Laboratory buildings present the designer with a notoriously difficult brief.
More than any other building type, they demand the careful integration of plan, structure and frequently complex services, yet often call for loose-fit flexibility.
When these requirements are combined with the contextual problems of a site located at the heart of a downtown university campus, which is all too evidently the agglutinative consequence of several decades of development plans and architectural fashions, the task is intimidating.
Faced with this challenge at the Institute for Biomedical Sciences for the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, architect Reiach and Hall has created a building where, perversely, the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.
Campus context The layout concept responds to guidelines set in the university's development plan of 1988, in particular the call for a series of linear buildings along the north edge of the campus.
Accordingly, the institute's spine of laboratory accommodation runs eastwest, parallel to Cathedral Street, but is set back to allow a generous service forecourt. At its eastern end, the new four-storey building links north in an L-plan relationship with the existing Todd Centre on Taylor Street. Shared administration offices, lecture rooms and social areas are introduced in a sixstorey tower located in the knuckle junction where the two buildings meet.
Rising to the south is a green inner landscape, a collegiate garden bounded on the ridge by the long, bay-windowed wall of the university's School of Architecture.
Laboratory spine The planning of the laboratory spine is simple. The laboratories themselves, used for teaching on the lower levels and research above, are kept to the south side of a central corridor. They are fully glazed, enjoying the view across lawns and trees. Ancillary support spaces and staircases are ranged along the north side of the spine and the wall to the Cathedral Street yard is in stack-bonded, smooth red brickwork.
The structural system is less straightforward, however. Whereas to the north of the corridor a steel frame has been adopted 'due to geotechnical problems', on the south beams and floors are constructed in concrete.
Here, the frame is arranged in an 'iambic' modular rhythm (a-b-a-b- and so on), which not only permits flexibility in the sizing of the columnfree laboratories but also eases the distribution of necessarily complex servicing. The thermal mass of this exposed concrete frame soaks up daytime heat loads and cools at night.
The low tower forming the link with the Todd Centre is built in smooth blue brickwork. The plan is roughly square but curves at the north-east corner, where a stairwell entrance, leading to the teaching and research spine, recesses against the south end of the existing building.
On each floor, academic offices are grouped around central social spaces except at the lowest level, which is taken up by a 250-seat lecture room oriented on a diagonal axis to the south-east corner of the plan. This corner, too, is rounded, the impact of its bold external curve intensified by the sharp angular projection of a fully glazed emergency staircase.
From Taylor Street, a pedestrian route leads round this dramatic corner into the green courtyard and continues west alongside the laboratory spine.
Solar wall Fronting this long, south-facing elevation is a double-skinned clearglazed solar wall, in effect a corridorwidth transparent duct applied to the face of the building from sill height at the lowest level to sill height at the highest.
Dropping vertically within this peripheral zone is a series of tubular fresh-air supply ducts clad in stainless steel and progressively diminished in diameter as they enter the narrower structural bays at each laboratory ceiling. These ducts fall from a long header duct at eaves height which runs along the skyline.
At the top of the solar wall, below a deep parapet of smooth red bricks, continuous adjustable louvres control the stack-effect ventilation. At each level, inside and outside the outer skin of Planar glass, a galvanised steel walkway grille permits access for cleaning and maintenance while acting as a brise soleil.
Opening windows are provided along the internal skin. In addition to the passive low-energy advantages of a design solution that reduces heat loss and ensures a controlled regime of natural ventilation, the double-skin wall provides added protection from the weather. Since the solar wall is fully glazed, any reduction in the amount of light entering the laboratories from the south is only marginal. Moreover, by revealing the shiny lineaments of the building's environmental strategy, the wall's transparent depth creates a refined techno-aesthetic well suited to a university proud of its technological distinction.
Design in bits This exciting wall is memorable. Yet it is a singular architectural event, understandably specific to its orientation and environmental intention.
Other parts of the building have their separate characters. The north elevation is industrial: a cliff of red brick under a rooftop plant room walled in patent glazing. The comer tower is commercial: a small office block built in purplish-blue brick. The existing Todd Centre, no less officelike, is in rustic brown brick.
Certain design tactics are employed in an attempt to bind the disparate elements of the building together. The brickwork is flush-pointed. On all fronts, windows are conceived as long horizontal bands of glazing. There are no reveals; window frames are brought to the outer surface of the brickwork to create a planar skin.
But none of this entirely dispels the sense that there are three parts here and not one whole. What the disposition of the building parts achieves in relation to the existing campus layout, the choice of building materials serves to underscore. The three brick colours - red, blue and brown - all appear in adjacent university buildings. And perhaps this is the designers' cleverest trick - to have embedded the bits of the new in such a way that form, scale and colour rest easy.