The building aimed at housing some of the world’s leading medical research minds has opened in central London
Words by Toby Maxwell
The Thousands of commuters who passed by this area on their way to work each day could be forgiven for assuming that the huge construction site next door to St Pancras International station was just another office block being added to the skyline of a district of London that has been completely rejuvenated over the past 10 years. But from behind the hoardings of this particular building site has emerged a structure that is anything but ordinary.
After five years of construction, the £650m Francis Crick Institute’s Laboratory is now open, with the first of what will eventually be 1,250 scientists, researchers and academics (plus 250 operational staff) already moved into their new place of work. Research groups will continue moving in each week until the end of the year, as lab space is adapted for each research group. The start of 2017 will see the Francis Crick Institute fully up and running with all staff moved in and research projects ramping up, making it Europe’s biggest biomedical research facility under a single roof.
The Crick Laboratory is 170m long and just under 50m high, with a floor space of 93,000 sq m. Photo: Laing ORourke
The Crick’s building is one of the most complex buildings in London. It has been designed by architecture practice HOK with PLP Architecture and constructed by Laing O’Rourke. Arup and AKT II were the project engineers, with Arup also the project manager.
The design, construction and commissioning of the 170m-long building – with almost 93,000 sq m of floor space over 12 floors – has been a technically challenging undertaking and an engineering project in itself. It required very high specifications to be met for the most sensitive and advanced research equipment to be used, such as high vibration resistance, close temperature control, minimisation of electromagnetic interference and high rates of air change.
The Crick Laboratory is 170m long and just under 50m high, with a floor space of 93,000 sq m. Photo: Laing ORourke
As well as at one point being the biggest single-building construction project in the UK, during the busiest year of the building process there were more than 1,200 workers on site.
The scale of the finished building is immense in every way. It features 100km of main power cables, 17,000 light fittings, 9,000 tonnes of steel, 65,000 cu m of concrete, and the labs themselves have been fitted out with benching that would stretch to over 4km.
To ensure that a building like this met the very demanding needs placed on it, the architects incorporated several key design elements that are fundamental to its success and these combine to make it such a unique project. For example, to reduce its visible mass, a third of the structure is below ground. As well as serving to provide the kind of complex and secure accommodation required for certain types of research, the lower overall height was favourable to planners.
Four floors sit below ground and eight above on the south side, seven above on the north side. Included are two floors of services plant in the roof and two more in the basement. Photo: Wellcome Images
The roof is curved to reduce the effect on local views, and the height of the building is lower on one side to reflect the buildings it faces, ensuring an appropriate fit within its immediate environs. Similarly, both the masonry and the distinctive vaulted roof recall features of the adjacent St Pancras International station. The roof is also arranged into two shells; a feature that is not simply decorative but conceals the heating and cooling units and incorporates solar panels.
Wayne McKiernan, director at PLP Architecture, says: ‘The Crick’s two curved roofs enclose the substantial rooftop technical plant, and are shaped to resonate on a city scale with the nearby train sheds, while carefully designed to respond to the varying scales of smaller neighbouring buildings.
A vast open space welcomes people to the Crick. As well as conventional signage to guide them around the building, the Crick wayfinder app shows floor plans and has the ability to search for specific locations and equipment, such as printers. Photo: Wellcome Images
‘The rhythmic facade of the terracotta masonry base also establishes a relation of scale and materiality with the surrounding buildings from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. The scale of the building vertically has been broken down into constituent parts of roof, main body, and ground floor, and it is the main masonry facades that have been individually scaled and crafted with regard to their neighbours.’
Some even bigger creative thinking is saved for the inside however. Central to this building is the notion of collaborative working.
Increasingly, breakthroughs in medical science are the product of teamwork, rather than individual genius. So high on the Crick Institute’s agenda was the concept of a building that would foster collaboration between different teams and research disciplines, many of which have never been in the same building before. The aim of HOK’s team was to create a design that sparked not only opportunities for interaction but also an environment that actively promotes integrated and collaborative research.
The laboratory floors are arranged as neighbourhoods, fitted out with more than 4km of benching overall. Photo: Wellcome Images
Andy Warner Lacey, HOK’s interior design sector leader, says: ‘The notion of a collaborative approach in a lab building is a rarity. Typically, post-doctoral teams will work on specific experiments with their Principal Investigator (PI) with little external interaction. The groundbreaking approach being taken by the Crick is one whereby teams will have primary dedicated laboratories where experimental work of the individual teams will take place.
‘However, located between two primary labs is a central secondary laboratory where equipment and materials can be shared. This model is significantly more cost-effective and is one which, as a result of scientists from different disciplines working in close proximity, creates a fertile collaborative environment.’
The building is made up of four blocks separated by the main east-west atrium and the smaller north-south transverse atrium.
The cathedral-like scale of the main atrium is interrupted by the transverse atria where, on each level, a third of the floor area is left open to create a dynamic double-height relationship with the adjacent floorplate.
‘The space has been designed to provide an opportunity for scientists from the floor above, observing a presentation taking place on the floor below and then, by using the adjacent staircase, joining the group below,’ explains Warner Lacey. ‘Lined with backpainted glass, the panels work as whiteboards and have pull-out doors to increase the usable writing space. They also form a physically defined cluster area. The design of these informal meeting spaces differs on each floor, with the furniture settings providing alternative levels of privacy, openness, flexibility, group and individual settings.’
The ground floor has a variety of spaces designed to facilitate group activities, with a 450-seater auditorium providing a formal setting for lectures and presentations. By using a Skyfold partition, which resides in the ceiling void, the space can be subdivided and functions as two independent auditoria.
The four conference rooms on the ground floor are equally flexible and can be opened up to create a single space. The conference room ante space and the gallery area opposite were conceived to provide the scientists with ‘poster’ space, where ideas are displayed and shared in a formal setting in the hope of attracting interest with others who work in a similar field. The 6m-long, sliding, glazed screen allows these spaces both to work as one for a public event or for the ante space and conference suite to be behind the high-security line during normal working hours, easing the flow through the building for the occupants.
Warner Lacey adds: ‘The restaurant, typically the most underused area in a workspace building, has been fitted with the technology required to fully utilise the facilities during the day. A projection screen and speaker system will be used for social events to bring people together. The adjacent coffee bar that projects into the base of the atrium offers cubicle spaces within the compression zone between the atrium and the restaurant.’
The laboratory floors. Photo: Wellcome Images
Achieving a successful outcome on a project of this scale involves getting things right throughout numerous key stages, but none as important as the briefing phase, according to David King, director and senior vice-president at HOK. ‘The brief defines the question to which the design will become the answer,’ he says. ‘A key challenge for the Crick was to promote a new method and culture of working that would encourage collaboration across all sectors. The Crick’s six partners had diverse protocols and procedures, often different funding methods and organisational structures.’
In terms of architecture, design and construction, the scale and complexity of the project meant that it was not just going to be in its completed form that the building would encourage collaborative working. ‘The most successful projects are those in which the project team members commit to a collaborative approach,’ says King. ‘And collaboration requires clarity of purpose, well-defined roles and responsibilities, co-operation, open and effective communication and, above all, trust between all parties.
‘Collaborative team working requires leadership and it is the job of the leader to build that trust, leading by example to prove that they and their team warrant the confidence of the client, consultants and all those with a stake in the success of the project. What makes collaboration different to consultation is, at least in part, a willingness to share control – knowing where you need to be aligned and where independent action is appropriate; working constructively in the face of differences that could lead to conflict; and investing in building collaborative relationships based on shared values.’
The project team faced a very particular challenge in coordinating the enormous amount of detail required for design and construction.
‘One of the principal mechanisms we employ for developing and interrogating design coordination is 3D modelling; we are leading proponents of Building Information Modelling (BIM), being founding members of “buildingSMART”,’ says King.
Most engineering consultants are now familiar with the benefits of 3D modelling, but BIM goes beyond this, using virtual modelling in a collaborative environment with computable interoperable data, which helps to ensure not only the completion and coordination of design but also provides a tool that can be used for fabrication, construction sequencing, cost control, and ultimately operation of the facility – to help drive efficiencies and plan future changes.
‘Design and construction documentation was produced directly from the coordinated BIM, so it was important to determine the appropriate level of detail at an early stage to establish what details would not be incorporated into the BIM, and how supplementary drawn line work would be completed and coordinated.’ Sustainable thinking has also been integrated into every aspect of the building’s operation. The building has also been designed to minimise impact on the environment, with 1,700 sq m of photovoltaic cells on the roof and its own combined heat and power system. Extensive use of glass throughout the building maximises natural daylight that, combined with energy-efficient light fittings, helps to keep lighting costs low.
The architects believe that such energy-saving features should reduce the energy bill by a third, and the building has been given an ‘excellent’ BREEAM rating.
Almost all of the waste and soil removed during the construction phase has been reused or recycled rather than going to landfill. The building also incorporates brown roofs to allow wild flowers and plants to grow, as well as bat boxes to encourage wildlife.
Collaboration and interdisciplinary working is designed in, with research groups from different disciplines been given neighbouring lab space. Photo: Wellcome Images
Employees are encouraged to play their part too – there is no car parking at the building other than disabled spaces, but there are 180 bike racks for staff use, as well as additional racks outside for visitors. The positive impact of the building will be felt beyond its own walls too. Crick has funded an eco-friendly decentralised energy scheme for the local area of Somers Town, providing heat to 339 homes.
Given the fast-moving nature of the work that will take place in the building in the decades ahead, perhaps one of the greatest design challenges was to ensure that it is future-proofed to meet these evolving needs. HOK’s King says: ‘The building is designed to be readily adaptable. For the Crick we developed a “kit of parts” approach to the lab planning, enabling a generic test fit in advance of any PIs being appointed and before we knew what science would be undertaken. Generic components can be plugged into the lab neighbourhoods in combinations restricted only by the total service load constraints.’
He adds that in a traditional lab project the PIs would be appointed, the science known, the lab benches fixed and the services hardwired, whereas here the design allows a plug-and-play approach: ‘This provides maximum flexibility and adaptability – allowing for the labs to be readily adapted for future science needs.’
It is an innovative building intended to pave the way for an exciting future for biomedical research in the UK. David Roblin, chief operating officer and director of scientific translation at the Institute, says: ‘It is tremendous to have reached the point when science is beginning in our glorious new building. It’s been an achievement of many people – in the design, construction, fit-out, and project management of moving in people, equipment and experiments. To do this while also running active research programmes across multiple sites speaks highly of the skill and effort of our staff and supporters. It gives a sense of what we’ll be able to achieve once we’re all together in our new home.’