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Large Biomedical Institute Under Construction in London

Exterior rendering of the Francis Crick Institute
The Francis Crick Institute is being constructed on a restricted 1.5 ha site across from the St. Pancras International and Kings Cross train stations in Central London. Image by Wadsworth 3D

Designers overcome site and program challenges to realize a new research facility that will unite researchers from six of the United Kingdom’s leading scientific and academic organizations.

August 6, 2013—Constructing a new biomedical research facility in downtown London presented two primary design challenges: fitting the expansive 85,935 m2 building on a restricted 1.5 ha site, and creating a space that will encourage researchers from different scientific and academic institutions to collaborate and share ideas. Addressing those challenges, designers have realized a center that will complement the existing surroundings while still providing a fresh dynamic that is sure to inspire intellectual pursuits.

The Francis Crick Institute is under construction in the middle of an established scientific community in the Somers Town district of Central London. Within blocks of 60 other research laboratories, the institute will accommodate a consortium of six of the United Kingdom’s leading scientific and academic organizations: the Medical Research Council, Cancer Research UK, the Wellcome Trust, University College London, Imperial College London, and King’s College London. These organizations will work together to better understand and develop new ways to prevent and treat such illnesses as cancer, heart disease, stroke, infectious diseases, and neurodegenerative conditions. HOK, an international architecture and engineering firm headquartered in St. Louis, is the architect, along with PLP Architecture, of London; AKT II, an engineering firm headquartered in London, is the structural engineer.

The institute will comprise four laboratory wings, or “science neighborhoods,” arranged around a long glass-enclosed atrium, or “village square,” where circulation walkways and meeting spaces will encourage spontaneous collaboration. The building’s form was governed to a great extent by the relatively small project site, bordered on all sides by significant existing structures: St. Pancras International and Kings Cross train stations to the east, the British Library to the south, and residential neighborhoods to the north and west. Many of the adjacent buildings have “right to light” easements that guarantee them natural light illumination, so the height of the institute was restricted to ensure it would not shadow its neighbors. To accommodate the ambitious program despite the restriction, one-third of the institute will be located below grade. “We basically had to go down to create this massive volume of basement in order to be able to incorporate all of the program that was required of this building,” says Ricardo Baptista, an associate director of ATK II. The basement, he adds, is four levels—two levels of lab space and two levels of mechanical space—that extends to a depth of 16 m. 

 Diagram of the institute which will feature four laboratory wings, a central atrium, and a curved metal roof

 The institute will feature four laboratory wings, a central atrium,
and a curved metal roof. Its structural system will primarily
 primarily precast reinforced concrete elements.

Because the basement accounts for such a large portion of the building designers gave a great deal of thought to the construction methodology required to meet the institute’s anticipated opening in spring 2015. As a result, the team implemented a hybrid top-down construction methodology, using traditional excavation down to the second basement level and then top-down construction from there. The hybrid approach allowed for excavation of old foundations and other remnants of previous structures embedded in the top 8 m of the site before commencing top-down construction. “With multiple-level basements, top-down construction has clear program advantages but comes with a cost premium and also, arguably, carries a greater risk profile due to the confined nature of the build and elements of ‘blind’ construction,” said Rob Partridge, the project director for AKT II, in a written responses to Civil Engineering online. But “given that the basement makes up almost a third of the development, the construction methodology was key to the overall construction programming.”

The top-down construction method determined the project’s foundation and retaining wall solutions. The institute will be founded on piles, measuring up to 2.4 m in diameter and descending to a depth of 40 m, while a 20 m tall and 1 m thick retaining wall will line the basement’s 500 m perimeter. The retaining wall was designed to accommodate the basement excavation work and ensure that the construction would not disturb adjacent underground structures, including railway lines and a 120-year-old gas main just to the north of the site. Live vibration monitoring was also conducted to ensure the work would not adversely impact the gas main in particular. “This is a gas main that serves all of north London,” Baptista explains. “We obviously had to be very careful and make sure that we got it right in terms of our analysis.”

One of the most innovative aspects of the building will be the framing system. The institute is being framed using precast reinforced-concrete elements, making it the first building of its size in the United Kingdom, and likely Europe, to be constructed in this manner, Baptista says. Precast framing was selected because it can be erected more quickly than cast-in-place framing, more sustainable because fewer loads of concrete have to be transferred to the site, and more aesthetically pleasing because the components are formed in a controlled factory environment. The only thing the designers had to bear in mind was that because the components take time to fabricate, they had to ensure their design was completed earlier than had they used cast-in-place framing. “But as long as you take that into account in your program, you end up with a very smooth process and with a great end result,” Baptista says. “Overall, you’re creating a much more efficient process.”

 Interior rendering of the institute's laboratory displaying wings that will be lined by cantilevered walkways on each level

 The institute’s laboratory wings will be lined by cantilevered
walkways on each level. © HOK

Given the sensitive nature of the research that will be conducted in the institute, a great deal of analysis was necessary to ensure that the precast elements would provide sufficient vibration control. The analysis confirmed that the precast connections would perform as well as monolithic connections achieved using cast-in-place methods. “One of the most critical parts of the briefing process was related to structural-born vibration, and very early in the design process AKT II presented to the client body the spectrum of options ranging from global flexibility within the structural frame to local isolation at the equipment level,” Partridge says. “This evaluation resulted in a solution utilizing deeper slab thickness than if driven by strength and deflection alone, but provided the client with full flexibility throughout the whole facility, with every floor designed to a vibration threshold limit [that is] ... approximately 16 times stricter than the typical limit for commercial spaces.” While most of the framing will be concrete, steel plate girders and trusses will be used to transfer loads in some areas that require long spans, including the institute’s 400-seat auditorium.

All of the occupied areas of the institute will be located above ground. Each of the four laboratory wings will have open workspaces and transparent partitions to allow maximum daylight penetration and stimulate interaction among occupants. “High on the client’s agenda was a desire for the building to foster collaboration between different teams and research disciplines, many of whom have never before occupied the same building,” said William Odell, F.AIA, LEED-AP, the senior vice president of HOK and the director of the firm’s Science + Technology division, who wrote in response to questions posed by Civil Engineering online. “The goal for HOK’s team was to create a design that sparked opportunities for interaction and an environment that promotes integrated, collaborative research,” Odell said.

The laboratory wings will be bordered on either side by 2.5 m wide cantilevered walkways. On one side the walkways will overlook the atrium space, and on the other they will extend along the building’s elevation. The cantilevers “are coffered to reduce their volumes as much as possible, so that they are basically the width of a corridor,” Baptista says.

The most dramatic element of the institute will be the doubly curved steel roof, the geometry of which was influenced by both the building height restriction and the nearby St. Pancras International train station’s glass and steel arched roof. The institute’s roof will rise from the building’s terra-cotta clad frame, one half extending over the building’s north side and the other extending over the south side. Both halves of the roof will be vaulted to house mechanical systems, one housing three levels of mechanical systems and the other housing two. As a result of their height differences, the two halves of the roof will overlap above the glass-covered atrium. These two halves will not be solid; instead they will be made up of louvers to allow air circulation around the mechanical systems. Two curved and inclined steel frames will extend along the front and back of the building to support the roof. These frames presented significant engineering challenges. “You start with something that was quite vertical in the middle of the building, and as you go toward the two ends, these frames start inclining more and more and becoming more and more offset from the supporting structure below,” Baptista explains. “That added complexity in terms of those connections between the steelwork and the [building’s] concrete frame.”

The scale and complexity of the project led to the use of building information modeling from the concept and design stages through procurement and construction, which began in mid-2011. The institute reached topping out in June, and crews are now working on the roof, which is expected to be completed within the next three months. The designers say they hope the completed building helps lead to scientific breakthroughs. “We hope that in the end we will have created a world-class facility that will accelerate all the potential discoveries that are still to be made in the biomedical field,” Baptista says. “That’s really the ultimate goal of this project.”



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