Before putting pencil to paper, the best architects do the thinking work that spawns inspired design.

Take the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research, in Western Australia, for example.

It is certainly a handsome building, but that is not what is remarkable about it. What sets the institute’s new home apart is its dramatic departure from the orthodoxy of laboratory design.

Behind the design of the building are months of research into the work that the institute’s researchers perform and the way that they go about it. Added to this, the architects involved, led by director James Edwards, looked at new medical research buildings across Australia.

They discovered a pattern: research buildings were designed as a “three-layered cake: two layers of laboratories and one layer of offices”, says Edwards.

This approach did not necessarily gel with how researchers achieved their best results, Edwards’s team discovered. “We became interested in whether that type of design really fostered good research,” he says. “Happy accident plays a vital role in research discoveries, and the traditional approach to designing research buildings just isn’t keeping up with the way that the best research is carried out.”

With these insights in mind, Edwards and his team proposed a radically different design – one that was built around a central highly activated core, with the laboratories running north to south allowing natural light on two sides. “To move between the offices and the laboratories, researchers move through the social core, which houses the meeting rooms, lunch rooms, lifts, toilets, and a striking chromosome-inspired stairway that spirals up the centre of the building’s 10 storeys,” he says.

The walls around this stair display super-sized colour projections of research images, highlighting the value and importance of the researchers’ work.

As researchers encounter each other in these central spaces, relationships build, and ideas are exchanged. It’s a more collaborative, social and productive way to work.

The building’s highly flexible open-plan workspaces are best suited to accommodate changes in the institute’s research priorities. When concentration or privacy is needed, enclosed spaces have been provided in quiet zones throughout the building for shared use.

The researchers initially expressed anxieties about the open-plan design of the laboratories. They were worried about noise, health and safety and security. But these largely melted away once staff moved into the building. Edwards says: “A common observation from the staff is that it is a ‘feel-good building’. We designed the windows using the largest panes of glass the builder could transport. This gives a very special quality to the light, plus exceptional views of the leafy surroundings.”

Laboratory buildings are complex and technically demanding and the spaces within them can be visually chaotic and uncomfortable to work in. Using pale surfaces throughout to reflect natural light creates elegant spaces and reduces visual clutter, while the subtle use of colour and natural materials give the building a warm and comfortable feel that counterbalances the heavy impact of equipment and technology.

The building’s beauty is not accidental, but every element—from its form to its interior design—is used for the purpose of enhancing the work of the institute’s researchers.

 

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