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Brave new buildings

At universities across the country, scientists are happily leaving the isolation of their old labs and offices to discover the “intellectual collisions” in new collaborative spaces.

by Moira Farr

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Undergrad labs in the Otto Maass chemistry building, McGill. Photo: Vezina Thode Architectes.

Don Schmitt sits in a glass-walled conference room at the downtown Toronto office of Diamond Schmitt Architects as images of recent academic buildings designed by the firm project onto a large screen, showing light-filled stairways, dramatic glass atria and sprawling lounge spaces. The designs, he says, are rooted in his experiences decades ago as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto. “In the ’60s and ’70s, architects were asked to focus on the functional requirements only – the number of offices, classrooms at whatever square feet. So you had buildings like Sid Smith [Sidney Smith Hall] with no space for kids to sit.”

The architecture building, however, was different. “I was drawn to it because it was such an interesting place,” he recalls. “You inhabited the whole building. You were in a studio environment. People hauled in old couches and slept overnight. We talked to each other all the time about our projects.”

So it made perfect sense to Mr. Schmitt to introduce changes to the old template when universities and colleges came calling with their new building and renewal projects. Why not introduce design elements that bring people together, rather than keeping them isolated in closed-off disciplinary domains with remote offices, far from natural gathering spots where informal communication might spark new ideas? Now, dramatic staircases wind through the middle of buildings; strategically placed lounges with comfortable chairs and large tables draw people to work, relax, eat together and share ideas; flexible workstations are easily customized for a variety of uses; walls are kept to a minimum, and everywhere possible windows bring in natural light.

Diamond Schmitt is among the firms in North America that have ushered in a new model for campus architecture, especially in the sciences. The design shift has been evolving since the 1990s, as university research facilities aimed to be less like “small, cloistered labs run as fiefdoms by senior professors,” as William Weathersby, senior editor of Architectural Record, wrote in 2006, and more like “science neighbourhoods” that foster collaboration. Some researchers say they’re witnessing an evolution in research itself, thanks in part to the collaboration within and across disciplines that the spaces encourage.

Opportunities to gather

“I cannot say how delighted we are to be here,” declares Silvia Vidal, associate professor in the departments of human genetics, medicine, and microbiology and immunology at McGill University. Here is the four-year-old Life Sciences Complex, the biggest building project at McGill in 40 years. Designed by Diamond Schmitt with Provencher Roy & Associés Architectes, the 30,000-square-metre research space has 55 labs and is used by 600 people, including faculty, graduate students, postdoc fellows and technical and administrative staff.

Dr. Vidal and her team of 32 researchers occupy four open-concept labs on one floor (eight researchers per lab bench). Known as the Complex Traits Group, they study the genetic components of human disease and represent a wide range of disciplines, including molecular and cell biology, genetics, biochemistry, microbiology and immunology, pathology and physiology.

“It’s like an incubator,” says Dr. Vidal of the open space where discussion can take place easily between researchers. “This is where you dream big and share all your crazy ideas.”

Those dreams have led to applications for team grants, and then funding. “It’s very natural when you are working literally side by side,” she says, “to develop collaborative projects.”

The Life Sciences Complex stands in stark contrast to the single-discipline towers Dr. Vidal recalls from her previous years at universities in Canada and abroad. “I could have spent my whole life in an isolated office, without interacting with anyone.” As she observes, “Collaboration cannot happen if there are barriers.”

For universities with perennially tight budgets, the task of managing the changing needs of researchers is a constant challenge. No institution wants to bear the costs and inefficiencies of empty space, on the one hand, or too-crowded space on the other. The new approach to design allows flexible labs with moveable walls and work stations that can be dismantled and reassembled from one project to another, expanding and contracting as people and funds come and go.

But the new design philosophy isn’t just about fine-tuning formal workspaces. “You have to build in opportunities for serendipity, for people to talk to each other spontaneously,” says Robert Stanley, McGill’s director of project management. “You want to focus on the circulation spaces too, build in niches where people can talk or noodle around with whiteboards on the wall.” With conference rooms at the building’s “nodal points,” researchers can easily gather when ideas spring up that they want to discuss – no reservations required.

The “tossed salad” approach

The Life Sciences Complex isn’t the only new collaborative space at McGill. Chemistry faculty and students now work together more easily, thanks to massive renovations to the Otto Maass building, which dated back to 1963, and to the adjoining Pulp and Paper building. The multi-million-dollar renewal – led by Diane Thode of Vezina Thode Architects teaming with NFOE, both Montreal firms – was a much-needed overhaul, say the researchers. The renovated labs include a place for the school’s leading research in the emerging field of “green” chemistry.

“It used to be that individual professors designed labs as their own personal and private domains,” explains chemistry department chair Bruce Lennox. With little to no communication between fiefdoms and not enough sharing of equipment, research development suffered. He recalls his first job at a Canadian university, where six students crammed into a single laboratory while across the hall, a space eight times larger sat empty, locked and set aside for a senior professor who hadn’t done research in decades.

Moreover, research facilities used to be set up in frustratingly inefficient ways. “You’d have walls that took up 15 to 20 percent of the space, hallways and corridors that were like a nightmare basement reno.” Now, the walls have literally come down. In the chemistry department, dozens of researchers in several research groups share space, instruments and equipment in the equivalent of eleven 350-square-metre laboratories. The labs employ an accordion model, with moveable elements for research benches that accommodate changing needs, meaning “we’re at 90 to 95 percent capacity all the time,” says Dr. Lennox.

Another change is that the chemists don’t segregate by groups anymore. “It used to be ‘people who make things’ and ‘people who measure things’ in different buildings. Now there’s always a mixing between chemistry sub-disciplines that might not ordinarily associate socially. I call it the ‘tossed salad’ approach.”

Dr. Lennox argues that mixing it up, personnel-wise, is essential for good research. Some students who began in his labs have continued these partnerships at the Montreal Neurological Institute. “There has to be this kind of interdisciplinary collaboration between and among our students for research to be sustainable.”

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Chemical proteomics lab in the Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Science, U of Alberta. Photo: KJC Photography (Jack Clark).

Open concept in the West

At the University of Alberta, collaboration is woven into the very name of the newest science complex: the Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Science. A joint project of two architecture firms (Edmonton-based ONPA and Madison, Wisconsin-based FLAD), it opened in 2011. Gregory Taylor, the dean of science, observes that students, faculty and visitors “can literally see science happening” when they enter the massive complex with its walls of glass, inside and out. He too recalls the bad old days when it seemed “science buildings were uniquely designed to prevent collaboration.” Offices behind closed windowless doors down long, poorly lit cinderblock hallways with dead ends – “these were not places you’d stop to spend any time,” says Dr. Taylor.

The new building has a more circular pattern, with hallways connecting glass-enclosed offices to common areas, shared by five research groups. More than 3,000 people use the building regularly. “When you walk down the hall you can see who’s there. You’re never far from a place to sit and chat and use a white board. It promotes random contact,” says Dr. Taylor. His students talk to others, “bringing back their ideas.”

The building was designed to meet environmental concerns and includes an award-winning terrazzo floor honouring the sciences by artist Scott Parsons. “When you create an environment people like, they’ll spend more time there,” says the dean. “One researcher calls it ‘a happy building.’”

Meanwhile, at the University of Saskatchewan, this open-concept philosophy is central to the health sciences project now under construction, also with Wisconsin-based FLAD as its design firm and resource-sharing as a key principle. The complex, which is already partly in use, will hold rooms for surveying, interviewing and meetings, a library, lecture halls, mock hospital exam rooms and a simulated pharmacology-skills lab.

The complex does not belong to any one college, notes Brad Steeves, director of operations in the Council of Health Science Deans Office at U of S. And bringing together students from various health disciplines before they graduate makes sense, he argues. Nurses, doctors, physiotherapists, pharmacists and public-health officials work together in their careers, so why not train them side by side and in clusters during their education? “It’s meant to lead to what people call ‘intellectual collisions,’” he says. Those collisions can lead to more innovative research.

It’s all about connections

From his spacious office at the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute in the urban heart of Toronto, Art Slutsky has a fine view of a glass-enclosed walkway suspended above the street that joins the one-year-old institute with the 120-year-old St. Michael’s Hospital, where he’s vice-president of research. Combining a research centre and an education centre, the $100-million-plus complex (another Diamond Schmitt project) exists to foster collaboration between medical researchers and clinicians.

In the past, researchers affiliated with the University of Toronto and St. Michael’s Hospital were scattered across eight locations. Now, they work and study together in an efficient and spectacular nine-storey, 31,000- square-metre space. “The whole philosophy is to build strong flexible linkages between academics and the hospital,” says Dr. Slutsky.

“There’s no question it’s leading to more productive research, and happier researchers,” he adds. “We’ve just recruited a young researcher from Ireland, and we know that one of the most attractive features we had to offer was this research facility.”

A central stairway leads to generous hallways and hubs for socializing, spontaneous meetings or quiet laptop work. Most labs and offices have windows, and workstations are flexible. Large pieces of equipment that are essential to many areas of research are easily shared.

As Dr. Slutsky leads the way through the light-flooded building, researchers are everywhere – at their stations, at open stacks in the library, in comfortable lounge chairs, in the kitchens. The point of all this open space and the emphasis on collaboration is a critical one, he says: “How do you get your discoveries from the lab to the patient as quickly as possible?” His own biomedical research involves finding ways to make mechanical ventilators less injurious to people with lung diseases. Because he’s able to interact with doctors who are close by, it increases the chances that better technologies will reach patients more quickly, he says.

The pedestrian walkway reminds Dr. Slutsky of a stent. “I think that bridge is my favourite part of the building,” he muses, watching a man in green scrubs walk from the hospital to the institute. “Scientists can go to the hospital. Clinicians can come to our research centre. It’s really a metaphor for everything we’re trying to do here.”

Moira Farr is a writer, editor and journalism teacher who worked for Canadian Architect early in her career.

Serendipity and chance encounters

At the Life Sciences Complex at McGill, “serendipity” happens all the time, says Silvia Vidal, an associate professor with a research group studying the genetic components of human disease. A recent elevator encounter with a professor from another floor illustrates her point. “We got chatting about our research. I told him that we produce new models of human disease by introducing random mutations in the genome of a normal mouse. He is interested in developmental diseases, and in particular kidney malformations, and cancer. He asked if we could give him some mutated mice, which he then screened for the presence of kidney phenotypes. He found that some mutant mice did present malformations in kidney development. Now he’s pursuing studies to under-stand which genes are mutated and how such gene mutations lead to kidney disease.” She says the chance meeting would have been much less likely in the single-discipline towers of old.

Worth visiting

New science buildings are breeding delight among those who work in them. Here’s a taste of other notable projects at campuses across Canada.

Animal and food scientists at Université Laval are enamoured with a new suite of state-of-the-art labs that opened on campus this past spring. “It’s just awesome what we can do here now,” says cellular biologist Marc-André Sirard, the Laval professor who spearheaded the $6-million project. “It’s great for our researchers and Canada’s farming and food industries.” Located in Laval’s agriculture and food sciences building, where it takes up an entire floor, the labs are organized in what Dr. Sirard calls “a multidisciplinary continuum.” Integrating cutting-edge disciplines like genomics and proteomics, the new facility will help to keep Canada competitive in a multi-billion-dollar sector that accounts for almost nine percent of GDP. “It’s a very competitive field,” he says. “These labs greatly enhance our ability to continue developing tools that will improve breeding and food quality.”

The Automotive Centre of Excellence hosts research on every kind of vehicle imaginable at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa, Ontario. Known as ACE, the sprawling facility has one-of-a-kind equipment that makers of automotive, aerospace and defence vehicles line up to use. It houses a robotics systems lab, a massive wind tunnel and a multi-axis shaker table, where rough off-road rides can be simulated. “This is not your typical lab space,” says John Komar, director of engineering and operation at ACE. Students work closely with industrial clients to test vehicles and parts. “Today we’ve got an industry customer using it,” says Dr. Komar, “and tomorrow evening it’s an academic project.”

At the University of Waterloo, the new Mike & Ophelia Lazaridis Quantum-Nano Centre is constructed in a way to maximize the unintended interactions among scientists working on quantum computing. The idea was both to represent the randomness of the quantum world and to reflect today`s research workplace, where people specialized in areas as diverse as cryptography, chemistry, computer science, quan-tum physics and mathematics can continually bump into one another. The researchers cannot remain specialized because their task is to build something – a quantum computer – that has never been built before, based on principles nobody is quite sure will work. From the viewpoint of people looking at the building, the architects have translated the idea of “quantum-ness” with a series of windows that express, in their changing reflectivity, opacity and translucency, quantum physics’ fundamental reality of something that can be in one state and another at exactly the same time. Read more about the Mike & Ophelia Lazaridis Quantum-Nano Centre

The soaring Life Sciences Centre at the University of British Columbia opened in six phases beginning in 2004, with floor space sufficient to cover six football fields. Designed by Bunting Coady and Diamond Schmitt, the building received a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certification. Multidisciplinary in nature, it was built as part of an initiative to double the number of medical graduates in the province.

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