Photos by Zuzana Ľudviková

175 rooms, 1,000 lorry trips

How do you move a building?

Photos by Zuzana Ľudviková
After ten years of preparations, it’s finally happening in March: the research labs at Nijenborgh 4 will be moved to the Feringa Building. Approximately nine thousand square metres will have to be moved in a time span of three months. What does an operation this big entail?
By Rob van der Wal and Tim van de Vendel
Photos by Zuzana Ľudviková
27 February om 18:01 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 27 February 2024
om 18:01 uur.
February 27 at 18:01 PM.
Last modified on February 27, 2024
at 18:01 PM.

An enormous poster covers the wall in Andrys Weitenberg’s office. He is the strategic manager of housing at the Faculty of Science and Engineering. The poster lists more than eighty different tasks, as well as the entire schedule for the move of Nijenborgh 4 – the prominent, but outdated physics and chemistry building – to the Feringa Building a few hundred metres down the way.

Weitenberg also has shelves full of designs and plans that preceded the schedule. He and seven colleagues are coordinating the entire move, which will start in the first week of March and take until early July.

Weitenberg is no newbie. One of the larger projects he’s coordinated in the past involved the ninth-floor renovations at the Linnaeusborg, the life sciences building. The floor needed new laboratory rooms with upgraded extraction capabilities, and the rest of the building had to stay open in the meantime. The job cost a whopping seven million euros.

This operation is several orders of magnitudes bigger than that. Over the course of the three months, a team of approximately twenty movers will make up to a thousand trips to empty all 175 rooms. Among the things that need to be moved are gigantic microscopes, laser tables, and large quantities of chemicals.


The move comprises the two wings in the back of Nijenborgh 4, building number 5117 and 5118. They will have to be empty by June, because that’s when demolition is scheduled to start. The last part of the Feringa Building will be constructed in its place.

Failure is not an option

The schedule is tight, and any delays would ruin everything. Research groups have been anticipating the move for months by winding down their research activities, Weitenberg says. They also locked down several subcontractors that will help move their complex equipment. ‘Failure is not an option’, says Weitenberg. ‘That’s not in my nature.’

The whole operation is actually even more complicated than it seems. Because of a lack of space, not everyone from the old building will be able to immediately move to the new one. ‘That’s been quite a disappointment to the groups that will have to stay in the old building for now’, says Weitenberg. ‘But we’re trying to come up with an alternative that serves their needs.’

Chemical research

This means an internal game of musical chairs: some laboratories from Nijenborgh’s other wings will already be moving to the new buildings, which means the research groups from the parts that are to be demolished will first move to those parts closer to the entrance, which are in better condition.

No one knows how to take that machine apart

One of the institutes involved in this partial move is research institute ENTEG. While the chemical groups will be moving to the new building, as an internal move would require too many adaptations of the temporary space, non-chemical research will continue to take place at Nijenborgh 4 for now.

Any students doing physics or chemistry lab work will probably have to go to Nijenborgh 4. The new laboratory spaces at the Feringa Building won’t be constructed until the second phase, which won’t start until after the move. Whether there will be enough space remains to be seen: over the past few years, the faculty has grown more than the plans could foresee.

Ten years

The move is the last stage in ten years of work. During the design phase and the construction planning, Weitenberg and his team started forming an idea of the order in which things needed to be moved.

Three years ago, they started the next step: making an overview of the research equipment. Was there any lab equipment that needed to be taken apart and if so, what would that entail? How much could the researchers pack themselves, and what would a moving company have to take into account?

Not all equipment will be able to come. At Nijenborgh 4, there’s a computerised material-processing machine. It doesn’t really look like much. ‘Except it’s huge, and the manufacturer went out of business’, says Weitenberg. ‘No one know how to take it apart.’

The machine was supposed to go to the second floor of the Feringa Building. ‘But we can’t get it there in its entirety, unless we take out part of the wall’, says Weitenberg. ‘We can’t afford that.’ It’s possible the machine will be moved internally.

New research groups

Any major changes to the building are difficult to make ever since the definitive plans were drawn up in 2016. Nevertheless, there have been some exceptions, like when a research group was disbanded. New groups took its place, and they needed different facilities. This concerns things like special gases, fume hoods, a different lab design, and electrical sockets – everything required by the specific lab.

There’s an incredible diversity of substances, which makes it difficult

One of Weitenburg’s colleagues is currently working on the so-called pre-hookup. For months, he’s been checking whether all the necessary connections are in place and whether all the equipment can be hooked up. If anything was installed wrong or is missing, they’ll attempt to fix this.

The move will truly start in a week. At first, they considered creating a covered route from the old building’s logistics entrance to the Feringa Building. However, this would interfere with the construction site needed for the second part of the new building’s construction.

Therefore, they’ll make a longer, uncovered route starting at a different part of Nijenborgh 4, for which they even constructed a special freight elevator on the outside. Lorries with special suspension will take the sensitive equipment and other things that absolutely cannot get wet to the new building.

Levelled route

Chemicals will not be transported by lorry. ‘Chemical transport by lorry requires us to meet special legal requirements and create waybills’, says Weitenberg. ‘It concerns an incredible amount and diversity of substances, which makes the whole thing difficult.’ 

Instead, the research groups will be going back and forth between the buildings with special carts for the chemicals. A specifically marked and levelled route will be created to ensure maximum safety.

Weitenberg is mainly happy that the whole move will be over soon. ‘We’ve been working on this for years, and at some point you just want to be done. I’m still a little nervous. You can’t predict every single happenstance.’

the researchers

Katja Loos 

‘I’m kind of starting to lose hope.’

‘The move is an enormous job’, says professor of polymer science Katja Loos, sighing. Her lab will be moving to the Feringa Building around Easter, but twenty years ago would have been a good idea, too. ‘This building is so old. When it rains, the water just pours in. The fume hoods’ glass panes could fall out any moment, and there are mice in the ceiling.’

Her group, which consists of thirty people, started cleaning and packing up three weeks ago. ‘We came across a couple of fun things, like handwritten theses from the sixties’, says Loos. ‘But we also encountered things that weren’t as fun, such as really old chemicals.’ A booklet containing the inaugural speech by Ger Challa, who spearheaded polymer science in the Netherlands, was sent to the UB archives.

She’s not uncritical of the way the move has been set up. ‘We have to move our chemicals ourselves. That’s really dangerous.’ But glassware, she says, will be transported by lorry. ‘I’d prefer doing that myself. I think they cut back a little too much on the wrong things.’

She’s also worried about her future lab. ‘Every time I stop by to check it out, the new fume hoods are throwing an error. I’m kind of starting to lose hope.’

Clearing out and packing up: A new destination has to be found for a large collection of slides.

the researchers

Mart Salverda 

‘I keep finding stuff I’ve never seen before’

’I’m really looking forward to it, it’s a gorgeous building’, says Mart Salverda. He is a research technician for a group that studies nanolithography, which is used to make, among other things, computer chips. They’re one of the first groups to move to the Feringa Building, on March 6.

The group will lose quite a few square metres in available lab space. Deciding what to leave behind isn’t easy. ‘I started six months ago, but I keep finding things I’ve never seen before’, says Salverda. ‘That means I have to go to all three professors in the group to ask what it is and whether we need to keep it.’

The obsolete things won’t just be thrown out: all technicians have been allotted a space where they can store their ‘trash’. Some of the things actually turned out to be pretty useful.

‘I sometimes come back with more stuff than I had on the way there’, he says. ‘I’m obviously not supposed to, but it’s a waste of money for us to later buy this stuff new. I think that over the past few months, I’ve saved 10,000 euros worth of stuff from the scrap heap!’

The move also means they will no longer have to share their research space. ‘Right now, there’s two groups in one room’, he says. While that’s been going well, having a lab to themselves will be nice. ‘I’m looking forward to only having to keep track of things in a single lab.’

But a pair of enormous air-conditioning units, which weren’t included in the initial blueprints, are causing some trouble. A long time ago, the group asked for temperature stability with a maximum variation of half a degree, but if they’d known how much space the units would take up, they never would have done it, says Salverda. 

They’re now looking for a solution, but that might not come in time. ‘Once we’ve moved, we’ll be requesting renovations as soon as possible.’

What one lab doesn't need anymore could be useful to another.

the researchers

Bart Kooi 

‘Tilting it could spell disaster for our microscope’

Bart Kooi’s research group is up halfway through May. He is definitely not looking forward to the move. 

In his research on nanomaterials, the professor uses several large electron microscopes that not only weigh several thousand kilos each, but are also extremely sensitive. ‘Our latest microscope cost 5 million’, he says. ‘If the electron column is tilted by even ten degrees, it’ll break.’

The original moving plans had the microscope moving through a covered corridor from one building to the other, without tilting. ‘Even something as low as a doorstep could spell disaster.’

But two months ago, Kooi was told the corridor wasn’t happening. Instead, the microscope will be put in a lorry with the rest of the equipment. Absurd, he says. Using a lorry involves unnecessary risks. ‘The distance between Feringa and Nijenborgh is barely more than how far we have to move it inside Nijenborgh. Surely we’re not going to put it on a lorry for all of that?’ 

Since Kooi’s current office is located in the part of Nijenborgh that will remain for now, an asbestos removal service will come by, two weeks before the move. ‘I asked them if they could show up a few weeks later, after we’d emptied everything out, but that wasn’t an option.’

Kooi will also be leaving things behind at Nijenborgh, because re-installing them will cost too much and there’s no guarantee they’ll even work again: ‘We’re leaving our oldest microscope, from 1997’, he says. ‘It will be taken to the scrap heap. ‘Even though the heavy metals in it are actually worth quite a bit of money, we actually have to pay to have it taken away.’