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Francis Crick Institute by HOK with PLP


This vast biomedical research laboratory has failed to match its innovative science with cutting-edge architecture, says Robert Bevan


Euston Road, opening as New Road in 1756, was London’s first bypass but most of the area’s associated houses have long given way to masonry behemoths. The Francis Crick Institute is the latest of these big beasts, shuffling its substantial rump into place in a rectangle directly to the east of William Barlow and George Gilbert Scott’s St Pancras and behind Colin St John Wilson’s British Library.

The Crick – a consortium of six organisations: the Medical Research Council, Cancer Research UK, the Wellcome Trust and three London colleges, University, Imperial, and King’s – is a biomedical laboratory researching diseases such as cancer, heart conditions and neurodegenerative diseases. When it opens in late summer it will be Europe’s largest facility of this type, and will have cost up to £700 million (construction costs have yet to be finalised but are around half a billion).

A key aim is to encourage cross-disciplinary collaboration among its 1,500 employees, and the 91,000m² building by HOK and PLP hopes to facilitate this. It is organised into quadrants of labs united by full-length and full-width atriums – nave and transepts – with a crossing at which point its main staircase rises. At their most expansive these atriums are 24m and 50m high. Some wags have taken to calling it Sir Paul’s Cathedral after the Crick’s director Sir Paul Nurse.

Two practices have designed the building. HOK was commissioned in 2008 and was joined two years later by PLP Architecture, which suggests a lack of confidence in the original decision. According to the PR blurb, PLP’s role included ‘shaping the building into a civic landmark’, which is about as vague as it gets. The architects themselves won’t be drawn further on their respective roles beyond some flannel about PLP’s experience with ‘complex’ sites. Camels and committees come to mind.

There had been a fair bit of local opposition in the area owing to the proposal’s bulk, the lack of affordable housing, which had been promised in Camden’s earlier mixed-use plans for the site, and even the fear of bringing Level 4 pathogens – fatal to humans and with no available vaccine – into central London. The construction process was dogged by injuries and a fatality, leading to protests by construction unions already angered by the blacklisting scandal among major contractors.

The building has six floors above ground, topped by a triple-height curved roof of aluminium slats, which hide the substantial plant needed – more than a third of the building is devoted to plant and services. The ground floor is reached by a dual-level main entrance on the building’s east side. The lower level is for visitors wanting to reach the auditorium and temporary exhibition space; the upper level is for staff.

Despite the wish to encourage the exchange of ideas,  breakout areas appear uninvitingly linger-proof

While this arrangement is deemed necessary for security, it makes for a messy vista. Immediately beyond the foyer’s security gate line, the Silk Cut purple blob of the auditorium bulges into the space of the atrium. Beyond this is the crossing (to allow the cathedral analogy for a moment) with a breakout area to one side and a compressed rather than soaring ceiling height to accommodate similar areas on landings above, where resident boffins are supposed to bump into each other and exchange ideas. What closes the view at ground floor level is the building’s cafeteria servery – a truly strange placement decision.

The visual cacophony is magnified by a smorgasbord of materials, including veneered panels in three different woods, as well as granite, Jura limestone, steel, concrete, coloured and dichroic glass and that purple paint. For a moment one feels transported – to the Building Centre on Store Street. The whole is clad with terracotta panels, which become paler as the building rises. The British Library’s fiercely uniform red brick was deemed too ‘not nice’ to emulate. Fair point.

It’s only on the four upper laboratory floors that the building really gets into its design stride. The precast concrete deck-access to the labs either side of the long atrium is elegant, as is the pierced bracing to the 3m x 5m glazed curtain-wall units, and the manner in which hefty services are deftly minimised within gull-wing sections between floors, for instance.

Desk space is off the long-axis atrium not rather than being contained in the white-coat zone of the labs. Yet despite the wish for the building to embody the exchange of ideas across disciplines deemed necessary to stimulate scientific discoveries, the efforts to achieve it appear half hearted. The breakout areas, such as the atrium bridges, appear too mean and uninvitingly linger-proof to truly fit this purpose. Lessons could have been learned from Dutch pioneers of the collaborative workplace or the enthusiastic elaboration of the concept by architects such as BVN Donovan Hill in Australia.

There’s no doubt a lot of technical nous here from the early adoption of BIM, to the modelling of the double curved glazing to the transepts’ end but there is not much cleverness on display otherwise – much of the tech is hidden. The AJ wasn’t allowed to see the multiple basement storeys, which will house further labs and perhaps animal research. (Nurse has stated that there is a Level 4 lab here but it will not be working on Level 4 human pathogens.)

But while there is a declared wish to see science on display ,with uses pushed to the glassy edge of the building, all that passers-by will really see is the admin staff, a very small demonstration lab for schools, and scientists eating.

The institute is named for Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick who, with James Watson, discovered the structure of the DNA molecule. Crick spent the rest of his career at the then newly established Salk Institute, California, whose founder commissioned Louis Kahn to build its sublime campus. In an earlier moment of cross-disciplinary inspiration, Kahn modelled his double-helix proposals for City Tower in Philadelphia on Crick’s DNA discovery. Comparisons can be odious but in this case…

At least the Crick decided against a blank box on a suburban science park as its home but couldn’t its innovative science have been matched by cutting-edge architecture? Apparently not.

Ground floor plan 

Francis Crick Institute by HOK with PLP

Francis Crick Institute by HOK with PLP

Second floor plan

Francis Crick Institute by HOK with PLP

Francis Crick Institute by HOK with PLP

Architect’s view

The design intent was to develop an overall architectural concept that promotes interdisciplinary work and encourages collaboration between scientists and researchers, while creating a brand new civic landmark of notable architectural expression in King’s Cross. HOK and PLP Architecture worked in close collaboration with the client and other stakeholders to deliver a design that externally responds to the area’s architectural heritage and historic context, while internally, fostering interaction between different scientific disciplines.

HOK was appointed architect and lead designer following an international competition in 2008 and was responsible for the overall design concept, which emphasises openness, collaborative teamwork and innovative laboratory planning. HOK carried these concepts through into the interior design and external landscaping. PLP was appointed in 2010 to collaborate with HOK. Its role included shaping the building into a civic landmark through its distinctive form and its striking architectural expression.

The design for the proposed development evolved in response to extensive public consultation undertaken with local communities, community groups, Camden planning department, the GLA and CABE. Planning approval was secured in December 2010. Construction of the shell commenced in June 2011 and was completed in autumn 2013. Consultation was held at all stages with a construction working group of residents and community groups.

Innovations include a range of sustainable design solutions that ensure the building is able to adapt to new scientific demands, such as a ‘plug-and-play’ approach to the primary laboratories that ensures the facilities can be readily adapted to future needs.

David King, HOK Technical Principal

Francis Crick Institute by HOK with PLP

Francis Crick Institute by HOK with PLP

Source: Anthony Coleman

Client’s view

Our aspiration  was to create not only a world-leading centre of biomedical research, but a civic landmark located in the heart of one of the largest regeneration projects in the country.

Our mission is to discover the fundamental biology underlying human health and disease, and to translate that understanding into medical progress. Our new institute in King’s Cross will help keep the UK at the cutting edge of innovation in discovery, research and the translation of that research into tangible benefits.

Our new building needed to match the ambition and scale of our vision. The design had to serve several strategic goals, including as an attractor, nurturer and retainer of world-class scientific talent. The workplace design also needed to create an environment that encourages inspiration and collaboration.

We call our overall approach and strategy ‘discovery without boundaries’, and this was central to the design. Significant discoveries won’t happen at the pace needed if researchers work in discipline-led silos behind closed doors, and it is therefore essential that ideas can be shared openly and across disciplines. Our new building is cleverly designed to support that, encouraging connections between the researchers, disciplines, institutions, organisations and businesses that make up the Francis Crick Institute and its partners and collaborators.

We have worked extremely successfully in collaboration with both HOK and PLP Architecture on the distinctive design and functionality of the building, as well as in close consultation with scientists, local residents and community groups.

David Roblin, chief operating officer and director of scientific translation, the Francis Crick Institute 

Francis Crick Institute by HOK with PLP

Francis Crick Institute by HOK with PLP

Source: Anthony Coleman

Engineer’s view

Cross-disciplinary collaboration and honesty were key to the project’s success. The use of BIM was imperative to ensure the speed and accuracy of the interdisciplinary coordination necessary to achieve early release of structural packages. BIM was also important for automating design iterations, which inevitably had to be tested on a project of this scale and complexity, ensuring optimisation of end product.

Excavation and construction of one of London’s largest basements on a site constrained on all four sides by buried obstructions – including the Thameslink station box and two 120-year-old cast-iron gas mains serving Camden Town – called for a completely bespoke strategy. The result was a delicate balance between structural efficiency, cost, programme and site logistics, relying on complex 3D ground modelling and live on-site movement monitoring to ensure the ongoing integrity of all surrounding third-party assets.

With flexibility a key driver, the design of the reinforced concrete frame was enhanced to minimise sensitivity to vibration across the building. This was further refined by unique research into the structural behaviour of prefabricated concrete frame elements, allowing the benefits of offsite manufacturing to be realised.

Rob Partridge, director, AKT II

Francis Crick Institute by HOK with PLP

Francis Crick Institute by HOK with PLP

Project data

Completion Summer 2016
Gross internal floor area 91,000m2
Form of contract or procurement route Two stage Design and Build
Construction cost £460 million
Construction cost per m2 £5,055
Architect HOK with PLP
Client Francis Crick Institute
Structural engineer AKT II
MEP consultant Arup
Quantity surveyor T&T
Biological research facility consultant BMJ
Acoustic consultant Cole Jarman
Shielding consultant VitaTech
Cladding consultant EPPAG
Specialist lighting consultant Porkorny Lichtarchitektur
Catering consultant Foodesco
Access consultant REEF
ICT consultant Cordless
Security consultant Horus
Fire consultant Exova Warrington
Planning consultant CBRE
Environmental consultant URS
Project manager Arup
CDM coordinator Rider Levett Bucknell
Approved building inspector HCD
Main contractor Laing O’Rourke
CAD software used Revit 

Francis Crick Institute by HOK with PLP

Francis Crick Institute by HOK with PLP

Environmental data

On-site energy generation 15% of peak demand
Annual mains water consumption 161,280m³
Airtightness at 50Pa 5m³/h.m²
Heating and hot water load 402kwhr/yr/m² 
Overall area-weighted u-value 0.43W/m²K

Francis Crick Institute by HOK with PLP

Francis Crick Institute by HOK with PLP

Source: Anthony Coleman


Curtain walling generally and roof PV panels
Bespoke system by Scheldebouw

GRP curved enclosure to auditorium in foyer
Bespoke system by Design & Display Structures 

Automatic vertical acoustic folding partition in auditorium to sub-divide space into two auditoria
Bespoke Skyfold wall system by Style Partitions

Feature aluminium tube ceilings in collaboration and exhibition spaces
Tubeline by SAS International 

Carpet tiles to laboratories and general circulation in collaboration areas
Concrete Mix- Lined carpet tiles by InterfaceFLOR

Vinyl sheet flooring to laboratories
Various designs by Altro

Natural stone floor finish to entrance foyer
Crema Luna limestone from the Perigord

Specialist wall paint finish to basement BRF facilities
Sterisheen elastomeric paint system by Sika Liquid Plastic and Armourglaze paint system by CS Wallglaze

Partition systems to internal walls above ground
Drywall and drylining systems by British Gypsum

Blockwork walls in four levels of basement
Medium and dense concrete blocks by Lignacite

Roofing system to flat roofs, green and brown roofs
Hot melt roofing system by Permaquik

BMU systems for facade cleaning and maintenance
Bespoke systems by Facade Hoist

Security barrier to delivery bay entrance
Bespoke road blocker system by Frontier Pitts

Waterproofing to basement walls
Preprufe waterproofing membrane and Hydroduct cavity drain system by Grace

Floor screeding generally
K screed and various screed system by Flowcrete 


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