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Designing science buildings for innovation and collaboration

Landing space with blackboard in the Beecroft Building, Oxford University (Hawkins Brown)

News that scientists are testing for a Coronavirus vaccine at Oxford University prompted Future Cities Forum this week to speak to architects Hawkins\Brown, about the science buildings and laboratories that they are designing for the university where medical breakthroughs are happening.

Partner Oliver Milton heads up the education and science sector at Hawkins\Brown which has completed Oxford University's Beecroft Building for physics research and is currently working on the second stage of the university's Bio-Chemistry Building, which has become recognised according to the architectural firm, as a new model for university research buildings.

There has been much discussion in recent years about what is needed in terms of the best environments for scientists to work in collaboratively, but also the standard of facilities that will continue to attract global talent to UK universities. The UK government is currently investing heavily in life sciences innovation and over the last week has opened up funds for science 'start-ups' in its determination to ensure that the UK remains a world leader in science discovery and commercialisation.

Oliver is a member of 'Designers for Science' a group which discusses the latest trends in science architecture. At Hawkins\Brown the practice states that 'it reverses the accepted layout that collects the laboratories in the dark centre of the building and instead puts them on the outside where they have contact with the outside world and are highly visible to the wider university community. This allows the 'write up' of teaching spaces and principal investigators offices to be collected around a busy atrium at the heart of the building.

'This interconnected way of working has increased the number of research projects the department has sponsored, increased overall funding and attracted new researchers, lecturers and students from around the world'.

The scientists themselves are in no doubt as to the value of this approach. Professor Kim Nasmyth, Head of Biochemistry, University of Oxford. stated 'this (the Biochemistry Building) is a beautiful, innovative and functional building. It allows conversations to happen that wouldn't otherwise take place in a thousand years'.

Another of Hawkins\Brown's creations, The Beecroft Building - the first new building in 50 years for the Physics Department - is also providing world-class facilities for experimental and theoretical physicists and sits on a high profile site next to the University Parks, opposite Sir William Butterfield's grade 1 listed Keble College Chapel.

Hawkins\Brown describes the building as 'responding to the upright gothic style' of the college 'clad in a combination of bronze, glass and expanded copper mesh insert panels with a grid of naturally weathering bronze fins'. The building has received many awards, among them National Award Winner in the RIBA Awards 2019, New Building Winner for the Oxford Preservation Trust Awards 2019 and Winner - Chemistry and Physical Science Buildings for the S-Lab Awards 2019.

Meanwhile, Oliver says the focus on collaboration spaces in science buildings is now an accepted norm:

'The New Biochemistry Building at Oxford University which we embarked on over ten years' ago as the first of two halves, will create a combined 25,000 square metres of floor space. It was a game-changer in 2004 with an unusual brief which stressed chance encounters. Now it's very rare to get a brief which does not include the importance of designing spaces which encourage scientists to talk and meet informally.

'We focus on circulation in buildings and we are well aware that people don't go and sit somewhere for no reason. We therefore think hard about buildings that both enable and demand movement. The Biochemistry Building has a cafe at the entrance, which greatly helps informal interactions. Lots of clients ask for cafes on the roof but we resist those demands as we want the cafe to be the place you move through to get to somewhere else.'

'Our idea for Beecroft was to organise things around circulation routes with a staircase to weave up through the building. We designed it so people would actively want to use it, and not the lift. Most of our science buildings have central staircases. We have also thought carefully about how the visibility of collaboration spaces would work, so we have designed meeting platforms on half landings of the staircase, so you will look both up and down and see these spaces.

'The then Head of Physics at Oxford, Professor John Wheater described, when briefing us, how he wanted it: 'Ideally we'd all be on one floor, able to see each other but sitting in acoustically sound-proofed bubbles. We use blackboards for our equations rather than whiteboards.' The equations go on for entire width of blackboard, so by having these on show people can see what's happening and then may be inspired to join the group discussion on these half-landings. Can you design a building in a way that people can join without interrupting the session? For physics research some want complete silence so no door noise, but if it's too quiet with the library effect people feel they can't talk. In response, we worked very closely with the acoustics specialists.'

'There's also a strong focus on technical and the Beecroft Building goes down five stories below ground. Demands on tech space continue to evolve. There is the need to think about well-being because if you have a deep plan building with little daylight then well-being is an issue. There are easy solutions, however. Scientists use different spaces in lab, offices and cafe so you can organise these so that people are moving through spaces which are well lit with daylight.'

The value of including art in science buildings has also been an important consideration. Within the New Biochemistry Building, the site specific works of art contribute to the rich interior environment by posing questions to the viewers, while the science corridor with its strata like colour scheme transforms the building at night into a bright stage for the science activity and brings colour and light into the research labs.

'Salt Bridge' is an ambitious contemporary arts programme developed in collaboration with the university, consultant artist Nicky Hirst, the Ruskin School of Drawing & Fine Art and Artpoint and envisaged as an integral part of the biochemistry project. The aim has been to create an outstanding contemporary art collection within a world-class scientific research department. It is also there to facilitate inter-disciplinary discourse and opportunities for artists and scientists to extend their practice and experiment.

In science the phrase, 'Salt Bridges' refers to ion pairs, a form of strong interaction between oppositely charged residues. As a title for the art programme, 'Salt Bridges' expresses the aspiration to build relationships between artists and scientists. Award-winning contemporary artists Annie Cattrell, Peter Fraser and Tim Head joined Nicky Hirst, to create a number of site specific artworks alongside temporary exhibitions that fill the central space of the research building.

'Since publicising our new building we have received 50% more applications to study Biochemistry at Oxford...and every one of our faculty's top five choices has accepted research positions in our new building' stated Denis O'Driscoll, Associate Head of Department.

Future Cities Forum will be returning to this area of discussion in our autumn 'Science Cities' forum.

Biochemistry Building, staircase - University of Oxford (Hawkins\Brown)

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