Now in its 51st year, the Laboratory of the Year Awards continue to recognize excellence in research laboratory design, planning and construction. This annual international competition receives entries from the best new and renovated laboratories. Eligible projects represent a wide variety of laboratory types, including research, quality assurance/control, teaching, software development, environmental, clinical, forensic, and testing and standards.

Judging for this year’s competition took place on March 28 and was conducted by a blue-ribbon panel of laboratory architects, engineers, equipment manufacturers, researchers and the editorial staff of R&D Magazine and Laboratory Design. The project teams were honored during the Laboratory Design Conference, held April 24-26, 2017, at the Raleigh Marriott Crabtree Valley in Raleigh, N.C. Five awards were presented at the 2017 Laboratory Design Conference.

The Laboratory of the Year award was presented to The Francis Crick Institute in London, U.K., submitted by HOK in St. Louis, Mo.

Exterior View from Southeast showing dichroic glass feature at entry. Image: Chris Ansell

When a partnership between a U.K. government funding agency, two charities and three universities got together to plan the new Francis Crick Institute, they decided they wanted to create an innovative center of biomedical research and innovation right in the heart of London. They wanted to bring together a diverse community of researchers who could work together in interdisciplinary teams in order to solve some of the most pressing medical issues of our time.

Calling it a “beautiful building” with a “nice floor plan,” the judging panel designated the Francis Crick Institute as its 2017 Laboratory of the Year.

The Crick’s flexible layout accommodates the typical 6- to 12-year tenures of its researchers, who are not tenured—a strategy to bring in fresh outlooks. The space had to be designed in order to serve those who were fairly early in their careers, versus those who had been long-established as leaders in their fields. The flexible lab and infrastructure environments were designed to deal with rapid changes in staffing and research.

“Virtually everything in the building, in the lab, is moveable. So on the simple level of changing the lab, it’s very easy and can be done in an hour or two, for the most part, and the researchers can do those things themselves without getting the facilities group involved,” said Bill Odell, Director of Science + Technology at HOK and Principal in Charge of the Crick project. “As a team evolves, they may realize they have something in common with another group—for example, cell biology vs. membranes. They can quickly rearrange themselves so they’re all together … other than the fixed pieces of the building, they can change a research program very quickly.”

View from across atrium showing high visibility between write-up and lab, between lab and lab, between wings of the building and between floors. Image: Paul Grundy

The location of the Crick is optimal, said Odell, saying that the search for a suitable site took three or four years before the final location in central London was chosen—right across the street from a major train terminal, St Pancras International, from which the Eurostar operates. Several major Tube stations are also close by. Odell added that the Crick’s location is a short walk from University College London (one of the partners of the Crick) as well as a brand-new teaching hospital and 57 other clinical and research organizations. Additionally, the Crick is within a 90-minute driving distance from the bustling biotechnology industries in both Cambridge and Oxford—an important feature for drawing in researchers, particularly young people.

The Francis Crick Institute was rated BREEAM Excellent using the BREEAM Sustainable Rating System, the standard in the U.K. and increasingly in the EU. This system is similar to LEED; however, BREEAM places a greater emphasis on carbon while LEED focuses more on indoor air quality and site issues. The BREEAM Excellent rating is roughly equivalent to a level somewhere between LEED Gold and LEED. The Crick saves about 35,000 tons of CO2 a year, with a 25 percent reduction in CO2 emissions over a standard 2006 building. The Laboratory of the Year entry noted that the building’s design “followed a tiered ‘be lean, be clean, be green’ approach to carbon reduction in accordance with the London Plan—this design approach provides this savings through the use of lean design, high efficiency MEP plant, the use of extensive sub-metering, presence and leak detection systems.” The Crick is beyond a regulation compliant building including process loads.

In order to foster open collaboration, the Crick was designed to include several informal spaces, both active and quiet zones, to accommodate both arranged and chance encounters between researchers. The design of the building promotes high visibility within each neighborhood, among neighborhoods and also between each floor, with an open staircase at the center of the building connecting the common informal meeting/break area of each floor at the center. Each floor hosts common support facilities (for example, tissue culture suites) that are shared by neighborhoods and building-wide facilities, such as imaging and containment suites. Flexible white boards were installed throughout the building to encourage spontaneous discussions and documentation. Odell related a story from a visit he paid to the building after its completion, where he was having a conversation with a colleague in front of double-sided white boards that fold out—suddenly a researcher walked by them, glanced at one of the boards which was covered with equations, and moved closer to study it. Then took a marker and made a correction and added his own suggestions to it, and left his phone number to invite the original author to have a conversation with him about it.

View from the write-up area to the open lab, shared support in the center and adjacent open lab and write-up beyond. Image: Paul Grundy

Collaboration and interaction is a common theme throughout the building. Lab blocks are arranged around a communal transverse atrium, and lab space is open, flexible and visually connected to support rapid conversion during the quick expansion and evolution of research teams. Numerous break areas, a cafeteria with communal tables, coffee bars and a pub further encourage collaboration and conversation between the Crick’s researchers. Odell joked that a researcher once told him that the “magic numbers for science” are 10, 1, 3 and 6 … meaning, teatime, lunchtime, teatime, and the pub.

Visiting clinicians, as well as industry-based researchers, were accommodated in the design of the building with temporary workplaces—a move to further collaboration efforts and draw in strategic partners. The Crick aims to openly share its discoveries with the rest of the world. A teaching laboratory and support spaces located near the front of the building host classes for local schoolchildren and teachers.

The relationship between write-up offices, primary labs, shared secondary labs and dedicated secondary labs can accommodate fast reallocation of team space, while at the same time encouraging the sharing of instruments and amenities. The Crick’s proportion of core facilities to primary/secondary lab facilities is almost 50 percent, significantly higher than comparable facilities around the world. These core facilities include an animal research facility, high containment facilities, CL2 containment suites, a light microscopy suite, a super resolution imaging suite, a nuclear magnetic resonance suite, a transmission electron microscopy suite, an MRI suite, a histopathology suite, a high throughput screening suite, a flow cytometry suite, a drosophila (fruit fly) suite, a tissue culture suite, an X-ray suite, a chemistry suite, a mass spectrometry suite, and an isotope suite.

View from Primary lab to write-up and atrium across to labs in adjacent block. Image: Paul Grundy

The imaging suites posed a problem because of vibration concerns, due to the numerous rail and subway lines surrounding the Crick. Early EMI surveys were conducted in and around the site, at various times of day. Finally, a “sweet spot” was found on the south side of the site, which became a starting point for the design and allowed for the positioning of the imaging suite and the surrounding basement fairly early in the project

“There were a lot of challenges,” said Odell. “But they were well worth it in the end.”