art learning environment through a full renovation of the Cohen Center for Interactive Learning. Updates to the LabVenture space included a mix of design changes and highly advanced technological upgrades, including:

  • Installation of new “multi-touch” tables for richer student collaboration
  • Projection of 4K videos featuring scientists and lobstermen using state-of-the-art technology
  • A complete renovation of the technical back-end of the LabVenture program, allowing users to project NASA satellite data
  • A complete renovation of the biodiversity tank
  • The design and creation of a dimensional bathymetric wall map of the Gulf of Maine
  • A multi-level floor design, with tired platforms where the multi-touch tables live
  • Removal of bleacher seating to optimize the space for interactive learning

Ouellet’s Contribution to the Renovation of LabVenture at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute

As we mentioned previously, Ouellet Construction was just a piece of the puzzle, but an intricate one at that. David Lawrence was the project manager, and Don Ouellet was the construction supervisor. Our job was to help GMRI further develop their ideas for the LabVenture space. Our goal was to help them convert those ideas into a physical reality.

“Ouellet Construction prepared the stage to make it ready for the intricate and advanced equipment technology provided by GMRI’s technology vendors,” said Mike Ouellet.

Our work specifically revolved around creating the many different textures and levels of the lab space, as well as various room modifications to open up space up. Our primary role was to build support systems throughout the space to hold the state-of-the-art equipment, along with the structural forms to allow access to the interactive workstations. We started by creating mockups to show GMRI the room layouts, which included specifications around where to put railings and other structural pieces.

Overcoming Design Challenges

With so many different parts, it was crucial for us to anticipate every little detail. This required us to work closely with both GMRI staff and other vendors involved throughout the project. We had to figure out how to fit everything into the available space so that it could function optimally. This required making sure wires and conduits were in the right place despite the lab’s strange shape and many odd angles.

Chief Education Officer at GMRI, Leigh Peake described the project’s design challenges best. She said, “The central challenge from a user perspective is that the LabVenture space is multi-use, ranging from LabVenture visits of 50+ middle-school students to lecture-style presentations by GMRI scientists. Finding a design that could suit all of these use cases was a challenge. And, obviously, retrofitting a space is always harder than building new because of all the quirks of existing conditions.”

Retrofitting the Space

One of our biggest challenges was to figure out how to build ramps and steps on a flat concrete slab that existed, within the existing space restrictions. We couldn’t use wood or any other combustible material, so David suggested using concrete to build the different access points. In some areas, it didn’t make sense to pour 1 foot of concrete, so we used Styrofoam to fill in structures where necessary.

While GMRI loved the idea of a floor design that featured multiple small platforms, they worried about various visitors tripping or falling backward off the platforms. David suggested a particular model of glass panels that would serve as a handrail and as a boundary for each platform and wouldn’t obstruct site lines to any part of the room from any other part of the room. According to Peake, “This really answered the demands of it being a multiuse space, but also complimented the design.”

While always respectful of our architects and the designs, David [Lawrence] went out of his way to spend time with me framing and considering alternatives, and went above and beyond bringing suggestions to the team rather than waiting for others to seek out the solutions.” ~ Leigh Peake, Chief Education Officer, Gulf of Maine Research Institute

The David Lawrence Excellence Award

At the grand re-opening ceremony, Chief Education Officer, Leigh Peake said the following about David Lawrence’s commitment to the project:

“As many of you know, our annual award, for extraordinary contribution to GMRI by a vendor is the David Lawrence Excellence Award, and now I know why.”

The David Lawrence Excellence Award was created when the lab was first designed, to award to the most detailed vendor on a project. Anyone who has ever seen David in action knows that “good enough” is not in his vocabulary; his commitment to finding the right solution is unwavering.

Peake said, “While Ouellet’s expertise was absolutely a factor in our success, I think even more was the level of pride they take in their work. This was really encapsulated for me the morning we opened the doors for our very first, tiny pilot group of students. The Ouellet crew asked if they could hang out to see the kids in the space because they wanted to see it in action.”

New LabVenture Program Space at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute Gets Local and National Recognition

The updated design and renovation of the LabVenture program and its facility has already been recognized locally and nationally. Upswell and Open Studio Collective won an IIDA Oregon Chapter 2018 Design Excellence Award for their design of the facility. The LabVenture project was named the 2018 Impact Award Winner. The facility was also selected to be featured in an upcoming architects issue of Maine Home + Design. We sincerely look forward to seeing the story in print when it comes out.

At Ouellet Construction, we believe the most successful projects are collaborative. More importantly, we believe that when there’s genuine passion involved, amazing things can happen. The new LabVenture facility at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute is an example of just that.

Do you have a construction project requiring multiple vendors working together towards the same goal? Contact Ouellet Construction today to find out why our team is the right team for the job.