Behind the metal-and-glass west face of the new SAHMRI complex in Adelaide, Australia, brightly painted and enclosed support spaces add visual punch and reduce heat gain.
Peter Clarke Behind the metal-and-glass west face of the new SAHMRI complex in Adelaide, Australia, brightly painted and enclosed support spaces add visual punch and reduce heat gain.


Is it any wonder that research centers, as design challenges, tend to bring out the best in architects? From Louis Kahn’s sublime Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif., to Frank Gehry, FAIA’s ecstatic (if leaky) Stata Center at MIT in Cambridge, Mass., they have to meet complex functional requirements—biomedical labs, say, or supercomputing facilities—and at the same time catalyze collaboration, innovation, and that ineffable but utterly vital element in any research endeavor: genius.

Such was the task given to the firm Woods Bagot by the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI), a publicly funded, independent science facility in Adelaide that anchors the western edge of the city’s North Terrace neighborhood. The institute originated in 2008, when the government of South Australia, of which Adelaide is the capital, committed $200 million Australian ($186 million U.S.) to developing a world-class health and medical laboratory that would not only attract globally renowned researchers, but also act as an aesthetic touchstone for the city, helping to put Adelaide on the map alongside Sydney and Melbourne. To complicate things further, the building had to be on the cutting-edge of environmental sustainability and to connect with the public as an urban icon.

SAHMRI sits in a developing area of town, near a new convention center, hospital, and rail line.
Trevor Maine SAHMRI sits in a developing area of town, near a new convention center, hospital, and rail line.

Built between downtown Adelaide and the River Torrens, SAHMRI’s neighbors include a new hospital, convention center, and university campus—but also a rail yard that interrupted the passage between the urban core and a riverside greenbelt. “It wasn’t just ‘maximize a lab and put it on a site,’ ” says Jeffrey Holmes, AIA, a director in the firm’s New York office and a leader on the SAHMRI project. “We needed a way to give back space.”

The firm’s first move was to lift the building off the ground, so that it seems to hover above the park space below and around it, offering a gateway between downtown and the river. SAHMRI’s 36 interior columns, spaced at 33-foot-by-45-foot intervals, channel the building’s load to just six points—what the design team calls “flower columns”—at the plaza level. Then the designers split and pivoted the northern and southern halves of the building, creating an eastern and western atrium in between—“like a bowtie,” Holmes explains. The pivot also created a publicly accessible forecourt on the south side of the structure.

The entrance plaza on the western side of the building.
Peter Clarke The entrance plaza on the western side of the building.

The core of the building is, of course, its laboratory facilities, which accommodate up to 675 scientists and have preinstalled water and waste-disposal hookups to accommodate both “wet” and “dry” programs. Most laboratories are arranged in three parts: the workspace itself, the support functions (equipment closets, freezers, flues) and the “write-up” space, for meetings and analysis. Usually, the support space is in the middle, so that the work and write-up spaces are closer to the windows. At SAHMRI, Woods Bagot placed the support space on the western side of the building, with the lab in the middle and the write-up space to its east.

View of the east atrium wall, looking up.
Trevor Maine View of the east atrium wall, looking up.

That simple shuffling achieves several things at once. The solid support spaces on the western side, which has the heaviest solar load, provide passive protection against South Australia’s harsh afternoon sunlight. And placing the glass-walled lab facilities adjacent to the open-plan write-up spaces not only allows light to filter into both, but it increases opportunities for collaboration and chance encounters.

Fronting the eastern atrium, which runs from floor to ceiling along much of the building, is a free-hanging steel, aluminum-and-glass diagrid. Spanning 131 feet wide and 131 feet tall, it allows an abundance of light to flow into the building and through to the lab spaces. To moderate the light, Woods Bagot devised aluminum sunshades for each glass piece, with every shade designed site-specifically to modulate the amount of light needed inside the building, as determined by computer modeling.

Walkway connecting laboratory spaces.
Trevor Maine Walkway connecting laboratory spaces.

The diagrid form wraps around the entire building, a single skin that makes it appear like a unified object; from the outside, it looks like a giant pine cone—indeed, that’s one of SAHMRI’s local nicknames.

Another environmentally friendly aspect of SAHMRI is its air conditioning system: Taking advantage of the open space below the building, the system pulls in cool air from below and vents warmer air out the top, creating a low-energy chimney effect. That, combined with an energy-conscious water and waste-removal system, helped SAHMRI achieve a LEED Gold rating, the first medical-research building in Australia to do so.

The east atrium is bigger than the one on the west, largely because of its reduced solar exposure, which allows for a more comfortable interior environment. Write-up spaces open onto the atrium, and a spiral staircase connects floors.
Trevor Maine The east atrium is bigger than the one on the west, largely because of its reduced solar exposure, which allows for a more comfortable interior environment. Write-up spaces open onto the atrium, and a spiral staircase connects floors.

To make all of this work while keeping vibration to an absolute minimum, something that is a critical requirement for any world-class research facility, Woods Bagot, along with the engineering firm Aurecon, parsed hundreds of computer models to devise a structural system that vibrated at a typical amplitude of just 50 microns (the human threshold for sensing vibration is 200 microns). That’s low enough to render additional isolation for sensitive equipment, standard in many laboratories, unnecessary. To keep vibrations even lower, Aurecon added isolation bearings on the lower floors, which allow for load transfers but keep the upper floors from vibrating, even when the lower levels shake. “Effectively we created a totally isolated building within a building,” says Paul Koehne, a senior structural engineer at Aurecon.

Projects like SAHMRI are obviously neither easy nor intuitive. “How researchers work is very different from how people in a bank work,” Holmes says. In a sense, the research institute became a research project all its own. “Everyone involved, from the client to the engineer, took it on as a sort of science project,” he adds. “It was, for all of us, a process of discovery.”

A narrow, open-air atrium on the west side of the building helps to regulate temperature and reduce heat gain in adjacent conditioned spaces.
Trevor Maine A narrow, open-air atrium on the west side of the building helps to regulate temperature and reduce heat gain in adjacent conditioned spaces.
Open elevator shafts in the west atrium.
Trevor Maine Open elevator shafts in the west atrium.
A café in the east atrium.
Peter Clarke A café in the east atrium.
Glass-enclosed bridges connect upper-level labs on the north and south sides of the building.
Peter Clarke Glass-enclosed bridges connect upper-level labs on the north and south sides of the building.
Aluminum shades of different depths regulate interior temperatures in the east and west atriums. (The west atrium is shown here.)
Peter Clarke Aluminum shades of different depths regulate interior temperatures in the east and west atriums. (The west atrium is shown here.)
Flower column.
Peter Clarke Flower column.
The flower columns at the plaza level transfer column loads from the upper levels to centralized points.
Peter Clarke The flower columns at the plaza level transfer column loads from the upper levels to centralized points.
The building’s distinctive form was determined in part by site constraints, including the desire to create plaza-level connections between urban fabric on one side and a riverwalk on the other.
Peter Clarke The building’s distinctive form was determined in part by site constraints, including the desire to create plaza-level connections between urban fabric on one side and a riverwalk on the other.

Drawings



Project Credits
Project 
South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI), Adelaide, Australia
Client 
South Australian Government; SAHMR I
Architect 
Woods Bagot Global Studio Collaboration between the Adelaide, Melbourne, and New York studios
Interior Designer
  Woods Bagot
Mechanical and Hydraulic/Plumbing Engineer
  Norman Disney & Young
Structural, Civil, Electrical, and Geotechnical Engineer 
Aurecon
Managing Contractor
  John Hindmarsh
Landscape Architect
  Oxigen
Lighting Designer
  Norman Disney & Young; Aurecon
Laboratory Specialist
  Research Facilities Design
Project Risk Management
  Department of Transport, Energy and Infrastructure
Cost Manager
  Rider Levett Bucknall
Environmental Consultant 
Cundall
Building Surveyor 
BuildSurv Building Surveyors & Certifiers
Building Certifier
  Katnich Dodd
Disability Consultant
  Disability Consultancy Services
Dangerous Goods
Consultant  CETEC
Wayfinding and Signage Consultant
  ID/Lab
Radiation Shielding Design Consultant 
Radiation Services Group
Size 
30,000 square meters (322,917 square feet)
Cost 
$186 million Material and Sources
Building Management Systems and Services  Schneider Electric schneider-electric.com
Carpet  Interface interface.com.au
Ceilings  AMF amfceilings.co.uk; Rockfon rockfon.com
Concrete  Piotto Bros.
Electrical Services  Nilsen nilsen.com.au
Façade  Yuanada yuanda-europe.com
Fire Services  Trojan Fire
Flooring  Riga Floor Coverings (timber) rigafloors.com.au; Arrunga Surface Solutions (concrete) mirafloor.com.au
Furniture  Aura (system furniture) auradesignerfurniture.co.uk; Wunda (joinery) wunda.com.au
Glass  Kingswood Aluminum kingswoodalum.com.au
HVAC  Watson Fitzgerald & Associates
Lifts  Schindler schindler.com
Metal  Tri-Metal Engineering trimetal.com.au
Paints and Finishes  Dulux www.dulux.com.au
Plumbing and Water System  Hindmarsh Plumbing Services www.hindmarshplumbing.com.au
Roofing  Linear Roofing; S&Lj Roofing www.sljroofing.com.au
Structural Cabling  TAF & Associates taf-sa.com
Structural System  SA Structural sastructural.com.au
Waterproofing  Ardex Australia ardexaustralia.com
Wayfinding  The Signcraft Group signcraft.com.au
Windows  Kingswood Aluminum kingswoodalum.com.au