Research engine

I recently visited the new Francis Crick Institute just by St Pancras International rail station in central London. It’s been designed to drive scientific collaboration and innovation. This is a longer version of my article for FM World magazine and you can watch a video interview with assistant construction director Henry Robinson

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Just north of the British Library something very big has landed. Occupying a whole city block, the steel, glass and terracotta clad building is now being fitted out, ready to open fully in the spring of 2016. At the heart of a “medical knowledge quarter” that includes the Wellcome Trust, the Royal College of Physicians and University College Hospital, the new Francis Crick Institute (named after the scientist who, along with James Watson and Maurice Wilkins, discovered the structure of DNA) is a unique partnership between the Medical Research Council (MRC), Cancer Research UK, the Wellcome Trust, UCL (University College London), Imperial College London and King’s College London.

Main entrance

Main entrance

The Crick will be a world-class bio-medical research centre for human disease. The need is great. Between them, cancer, cardiovascular disease, respiratory diseases and diabetes cause 36 million deaths each year. Devastating neurological diseases, such as dementia, are growing in frequency as people live longer and infectious diseases still pose a threat to human health – with four million people dying each year from malaria, HIV and tuberculosis combined.

Prime Minister David Cameron described it as “one of the most significant developments in UK biomedical science for a generation” and Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society and Chief Executive and Director of the Francis Crick Institute, has said: “If we get this right we’re going to change the world.”

Alongside the science, the Crick will also be conducting a live experiment in how the design and management of facilities affects behaviour. In an age of virtual working this is a massive investment in the value of bringing people together.

The Crick will accommodate 1,200 researchers and 300 support staff. It will bring together researchers from existing facilities of the Medical Research Council’s National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) and the London Research Institute (LRI), part of Cancer Research UK.

The Crick is not just a new building but a new institute. It represents a major culture change for the people who will be working from next year. LRI and NIMR will cease to exist – collaboration is the Crick’s raison d’etre.

Historically, research has been organised around disciplines, such as chemistry, or around diseases, such as cancer, say the promoters of the Crick: “This specialisation has enabled researchers to deliver great insight at the fundamental level, but if we are to harness the value of information being accumulated from studies of the genome and the biology of major diseases, we need a more collaborative approach. There will be no departments. Instead scientists will form specific interest groups and work together in shared laboratories grouped around communal spaces. This will encourage collaboration and allow ideas to flow across traditional boundaries.”

Henry Robinson

Henry Robinson

Assistant construction director Henry Robinson says there are three things the Crick does which don’t often happen with science buildings: “It’s designed for collaboration; it’s designed for future adaptability and it has a real visual connection with the public.

“It’s almost creating a market place for science. It’s a whole campus in a building. Despite the use of ICT [bio-infomatics is a growing field] a lot of science is still physical, you need to put things through centrifuges, you need to see how bugs grow. It’s all about seeing people.”

And it’s all about people seeing science. “It interacts with the public,” says Robinson, which a lot of science buildings don’t do. There’s no stand-off area or big fence around the site – the public walks past and looks right into the heart of it.”

The most literal manifestation of the Crick’s mission to explain is the huge (30m x 25m) glass screen facing the western entrance to St Pancras International. Made from low ion glass for greater clarity it will be literally a window into science.

Reducing the impact
The Crick is a big building, about 93,000 sq m, with a third of this below ground. It sits in a largely residential area so, to the north and west, the architectural design has sought to reduce the impact on the community whilst still making a strong visual statement. The north side has one fewer floors of labs and the plant rooms are a little lower. From Brill Place to the north you read the terracotta façade but not the curving roof over the plant space and similarly, from Ossulston Street to the west, you don’t see the full height. The rooftop plant sits below interlocking curving canopies, giving the building a distinctive shape and identity. The materials tie it into the architecture of St Pancras and the red brick of the British Library.

Robinson says the Crick is the most complex build in London at the moment. Certainly construction logistics are challenging. The building uses the full footprint of the site. There’s very little swing space and the site offices sit on land leased from the British Library.

The architectural design is by HOK with PLP. The building is cruciform in shape with four interconnecting lab wings over four floors, lit by a long east-west atrium and crossed by a shorter north-south one.

The first third of the building is effectively “public” space, featuring reception, a café, exhibition areas and a 450-seat auditorium housed in a large organic “bubble”. Walkways criss-cross the main atrium, linking labs and hub meeting areas.

Most commercial buildings have a net to gross space ratio of around 80%. The Crick is closer to 50% due to the sheer amount of support space and plant. There are three full lab floors across the building and an additional half floor on the south side.

Design for collaboration
Henry Robinson explains the huge culture change that the building represents and how people are making the transition: “It’s been coming for some time, so we’ve had user groups that informed the design and that’s been invaluable.

“These user groups were made up from the two institutes (NIMR and the LRI) that will be the initial people moving in. So they’ve collaborated already in getting the building to where it is at the moment but they will come together to become the Crick, so we’re not just thinking about how we do things today but what is the better practice? We want this to be the best science facility in the world, we want everybody who’s excited about science to want to come here.

“It’s a culture shock because we trust the things we know and change is never easy. It needs people to understand the change before they can get excited about it. People are starting to see how this different way of working could benefit them. The building is one part of the picture but the culture that comes with it is something totally different.”

Collaboration at the Crick is being encouraged in three ways: through the creation of open plan labs; by scattering scientists across the building; and providing hubs for discussion.

Write up space alongside circulation

Write up space alongside circulation

It’s the design and layout of the lab space that makes the Francis Crick Institute ground-breaking. In most research buildings, laboratories are located within an enclosed area, encompassing write-up space, lab space and all the equipment.

“This building’s organised in four clusters – in each there’s a central area where equipment is shared along with specialist space, for tissue culture for example. We’ve taken the equipment out of the lab and moved it into the central space,” says Robinson. “We’ve pushed the write-up space to the outside corridor so that people see each other and walk past each other more. That in itself is a first step towards collaboration – it’s more like a typical office interaction space, which labs typically aren’t very good at doing. We’ve made the primary lab space as open plan as possible to get the maximum visual connectivity. Visual permeability has been so important.”

The result is labs that are much more open – groups can expand and contract within the space, much more like an open plan office, without feeling they are encroaching on someone else’s territory. Because the write-up spaces open onto the perimeter corridor, a lot of work has gone into acoustic treatment to ensure they are comfortable places to work. Acoustic matting has been installed above tiles, on columns and in some of the furniture. It deadens the space but allows for a background buzz. It’s relatively expensive and in a lot of buildings it’s value-engineered out.

“We’ve scattered the scientists so that you have the critical mass you need but added in other sciences, which we hope will create some interesting discussions, “ Robinson says. ”On each floor, in the centre of the four blocks, we’ve created an informal collaboration space, a hub.”

There are no meeting rooms on the lab floors – the Crick wants people to use the collaboration hubs. These are not just soft-seating areas in which to have a break but spaces that the Crick hopes will foster working together. Researchers can pick up a coffee, have a chat, discuss results, maybe project onto a wall. They’ll be able to have quieter meetings in some areas, more public ones in others.

Everyone’s lab manager sits in the collaboration space and the principal investigators’ offices are deliberately small to discourage people from holding meetings in them. The only formal meeting space is on level one, although there are bookable seminar suites on the ground floor near the auditorium.

“We have to get people moving through the building and using these beautiful open spaces for collaboration. We think those chance conversations are what will really make the difference and they could be the spark to a flame,” argues Robinson.

The team looked outside the science sector for information and inspiration, from organisations such as the BBC, Macquarie Bank, Google and the Co-operative to see how collaboration spaces can work. “Ideas are capital in this world and sharing ideas is giving a bit of that capital away but that’s what’s going to make the breakthroughs. The building is doing the heavy lifting but it needs culture change to make it really work.”

The building is adaptable rather than completely flexible. There are no raised floors, they couldn’t carry the weight of equipment, but the M&E systems allow a lot of change and service panels in the labs have “plug and play” connections for electricity and gases. Partitions sit under a bandraster (exposed grid) ceiling and can be moved without disturbing the ceiling.

“There’s no expansion capability on the site, everything needs to be done within the envelope,” comments Robinson. “We can’t create more space but we can convert from wet science to dry science and we believe that’s where research is going.”

Laboratory

Laboratory

The Crick team built a mock-up of the new labs in a west-London hangar. “I don’t think we’ve really found out just how valuable the mock-up has been,” says Robinson. “It got people on board. Because the building’s so large, on a drawing the labs look small but when you can move through the space, feel the tables, see where you’re going to put stuff – it took much of the worry away. It made a massive difference to how they felt about the building, the Crick and their futures.”

Community engagement
Sir Paul Nurse has said that the public and science have fallen out with each other. He believes that scientists should speak out about science in public affairs and challenge politicians who support policies based on pseudoscience.

The relationship of the Crick to the local community is an important part of a mission to engage with the public. The site will incorporate an east-west pedestrian route, linking Euston to Kings Cross St Pancras and opening up access to a the knowledge quarter.

Rather than separate staff and public entrances, there’s just a 1.5m change of level, otherwise they enter at the same point. Visitors come into a reception area, which includes an exhibition space wrapped around the auditorium and a coffee bar. Clever planning means that, by moving the security gateline, the reception area can be combined with the auditorium and breakout rooms to create an event or conference facility. For a few days each year, the auditorium will be opened up for community use.

Reception and auditorium

Reception and auditorium

The most tangible evidence of the intent to engage with those living near the Crick is the Living Centre devoted to community health and developed with input from local residents. The centre’s overall goal is to boost people’s physical and mental health and wellbeing. The Crick’s outreach and public engagement programme includes a teaching lab with a satellite at a local High School.

Crick, Watson and Wilkins won science’s highest prize in 1962. Perhaps the ultimate measure of the new institute’s success will be the number of Nobel prizes awarded for the work done in its collaboration spaces … but they’ll have to change the rules on a maximum of three winners.

A shorter version of this article was first published in FM World 24.04.2014

For more information and a fly-through animation see http://www.crick.ac.uk