Transparently innovative

The Francis Crick Institute is a unique research hub, dedicated to discovering how diseases behave. Larry Malcic of HOK explains to Jack Wooler how the building’s ‘transparent’ design benefits the vital work of the facility:

Amassive state-of-the-art facility now sits behind St Pancras Station, inaugurated in 2007 to consolidate biomedical research in the UK and put it at the forefront of world science.

Set up in response to the Cooksey Report, which set out a vision for the future of medical research in the UK, the facility (originally entitled the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation) was funded by the Government with a build cost of £700m.

In the summer of 2011, when foundations were about to be laid, the project was given its current title of The Francis Crick Institute. Named after the British microbiologist and co-discoverer of the structure of the DNA molecule in 1953, the project is a partnership between six of the world’s leading biomedical research organisations – the Medical Research Council, Cancer Research UK, the Wellcome Trust, University College London, Imperial College London and King’s College London. Amongst its seven key aims are researching into pathogen behaviour, how cancer responds to therapy, and the behaviour of the immune and nervous systems.

HOK was appointed as the lead architect for the project in 2008, following a rigorous selection process. PLP Architecture joined the design team in 2010, to collaborate
with HOK on the building’s external envelope. BMJ Architects was also appointed and retained as a biological research facilities consultant.

A sense of order

Its dimensions are colossal – 170 metres long, with 93,000 m2 of floor space, four floors below ground, eight floors above, and 1,553 rooms, the Crick was at one point the biggest single building being constructed in the UK.

The man responsible for driving the design forward amid some controversy around locating some potentially nightmarish pathogens in the heart of London was Larry Malcic, design principal at HOK. He reveals to ADF that the building is located in London “for several reasons.”

He continues: “Its location is central to more than three dozen other important scientific and academic research facilities within a five mile radius, encouraging dialogue and collaboration, as well as major hospitals.”

Being a research hub “not just for the UK, but for Europe as well,” the location’s near-unrivalled transport links are vital to allow some of the best minds of Europe easy access to the facility. He added that there was also strong evidence that many talented young researchers head for the capital city, “with its many museums, theatres, sporting events and institutions of learning.” The building is located cheek by jowl with two distinct urban typologies. These are very large civic buildings – including the British Library and St Pancras Station – and residential flats to the north and west.

According to Malcic, “the design is intended to mediate between the two scales, with the overall volume divided into four blocks, linked by fully glazed atrium spaces.”

The body of the building is composed of two long laboratory wings that run east to west, separated by a glazed-ended atrium that flares out spectacularly to the east. The wings are bisected by a north-south atrium, which divides the building into four distinct science ‘neighbourhoods’. “The resulting cruciform atrium introduces daylight deep into the laboratory quadrants through its glass roof and four glazed end walls, offering views into the workings of the building from the external public spaces,” says Malcic.

The cathedral-like scale of the main atrium is interrupted by the transverse atria where, on each level, a third of the floor area is left open to create a double-height relationship with the adjacent floor plate, creating further visual connectivity between the floors.

Unlike many other scientific or clinical buildings, The Crick is open by design. The junction of the two atria is dedicated to informal meeting, with break and administrative areas that are designed to “facilitate serendipitous encounters that support exploration, collaboration and discovery”. These central areas are further connected by a “continuous” open stair.

The labs

In order to support the research undertaken within the general laboratories, a wide range of shared specialist core laboratory facilities have been provided within the building, strategically distributed around the building to promote interaction among the researchers.

“Wherever appropriate, the laboratories were designed to provide a high level of flexibility, from individual casework elements to large reconfigurable zones, to support rapid conversion as teams expand, contract and evolve,” says HOK’s design principal.

Each quadrant of the floor plate provides a large contiguous modular laboratory “neighbourhood” with a linear arrangement locating open shared secondary support on the central spine, with zones of open primary and enclosed dedicated secondary labs on each side.

At the edges of the floors are ‘write up’ spaces for researchers, and offices of ‘Principal Investigators,’ with direct access to the perimeter personnel circulation routes, separate from central lab material routes. “This linear arrangement optimises visual permeability,” explains the architect, “with views across the whole width of the building, connecting write-ups and the labs, and filling them with daylight.”

Shedding light

The scheme provides copious natural light to interiors, including a demonstration lab at the entrance and a glazed exhibition space on the ground level, with openness and transparency for both external and internal users the key design drivers. “Especially given its central location,” says Malcic, adding, “our vision was to put science on display.”

He continues: “We wanted to convey the wonder and excitement of science by making the building as transparent as possible.”

Floor to ceiling glazing was utilised in order to provide a visual continuity, and further encourage collaboration and communication. External glazed walls and internal glazed screens allow for daylighting in virtually all areas of the building, with views out to the surrounding cityscape.

He continues: “The labs and write-up spaces become illuminated wings of light, with sunlight coming from both exterior walls and the skylit cruciform atria. “Daylighting studies were performed to identify the impact the building would have on its surroundings, as well as the extent of natural daylight entering the buildings.”

Offering further natural light to interiors, large, cantilevered bay windows and tall glass atria maintain natural light in workspaces and public areas, while reducing the building’s immediate impact at street level.

It’s the outside that counts

The building’s complex exterior required the same meticulous attention to detail as the rest of the project. Malcic explains the key features: “The east atrium facade is an eight storey high building element with a primary steel structure of tubular grid sections at six metre centres and at each floor level, with wind loads taken back to the cross atrium bridges which act as a beam in plan.

All structural penetrations through the facade are thermally broken using high-load isolator plates. The weather skin is five metre high double-glazing, fixed back to vertical glass fins at 0.75 metre centres spanning floor to floor.

The fins are predominantly on the outside of the glazed wall, but where the atrium facade abuts the main body of the building, the system reverses, with the fins being on the interior. “This leads to an unusual detail,” continues Malcic. “The glass fin becomes part of the thermal envelope, which is achieved by adding a further layer of glass to make it a double- glazed unit.”

The low-iron glass fins (4.6 metres high and 0.45 metres deep) comprise three structural layers bonded together with resilient Dupont Sentry Plus interlayers, with the visible edges polished.

“To introduce flashes of colour in a random pattern across the facade,” Malcic explains, “an additional dichroic interlayer is incorporated to the outside of many of the fins, protected by a thin glass sheet.” The glass fins are bonded into stainless steel shoes, fixed back to the atria facade’s tubular steelwork.

The double-glazed units are argon-filled and have a low-E coating to minimise heat loss. “They are also manufactured with a continuous stainless steel strip bonded to their inner face,” adds Malcic, “providing the fixing back to a minimal anodised carrier frame, which is structurally bonded to the glass fin. The vertical glass-to-glass joint is then face-sealed with silicone.”

To conceal the floor-to-floor deflection joint, the horizontal joints have an expressed nosing detail. At low level, the facade includes glass revolving door drums, pass doors and glazed make up air vents. A large laminated glass canopy is supported off the primary structure via plate beams and tubular suspension members through the glazed facade.

The laboratory blocks and solid areas of the facade at the lower levels are wrapped in mortared terracotta, paying regard to its grand neighbours in the form of St Pancras Station, the British Library, and the wider local vernacular.

Staying on top

The building’s distinctive vaulted roof recalls the form of the adjacent Barlow Shed at St Pancras International, and is constructed in a bespoke combination of aluminium, steel and glass elements. “This roof form is intended to help visually shield and unify the large amount of plant space in a form that both minimises the building’s visual impact on the sensitive surrounding streets, while allowing it equal standing to the adjacent library and station,” says Malcic.

He explains that the roof form was derived from a parametric BIM model, “allowing for a great number of iterations to be tested and analysed quickly for form-finding, street view assessment and plant volume clash detection.”

The resulting roof surfaces are a combination of flat, single-curved or double-curved elements. The latter elements form a partial torus – the key driver for the exterior face of the steel structure, which is covered with 2400 aluminium and glass fins.

“The precise location, size and geometry of each louvre blade, blade brackets and spine tubes are also derived from the model, and form the basis of the information issued for tender,” says Malcic.

Utilising painted steel, the underlying structure of the roof is hooped north-south, and gently curved in an east-west direction. The grid is braced back to the main building frame for stability, and is capable of large cantilever overhangs at the east and west ends and on the north side of the higher roof.

Malcic summarises the screening structure: “The visible surface of the roof is an extensive kit of different louvre blades which are attached via transverse brackets to an extruded aluminium tubular spine spanning between the main roof hoops.

“These include solid and perforated aluminium and laminated glass blades, all of different widths, and photovoltaic blades, all angled at 15 degrees to the tangent of the hoop to which they are fixed.”

Levolux worked collaboratively with the project design team to develop and install a custom roof screening solution, including for the PV blades. The enormous resulting structure is 160 metres x 80 metres wide and extends up to 43 metres above street level, divided into two interlocking shells. Each shell is formed from a variety of louvres, included solid, perforated and twisted aluminium, and glass fins, ranging from 150 mm up to 750 mm and lengths of up to nine metres.

The south-facing photovoltaic louvres comprise up to 144 mono-crystalline cells per blade, laminated into low-iron glass with integral micro inverters. The BIM model was also used to assess the total output of the PV cells on each blade.

A total of 1,700 m2 of solar photovoltaic panels were incorporated into the southern roof facade. This will produce approximately 31 per cent savings compared with a “baseline” scheme, equivalent to 9,950 tonnes of annual carbon emissions.

Construction challenges

Contractor Laing O’Rourke had to remove 185,000 m3 of soil from the site, over 100 km of mains power cables and 120 km of pipework had to be installed, and over 1,200 workers were on site during the most intense phase of construction. With such a complex and wide ranging build, covering multiple typologies and themes, challenges were a given.

Construction of one of the largest basements in London, with a 16 metre excavation that makes up almost a third of the development, was one of the biggest challenges. “This called for a bespoke construction methodology which was key

to unlocking the holistic programming, cost and risk profile of the project,” reveals the architect.

A multitude of below-ground obstructions were discovered, including the Thameslink station box and a pair of 120- year-old cast-iron gas mains, necessitating the use of complex 3D ground modelling linked to real-time movement monitoring. The construction programme balanced top-down construction from the second basement level with the logistical efficiencies of ‘blue-sky’ construction above, avoiding temporary obstructions, thanks to a 1 metre thick cantilevering retaining wall.

The basement imaging suite presented another challenge. Materials with magnetic properties were prohibited within the vicinity of MRI and NMR scanning equipment due to the risk of electromagnetic interference. Malcic says the team came up with a reported first in UK construction to address this: “The innovative solution included concrete plunge columns with low-ferrous stainless steel reinforcement, rather than more traditional steel sections.”

As part of the design development, prototyping was undertaken in an offsite environment to build full-scale mock-ups of key areas of the project, to identify interface and technical issues. “In this way, through collaboration with the Crick and their consultants, solutions were tried and
tested before being introduced into the main building.”

Going forward

The Francis Crick Institute has strong sustainability goals, and the building has achieved a BREEAM Excellent rating. On its completion, the project was called “another jewel in the UK’s crown as a knowledge economy,” by Science Minister Jo Johnson on completion, and Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said it “promised huge strides” in health research.

This major science project is also a major architecture and construction achievement. It is exceptional in its volume of social and collaborative spaces, including the areas it opens to the public. The project utilises glass innovatively an as visually stunning, porous, and integral part of the building’s roof structure.

The attention to detail present in the architecture of the Crick is mirrored in its approach to boundary-breaking scientific research. It is sure to be the scene of many breakthroughs in the future which will benefit the whole of humanity.


  • Lead architect: HOK
  • External envelope: PLP Architecture
  • Biological research facilities consultant: BMJ Architects
  • Floor area: 93,000 m2
  • No. of rooms: 1,553
  • Contractor: Laing O’Rourke
  • Structural engineer: AKT II MEP/project management: Arup
  • Cost consultant: Turner & Townsend