Welcome to the new Approach to Science Lab Design - The Sainsbury Wellcome Centre

Front of The Sainsbury Wellcome Centre in London
The Front Façade of the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre designed by Ian Ritchie Architects

I have a fascination with how interior design really works for people. Every day we go in and out of various spaces and we aren’t just affected by what they look like, we are affected by how we function in them.

I was recently at the launch event for a book about the design and build of University College London’s pioneering Neuroscience centre and labs - The Sainsbury Wellcome Centre. I found myself became engrossed by what had made this building different.  It spoke to my design geek and said here is a place where the whole design ethos has been based around taking the time to look at how people work. The building was created to bring together world-leading scientists to investigate how brain processes information to generate perception, form memories and guide behaviour. Its creators want the building itself to nurture that creative spark that lies in this field of science.

Being me I didn’t want to just read about it in the book, I wanted to see the building and understand it for myself. So I asked and they let me!

The Front of The  Sainsbury Wellcome Centre with its is stark which curves and art installation.

The outside of the build makes a pretty impressive statement with its crystal white curved facade. Under the awning an art installation shows sheet music from Bach "Musical Offering" which illustrates the brain's creativity on one side and on the other builds up to make the faces of the stars of Neuroscience. If you don’t look up you could miss it, like a little secret the building is waiting for you to find.

The Roof of the Awning hides a clever Art Installation - Look up or you'll miss it!

I was so lucky to be shown round the build by Adam Kampff whose enthusiasm for both this building and his field of research is infectious. I learnt more about Neuroscience in the few hours we spent together than I have ever know before (unsurprisingly!).

It has been a long time since I have stepped into a science lab - the last time while I was miserably failing my biology ‘A’ Level. I remember the classic wooden topped work benches all in rows, each with their sinks and Bunsen burners. On the back wall were shelves full of jars of things, lots and lots of jars! This place of learning came with a feeling of austereness and a faintly musty smell that lingered.

The Science Labs at The Sainsbury Wellcome Centre

The Sainbury Wellcome Centre has put all the tradition aside and started again by looking at how the researchers who work here operate. Internally the building is divided up in to smaller sections in various layers all sectioned off by glass. The core of building is filled with glass walls. This has the amazing ability to create a feeling of space, light and open plan without any of the down side of actually being open plan. When I asked Adam how this had changed from his previous labs he has been involved with he said that though the previous labs were open plan, which should create a feeling of unity it didn’t.  Researchers would plug their earphones in and tune out the background noise and chatter to be able to concentrate on their experiments, therefore isolating themselves. Now you can see everyone go about their work, without disturbing people by being in their space.

Desk Areas & Meeting Rooms give a feeling of privacy while still feeling connected. 

And it’s not just about the defined areas but also about the flow between them. The scientists can go easily from their lab bench downstairs, to the offices spaces, then into the virtual reality room (oh yes, there is one and what fun I had!).  The functional areas are designed so related disciplines are in close proximity, from a basement that houses an impressive room full of machines where the scientists manufacture their own tools to penthouse meeting suites with views across London.

It’s also not just about the work.  Breakout spaces pop up all over the place both inside and outside the building. Spaces for people to relax and spend time talking to their colleagues is vital to the collaborative process.

Balconies and A Roof Terrace give great opportunity to take the debate outside

The architects designed flexibility into the heart of the building. Using the great term “Plug & Play”, desks can be moved, science benches swung around and connections made to ceiling laced with a myriad of cabling, all to accommodate the ever changing needs of the research. This building doesn’t only take into account what is needed today but what is needed tomorrow.

I love the fact that you can write on the walls and doors, I saw amazing looking equations scrawled across glass doors to funny little doodles on windows, because we all love to have a little doodle once in a while.

Have a break through idea? Then jot it down on the walls, doors or windows! 

I could write all about the ins and outs of the building, trying to take you step by step through its hallways but I am not trying to put an architecture review together. It is the synergy between the people who work in this building and the work they do that sits at the core of my wonderment. That is the point of this building.  

Why does the building work? It started the design process by throwing out what went before.  Ian Ritchie Architects along with the Gatsby Foundation and the Wellcome Trust started by looking at how Neuroscientists go about their business. They put what they learned at the heart of the design. The building is different because it didn’t want to copy the best of what came before, it wants to innovate lab design for the future, to create an environment that nurtures ground breaking discovery. No small ask.

So can it do it? I am not the one to answer that but this quote from Dr Adam Kampff gives me the belief that it will:

“I’m realising the building is designed to mix this entire domain of neurosciences, where people come with ideas about what brains might be, with people who bring data about what brains are doing and create a new kind of thing that we are in the process of trying to define. What is exciting about SWC to me, is that it feels possible.” 

This is the back of the building which overlooks the lower courtyard

 

A Very Special Thank you to Dr Adam Kampff  who took the time to share this building with me so I could share it with you. 


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