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The Collaborative Workspace Looking To Beat Cancer And Malaria

Traditional landlords and co-working companies are increasingly keen to trumpet how their buildings and offices are fostering collaboration between different companies and helping them to innovate and grow.

One building in London is looking to apply these principles in a new field and to a much greater end than helping the next tech unicorn to emerge: The project aims to further scientific understanding of disease and help fight diseases ranging from cancer to heart disease or motor neurone disease.

The research being done there is cutting edge, and the building and its design are central to this.

The central atrium of the Francis Crick Institute.

The nearly 1M SF Francis Crick Institute in King's Cross, North London, opened a year ago. Its construction and initial funding have cost £650M and it houses close to 1,500 scientists on a daily basis. The cost was funded by six institutions, including the Wellcome Trust, the Medical Research Council and Cancer Research U.K.

The hundreds of medical research projects ongoing there include an examination of how malarial infections can be slowed down to help antimalarial drugs, and how cells change type to help or hinder immunity.

Collaboration and how to break out of "silos" are a big area of debate in science, and the Crick Institute is radical in the world of medical science in the way it is using its built environment to facilitate researchers working together.

It was designed by HOK and PLP Architecture, and HOK Director and Senior Vice President David King, leader of the design group for the building, gave Bisnow a tour.

The building was first conceived in 2008, and a design settled upon in 2010, when co-working space was not part of the office universe, let alone the dominant taker of space, as it is in London. But King said collaboration had always been part of the mission statement for him and his team.

Crick Institute's labs can be quickly reconfigured.

The laboratories themselves are a big part of this effort. They are arranged over four floors. A typical floor consists of four interconnected blocks that bring together staff working in different fields, to encourage interdisciplinary interaction.

"Rather than having fixed labs for set types of research and fixed equipment, the usual practice, labs have been created from a ‘plug-and-play’ kit of parts that can be readily disassembled and reconfigured for different uses,” King said. “So the uses to which labs are being put are constantly changing, and different research groups are constantly working alongside each other.”

Shared workspaces are rare in the world of science and medical research.

Researchers do have fixed "write-up space" near labs, but there is a wealth of centralised breakout and shared space at the centre of each floor. Many walls are essentially massive whiteboards with marker pens. All of the shared spaces are busy and buzzing.

“At first people didn’t really use the central collaboration spaces as they didn’t seem to know what they were for,” King said. “But after a few months people started to get it and now they are all very well used, which is very pleasing.”
A large staircase is one of the central features of the building. “People tend to go silent in lifts, so we wanted to encourage people to use the stairs, where they are much more visible and likely to stop and chat,” King said.

Some lab space has fixed uses — four of the building’s eight stories are underground, and that is where the more precise experiments are done. The building 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.

These underground labs are also where the dangerous materials go — there are three layers of security given the danger posed by some of the pathogens being used in the research.

The Francis Crick Institute in King's Cross is a magnet for companies wanting to be close to a major research centre.

Much of the building is constructed from glass, which allows in more natural light and reduces the amount of energy consumption from lighting, and is intended to allow the local community to see in and feel that the work being done there is transparent. The ground floor features a public exhibition space that anyone can enter, and the building has a community facility where schools and community groups can learn about what is being done in the building and medical research more generally.

King said the elements of the office designed to encourage collaboration were drawn from workplaces outside of the world of science.

"To the extent that co-working is primarily about shared working environments, this has been a feature of our approach to workplace design that predates our starting work on the Crick," he said.

"I think it is certainly true to say that our experience in workplace design was one that helped inform the design of the labs and support areas."

One year in the building has already spawned spinouts that have made significant discoveries and attracted external funding. The hope is that the innovative approach to design and working practices will produce a lot more of this. It may even change the way research is conducted more broadly.