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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.” —Clay Risen