At the end of 2011 the CNCB moved into the Tinsley Building, refitted for purpose by the architectural firm Hawkins\Brown.
Hawkins\Brown has won many RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) awards, and was Education Architect of the Year 2010.
The CNCB project was overseen by Morag Morrison and Oliver Milton, both associate directors at Hawkins\Brown.
What state was the building in when you first saw it?
The interior was dark, dense and claustrophobic. But the building had a lot of potential—which Gero had realised early on, before we arrived on the scene. He had a vision of what the interior could look like and he took a real leap of faith.
How much of the original building has been preserved?
We stripped the old building back to its concrete frame. Nevertheless, we have tried to preserve some of the original character—though much of that character was hard to see given its condition at the time. We restored the original staircase and precast concrete finishes. The exterior of the building was given a very light touch with a new roof, new windows, and entrance screen that reflected the original proportions of the building.
How do you go about designing a new interior, particularly an interior for such a specialised client?
I have worked with scientists and artists, sometimes together on the same project. I design intuitively. Clearly the work at the CNCB is intense. I tried to imagine what it would be like to work at that intensity and scale.
We looked at many interiors. We looked at various other laboratories, partly to avoid some of the problems we found there. A lot of work went into figuring out what the optimum density of people working together should be, and the scale of the working environment. Having too much space between you and your colleague can be just as bad as being right on top of that colleague. For example, Gero told us of his experience of being in a laboratory where everyone was too spread out.
What were some of the specific goals you wanted to achieve?
We wanted to fashion an environment that encourages creative thinking and the exchange of ideas. Ideas don’t always come at the lab bench, but from chance meetings on staircases or in the lunch room. The human content of the design required a lot of thought and planning. We wanted to create an environment in which cross-fertilisation is facilitated. We had to work out how the interior flowed—what it would be like for researchers to bump into each other in the corridor, or how it would feel sitting next to each other at the bench.
What were some of the limitations you had to overcome to achieve your plan?
As is true in many laboratories, some work at the CNCB requires high levels of lighting, and many of the surfaces need to be impervious. Other work happens in virtually complete darkness. We wanted to avoid the result, which is all too common, of a laboratory interior that is hard, clinical and oppressive. The lighting at the CNCB is indirect and carefully thought out to avoid glare. We introduced task lighting where needed, to create a more sustainable, flexible and less harsh effect than general flood lighting. We made strong use of glass screens in the interior, to create long views across the interior spaces even where there are no widows. We introduced outdoor colours—blues and greens— to create a calming and restful effect in certain areas.
Talking of colours, is it a green building?
It’s a very green building. For example, we could have bought off the peg temperature- and humidity-controlled rooms, but it was actually more economic to build them from scratch and incorporate whatever cooling and heating is required in these labs into the overall heating and cooling of the building itself.
Part of the up-grade was to insulate the building, not just to keep in the flies, though that was an important consideration, but also to make the building as sustainable as possible.
How have you differentiated the laboratory areas from other parts of the interior?
The laboratory floor and the office floor above it are strongly contrasted. The office floor is much more domestic, using materials we could not use in a lab, like wood. Upstairs we used oak, fabric and warm colours, and introduced big lamps so that the overhead lighting can be turned off at night to create a softer library-like feel for researchers working late. The hope is that we have given the CNCB team an environment that will allow them to evolve their own identity. ‘
What do you think Hawkins\Brown achieved that perhaps other architects might not have achieved?
We are a collaborative company. We have a broad remit. We have designed arts centres, university buildings, factories, civic buildings, and large-scale housing projects. Many specialist architects roll out the same stuff—but we wanted to create something specific to the needs of the CNCB. Hopefully good science will come from this.