Chapter 15: The Mitchell Basic Sciences Building; Vulnerable Systems, Tropical Storm Allison, and the Flood-Protection System

Chapter 15: The Mitchell Basic Sciences Building; Vulnerable Systems, Tropical Storm Allison, and the Flood-Protection System



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Mr. Daigneau explains that with construction on the Mays Clinic initiated, they were "in the throes of master planning" and two other issues emerged: 1) the need for a building to house Cancer Prevention and 2) a new research building. Mr. Daigneau explains the complex process of securing the land from the Texas Medical Center to plan a new research site with six buildings owned by MD Anderson, Baylor, and the Health Science Center. He describes how he was able to secure the site of Parking Lot K from the Texas Medical Center to build the Mitchell Basic Sciences Building. He tells a story about constructing the vivarium. Mr. Daigneau also describes how the Mitchell Basic Sciences Building was designed with a foundation "like a bathtub" that would be absolutely flood proof. Tropical Storm Alison hit during construction, with a 5-foot wall of water sweeping the Texas Medical Center and dropping into the hole for the Mitchell Building, though damage was minimal because "smart people put up the flood locks." Mr. Daigneau explains that they quickly learned that 1) they had to relocate electrical switches from the basement and 2) MD Anderson needed a flood wall that is almost automatic. Mr. Daigneau explains how MD Anderson secured a FEMA grant to build a flood wall and he describes the wall and other features installed.

[The recorder is paused briefly.]

Mr. Daigneau completes the story of the Mitchell Building, noting that it was the first "fully interstitial" research building constructed by the University of Texas. He defines interstitial, a concept developed by the NIH. This is an expensive process, but it maximizes flexibility and is worth it. Mr. Daigneau notes that because Dr. John Mendelsohn believed in growth, they built two extra floors to accommodate expansion: before construction was completed, they were preparing those two floors for occupancy. Mr. Daigneau explains why the project went over budget (the only time he had to approach the Regents for more money on a project).



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The Making Cancer History® Voices Oral History Collection, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center


Houston, Texas

Topics Covered

The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center Building the Institution; The Administrator; MD Anderson History; MD Anderson Past; Institutional Processes; Discovery and Success; Building/Transforming the Institution; Growth and/or Change; Obstacles, Challenges; Professional Practice; The Professional at Work; Institutional Mission and Values; Understanding the Institution

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Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.


History of Science, Technology, and Medicine | Oncology | Oral History


Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

Where do you want to continue the story now? You said that there were discussions about south campus and then the Mitchell Building.

William Daigneau, MBA

Well, so we’re in the throes of Faculty Center is under construction, master planning the Ambulatory Clinical Building, kicking off the wayfinding project so we have something in place by the time Mays opens. Two other things emerged at the same period of time. Dr. [Bernard] Levin—“So where am I going to expand my prevention clinics to?” There’s no room left in—by then, Dr. Callender had gotten the two occupants. There’s nothing left. They’re going to consume all the space. Where’s prevention going?

Well, I had two problems with Prevention. Number one, I had to get them out—they were in Houston Main Building, which is a story in itself. I had to get them out of that building because we couldn’t see patients in that building. It’s against code, terrible safety issues, so couldn’t see patients there. Their clinic space at the time was over in the LeMaistre Clinic because Dr. LeMaistre was big on prevention. He was a big supporter of it. So their clinics were located in the LeMaistre Clinic. Well, like everyone else, they wanted to expand too, so where’s Prevention Clinic going?

So I had two issues now: Getting Prevention out of the Houston Main Building, because they had to go somewhere, sometime, and where would their new clinic be—their expansion clinic? So we had done the master plan. It emerged that, well shoot, I could kill a number of birds with one stone here. Number one, I could solve the office problem for Prevention. I could create some clinical space for them. And oh, by the way, I have this data center that is in Houston Main Building. I could put a data center into another building. So thus was born the Cancer Prevention Building. Since this building is not going to be for heavy-duty use, other than the data center, which is on one floor, it fits perfectly in this second building that was planned for the site—right square footage, everything goes into it. Neat—neat solution.

So we proposed the construction of the second building, which Dr. Mendelsohn supported because it basically got Dr. Levin off his back. What about prevention? Don’t we have a part to play in this? It’s part of our primary mission. It solved his problem, solved, for me and the CIO of this, getting the data center out of Houston Main Building.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

Now, what was the scope of the data center’s responsibilities? I actually hadn’t heard about that.

William Daigneau, MBA

Oh, it’s the main computing center.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

Oh, it’s the main computing center? Oh my gosh.

William Daigneau, MBA

Yeah, it was the main computing—it was located in Houston Main Building.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

Okay. I had no idea.

William Daigneau, MBA

Yeah. It was up on the—I can’t remember the floor now. Twelfth floor? Whatever. We had hurricane shutters on the windows. We had an emergency generator that was located in a floodable area by the loading docks. It scared the heck out of me. I’m thinking about this stuff. What happens? We lose our data center.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

I’m amazed you ever got to sleep at night.

William Daigneau, MBA

I mean, it was a terrible location for it because it was up in the tower. We could significantly damage equipment up there. We had an unreliable backup power supply. So at the time, we had the service in Philadelphia that backed up all our—but they could back up our data, but if we lost some machines, they couldn’t provide—they could provide all our data. We wouldn’t lose our data, but if we lost all our machines, it would be a while before we could come back live with computing power. So we ended up buying—there was this old—I think it was—I can’t remember—some—well, AT&T and this service that ran a bunch of servers on this building out on the northwest side of town, we ended up buying that as our backup computing center. But for a long time, it was—you know—oh my goodness.

So anyway, we kicked off the Cancer Prevention Building. Went out, ended up awarding it to the same company, Hensel Phelps, that had the contract for Mays, which solved a lot of problems for us because now there was good coordination on the two buildings. So that building—

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

And I assume you also used design-build yet again.

William Daigneau, MBA

Uh-hunh (affirmative), design-build. Mays, Cancer Prevention Building, and the parking garage both underneath Mays as wells as the parking garage to the south of the Mays Clinic—all those were under construction and under design at the same time—I mean—going concurrently with one another. And the objective was since Cancer Prevention was primarily an office building with one clinical floor and the data center, it was a smaller building, so the objective was to—even though Cancer Prevention followed a year after Mays, the objective would be that they finish both at the same time, so we’d open both of them at the same time.

So all that’s under way. At the same time, going back now, was research, because of the promise to expand basic science. Dr. Mendelsohn was firmly committed. He was firmly committed to research, supported that. So while all this stuff is going on across the street—wayfinding—we’re also planning the next research building.

Now, I’ll double back. So I had joined Anderson. They were looking at sites for another research building, and the plans were originally to build it over on the HMB site. They’d gotten to the point of starting to do site planning for a new research building, which as I told you earlier, I had significant reservations about jumping the street with research because how are we going to move animals back and forth? Patients can drive. We can do cars, whatever, but moving animals. So building another vivarium across the street that would stand alone, a lot of expense. So I had serious reservations about doing that.

LeMaistre wants to downsize, cancelled all the capital projects, so the research building had gotten placed on hold. Dr. Mendelsohn arrives, wants to expand research. The way he expands research is to expand patient care, but he wanted to build that research building. So at the time that Dr. LeMaistre was here I said, “You know, a really good location for another research building is right next to the Clinical Research Building—the one that is under construction. That’s a great site. We can tie the two vivariums together. It gets us out of some old vivarium space. It’s a nice, neat little solution.” One problem is what’s that bill? We don’t own the site; Texas Medical Center does. They have a big parking lot there.

Now, Dr. LeMaistre said, “Bill, if you think you can get that site, go for it.” So thus began a couple years of negotiations and legal work with the Texas Medical Center over that site. We promised things, swapped things, employed almost full-time an attorney out of UT System that helped us negotiate with their attorneys. Dr. Mendelsohn came. “How are we doing?” It was like the Sistine Chapel. Dr. Mendelsohn saying, “When will you finish? We need to get research expanded here.”

I had started that path when Dr. LeMaistre was there. It made sense. It was a beautiful site for another research building. We could tie the two newest research buildings together, tie two vivariums together, and reduce total cost—perfect site. We just had to get past the Texas Medical Center. Dr. Wainerdi was adamant. “No, no, no. That site will be used for educational purposes.” “Well, what?” “I don’t know, but it’s not going to be used for Anderson expansion of research.” How to get around this?

Well, the only way I could get around this one was through strength in numbers. So we worked on a master plan of the former psychiatric hospital, the dental school site, and K lot, which is the TMC surface lot there, that showed how you build six research buildings on those sites—a major research complex composed of six buildings. Then I knew my counterparts at Health Science Center and Baylor. Got a hold of them, said, “Look, Anderson, in all its wildest dreams, does not need six research buildings, but you two might, as well as Anderson. What I’m proposing is we kind of get our presidents to cosign a master plan for the development of a major research center on the north end of this campus.” Sure enough—you know—this was politically acceptable. Cooperation between three major research institutions—you know—I can’t remember Baylor’s president. Was it Butler at the time? I can’t remember. But it was the sweetest thing in the world to get those three presidents to sign this master plan. It was just a master plan. It was just a nice picture. They signed it. Each of them had one or two research buildings—you know—six, three institutions. The Health Science Center said, “Well, we’d like a research building on the dental school site. We own that site. We can put one there.” Fine. Great. There’s your building. Baylor said, “Well, we probably could go for two buildings.” That left basically three buildings for Anderson—plenty of expansion. Dr. Mendelsohn signed it, Health Science Center—Dr. [Walter R.] Lowe signed it. Baylor’s president signed it. Packaged up—three president’s signatures.

Now I went back down to TMC’s offices. (laughs) I said, “We’d like to present this master plan to the Texas Medical Center and get it approved,” showing two research buildings on K Lot. Dick Wainerdi opens that up, the first cover, sees three Texas Medical Center presidents’ signatures on it. We got K Lot. We got K Lot. Now, we had to—he wanted to put in an “educational”—and parking for it, so we got that monstrosity, the garage mahal. Now, people like the waterfall, but it wasn’t supposed to be as high as it is. He overbuilt it. It was the most expensive garage ever built in the United States. We had to give ground, but we got K Lot.

So that was the Mitchell site. That’s where Mitchell went. So we got Mitchell underway while everything else was going on. And an interesting story about Mitchell is we have a vivarium—building a vivarium—and one thing I said was, “This thing can never flood.” It can never flood because—you know—we can shut down the clinics, we can evacuate the hospital, but with animals, there’s no place—you can’t put the animals up in a hotel. So this thing will never flood. So that building is designed—that vivarium is designed absolutely—now, that’s what they said about the Titanic, right?

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

Right. I was going to ask how you guaranteed that.

William Daigneau, MBA

Other than stupidity, downright malfeasance—like going too fast in iceberg territory—that should never flood. I mean, the only way it could flood is major human error. Structurally, it’s a big bathtub, sealed—specially sealed all around it. The walls of Mitchell are five feet above high flood—five hundred year flood. I mean, it would have to be—and I told Dr. Mendelsohn the same thing. “You mean never?” I said, “It will never flood, and if it does, that’s the least of your problems or Houston’s problems, because the whole city will be under water for it to flood. So don’t worry about the animals at that point. Lots of people are going to be dead.” It was designed before Allison.

Now, there’s a funny story about the Mitchell Building in that we were under—we were putting in the foundations. I told you this foundation was specially designed as a bathtub. So we dug down pretty deep. We had dewatering going on in the hole. We had the bulldozer down at the bottom of the hole, and Tropical Storm Allison comes along. Now, this was the first time—because my worry had always been that the bayou would overflow and we would flood from the bayou. Allison was unique in that they had what was called sheet flow that occurred from the north—water coming off of all the suburbs around University, all those paved areas around Rice and to the north—you know—the Museum District, all of that. Water coming was moving basically toward the bayou, and so there was actually sheet flow created that basically submerged the Texas Medical Center in that storm, which no one had ever seen before. I mean, it was the first ever. Kind of like some of the floods here. The wall of water, which was almost five foot—you could see the mark of water on Baylor, which was right across the street from where we were building—was almost five feet high, just the wall of water sweeping toward the bayou. Well, in between Baylor and the bayou was MD Anderson. We had this enormous excavation. That wall of water hit Baylor, knocked out its vivarium, closed Methodist, and closed St. Luke’s, and the major flood of water that came across from Baylor dropped in that hole. Now, having said that, we had good people on board who had already put in our flood logs.

A couple things came out of that event. Number one is I wouldn’t always have a hole. Someday I’d have a building sitting there, and when that next flood of water came, I wouldn’t have that little safety valve. Number two is forget the hundred-year flood level. There are some events that you just can’t plan for—I mean—that you can’t predict, but you can plan for them.

So we had, from Tropical Storm Allison, a couple wet basements. It affected some of our Radiation Oncology equipment. It came through a hole that we had cut in a foundation wall to connect Mitchell into the main complex when that hole flooded. Total damage was about two million dollars. Downtime was about a day. We were back in business. Across the street—St. Luke’s—gone a month.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD


William Daigneau, MBA

Hermann, gone a month. Methodist was back operational in a couple—within about a week. Baylor’s vivarium flooded. Health Science Center’s vivarium flooded, dead animals floating. It was terrible. Anderson was fully operational the next day with two million dollars’ worth of damage due to a big hole in the ground and some very smart people who had the foresight, without instruction, to put up the flood logs. They could see how much it was raining, and just on their own said, “We need to close off some of these entrances.” So I gave great credit to them because it was unexpected. We didn’t have time to activate the incident command center. It just happened. It happened on a Friday night at about 2:00 in the morning. It was supposed to rain, but nobody knew that the center of the storm was backing up. It had passed Houston, stalled, and was now backing up over Houston again. So we had the rain all day, but it was supposed to blow out that night. Instead it backed up. We got thirteen inches of rain in I forget how many hours, flash flooding, sheet flooding of roadways. Roadways were carrying water. Lots of damage in the Texas Medical Center. We came out okay.

So as a result of looking at the others, how they were damaged, we need to get electrical switch gear out of the basements. Pumps, I can replace. Electrical switch gear is specially made. You can’t find it. It’s not like you go to the hardware store and get one. All electrical switch gear out of the basements. We need a flood wall that’s almost automatic—that doesn’t require somebody saying, “You know, it looks like it’s raining a lot. I think I’ll put the flood wall up.” We need an automatic flood wall, something that if it occurs at 2:00 in the morning—because no meteorologist said this was going to happen—we’re protected here. So we applied for FEMA—we only had two million—FEMA had what was called mitigation grants. They had grants to repair damage, but they also had an amount of money set aside “to prevent damage in the future.” We applied for all of these FEMA grants. On two million dollars’ worth of damage, we got thirty-five million in federal funds to build a flood wall to protect the main complex, to raise all the electrical equipment up, and to build partitions in the basements that would isolate mechanical rooms from one another so that if one flooded not all of them flooded. It was a good lesson, and we used it to really—

So now, if you walk across—most people don’t even notice them, but when you walk into the—well, first of all, in front of Clark—the main entrance to Clark—all that glass there is aquarium glass. It’s able to withstand basically ten feet of water pressure. One the doorways—just before the doorways—are these things. If you walk across them, you can hear something. Those are automatic floodgates. They basically raise themselves automatically, and in between the floodgates you’ll see—it looks like an architectural feature. It’s actually the floodwall. The floodwall comes up on either side. There’s the entrance with these automatic floodgates that raise and lower. It doesn’t require any intervention.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

So what turns them on?

William Daigneau, MBA

It’s basically counterweighted. What happens is the water flows over and flows into like a bucket on the other side and creates the weight to rotate it up. Now, we don’t rely on that. For hurricanes, we’ll manually raise them. But I wanted something just in case nobody else was there.

So I told Dr. Mendelsohn belts—improve—belt-and-suspenders approach. We have the floodwall that protects us around the entire—all the buildings on the south side of the campus are raised at higher elevation, but on the main complex—you know—it was built in a time where that wasn’t really considered. So now there’s a flood wall that goes all the way around, these automatic gates, and then if for some reason we should flood, we should be—I told him it’s not that we’re not going to be down, but we’ll be able to get back into operation in a week. Even if we would flood, because all of our main electrical gears are now out of the basements and on the second floor, and the only thing down there is mechanical equipment that can be replaced and rebuilt. So Anderson’s in pretty good shape.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

Lessons learned. Would you mind is I pause the recorder for a second?

William Daigneau, MBA


Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD


(end of audio)

(begin audio)

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

All right. We’re back after a little break. It is 4:37. Was there anything else you wanted to tell to finish the story about the Mitchell Basic Science Research Building?

William Daigneau, MBA

Well, the major part of that story was getting the site, which was a major success for us to secure that. I think it left a—kind of a lingering bad taste. Dr. [Richard] Wainerdi specifically directed at me because, it was perceived as thought I’d “gone around him.” I could see no other way to achieve this, and it made sense for Anderson. It made sense for all of research to build a complex on the north side dedicated towards research. It tied together institutions in terms of collaborative ways. Since then, of course, Baylor gave up their right to build and transferred to Texas Children’s, so Texas Children’s has that research building that’s now next to Mitchell. It made a lot of sense. It was the right thing to do. The only issue I ever had with Dr. Wainerdi was—you know—I was employed by MD Anderson to pursue MD Anderson’s interests, and it had nothing to do with Texas Medical Center or him personally. It was to further the mission of MD Anderson, and that’s what I—that was my role. His problems were his problems. My problems were my problems. We had to compromise and everybody gets something, but it—“no” is not an acceptable answer for things that are the right things to do. So I wouldn’t—Dr. Mendelsohn asked me about that once, and I told him—I said, “Well, I heard—I read this once that even the mightiest oak will fall in a steady wind.” So you have to have some perseverance if you are doing what you believe is the right thing. You have to stay at it, and that’s the way I believe on many things, even though sometimes it created significant tension personally between me and Dr. Wainerdi, but it was right for MD Anderson. It wasn’t really harming anyone else. Just being stubborn and difficult was not an acceptable solution.

So anyway, it sort of left a bad taste—but the other part of the Mitchell story—there are two parts to the Mitchell story that were significant. Number one, it was the first interstitial—fully interstitial research building we’d ever built.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

What does that mean?

William Daigneau, MBA

Well, in that building, there’s basically a laboratory floor, and then right above it is what’s called an interstitial floor that carries all of the utilities and mechanical, electrical, fire protection to each of the laboratory floors. Now the concept behind it is an interstitial building, which is basically developed by the federal government—NIH was a big proponent on it—is that you can go in and change a research laboratory without shutting down the whole floor, because everything is individually fed. So you can have two labs: one that is being completely renovated for a new purpose without affecting the lab next door—immense flexibility. Since the site we were building on was one that we would—it was not throw-away construction. The building had to be built there that we were probably going to keep for fifty years or until cancer was solved. So we wanted maximum flexibility to accommodate different types of research, and since no one could really look into the future and say, “Well, this is what research is going to look like twenty-five years from now—.”In fact, we had a site that there was no going back and “re-doing a mistake” there. We opted for interstitial. There was a lot of feeling that interstitial costs more. I’m a big proponent of it. I think it’s the right thing to do in a lot of research. You want to minimize disruption to ongoing research and yet be able to change your direction. I told Dr. Mendelsohn and Dr. Becker that they’d have a building that would—even if they came and said, “Look, we need a class three facility here.” Fine. You could put one in there. No major innovation necessary. So you’d have maximum flexibility. It was the first interstitial building—I think—built by the research building, built by the University of Texas—the first one for MD Anderson.

The second part of that story is Dr. Mendelsohn was a big believer in “growth,” as I said. So when we built the building, we could document the need for four floors of research space, but we built six for future growth. Since there was no going back to that site, this was a onetime only deal, so we put two floors of vivarium plus six research floors in that building. Plus if you’ve been over there, it has the auditorium—the Onstead Auditorium, and it has the graduate school. So we added two more research floors onto it.

Before that building was finished, we were building out those two floors. Dr. Mendelsohn said, “We’re in there. Let’s finish. Do we have the money to do that? Leon?” (laughs) By the time—the building was—finished those two floors. So anyway, it’s unique on its site, it’s unique on its construction, and I said earlier that there was only once I’d ever gone back to the Regents and said we need a budget revision. That was the Mitchell Building. The problem we encountered was we have three major facilities under construction. At the same time, they were building the Reliant Stadium, Minute Maid Park, and the airport was undergoing expansion. This was a major construction boom in Houston in this time period. Literally, you couldn’t find subcontractors. Everybody was bidding high, because they didn’t need the work. It was basically whoever bids highest is going to get our labor. So we had a terrible time on that project. There was only two choices at one point, and I told you earlier—my belief that no surprises. I went back to the Facility Steering Committee and said, “Here’s our choices. I think in about six months, the market will settle down here, and if we rebid this, we’ll get prices within our budget. Right now, if we go ahead with this project, we’re going to go over budget, because we just cannot get competitive bids.” So the decision was made. Dr. Mendelsohn and Dr. Becker did not want to wait. They wanted to the space. The premium was about ten percent. So that was the only time we went back to the Regents and asked for a budget adjustment. I tried everything—absolutely everything to avoid that. At some point in time, you just run out of options. That was the only time we went back.

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Chapter 15: The Mitchell Basic Sciences Building; Vulnerable Systems, Tropical Storm Allison, and the Flood-Protection System