Research facility with energy efficiency built in

Creating a building that delivers a flexible and sustainable collaborative research environment

Aaron Taylor, education specialist at architectural firm, Stantec, discusses the development of the design concept for the new Wellcome-Wolfson Institute for Experimental Medicine at Queen’s University Belfast to create a building that delivers a flexible and sustainable collaborative research environment

One of the greatest challenges of creating university research facilities for the 21st century is designing a layout that facilitates collaboration and interdisciplinary co-operation while providing for the needs of researchers to manage their own experiments and write up their work without distractions.

Providing all of that is, in itself, a tough ask, but there are also additional parameters that must be taken into account in order to maximise the service life of the building and manage its environmental impact.

Flexibility is key, as is a creative approach to space planning, building fabric and building services.  All of these goals were factored in to the concept design and design development at the Wellcome-Wolfson Institute for Experimental Medicine (WWIEM); a £20 million research facility at Queen’s University Belfast designed by Stantec and local architectural practice, Ostick + Williams.

Collaboration Zone

The concept of collaboration in a research environment is not just about shared facilities and collaborative workspaces; it’s also about creating a layout that connects research teams to each other with a combination of open plan areas and visual connectivity between enclosed areas.

At the WWEIM, that visual connection is delivered by the presence of two atria; a core atrium in the centre of the ‘collaboration zone’ and an additional atrium that has been used to extend the building into the full footprint of the site, abutting the new building to the adjacent Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology (CCRCB). The result is a very open plan feel and a wealth of informal spaces where colleagues and students can discuss their work, with natural light and openness engendering a culture of collaboration.

Embedding that culture into the fabric of the building was an important element of the design concept but the practical realities of inter-disciplinary and collaborative projects was also critical to the success of the design development. To address this, the design team created a collaboration zone around the perimeter of the central atrium, with both open plan write up areas and offices around the periphery of the atrium, leading out onto primary and secondary laboratories.

The concept is a world away from the old-fashioned rabbit warrens of university buildings and includes stairwell access at both ends of the atrium, primary circulation routes around the centre and periphery of the atrium and clear visual connectivity both horizontally and vertically.

Future Flexibility

The layout of the building meets the teaching and research needs of current programmes but that could change: a fact that was factored into the design concept for the building from day one. 

Reconfiguring or re-allocating space as needs change is not just about walls and doors – in fact that’s the easy bit – it also requires alterations to mechanical and electrical services, which can cause the biggest upheaval in conventional refurbishment projects because centralised plant affects the whole building, not just areas that require modification. To address the conceptual aim of an ‘environmental management zone’, the scheme incorporates a ‘double skin’ elevation at both the north facing front and south facing back of the building.

Replacing services cavities in the walls and ceilings with a service void in the building’s second skin, achieves a number of operational goals for the building. Firstly, it maximises the usable space inside the research facility as the services are accommodated in a space that overhangs the ground floor footprint of the building from first floor level upwards. Secondly, the ‘external’ service void ensures that any services maintenance or modification work can be carried out within the building but outside of the operational space, making both routine work and major programmes less disruptive. 

Environmental Wall

The benefits of the double skin approach that is so fundamental to delivering the design concept at the WWIEM go far beyond the goals of space maximisation and adaptability.  The cavity also acts as an ‘environmental wall’, aiding the building’s thermal performance and contributing to its reduced energy load. 

With an EPC score of 24, the WWIEM is both A-rated and target BREEAM ‘Excellent’ and the environmental wall makes a significant contribution to those achievements.  The double skin creates a cavity that both insulates the building with warm air and improves its air tightness.  Indeed, the finished scheme has an air tightness 2.7 m3/hr/m2, far below the building regulations permissible figure of 10 m3/hr/m2 for commercial buildings and easily within the 3.0 m3/hr/m2 required to achieve BREEAM Excellent. 

The pre-warmed air within the cavity also helps to reduce the energy load required for the VRF-based heating system thanks to handling units on the roof that extract pre-warmed air from the double skin cavity. The double skin also helps to reduce solar gain and glare within the building, with automated blinds within the cavity linked to sensors to shield the internal accommodation.

Energy Strategy

The building’s environmental performance is not only based on the advantages of the environmental wall. Traditionally, research buildings have a heavy carbon footprint and the more sophisticated the facilities, the more this accelerates.

At WWIEM, an energy strategy that considered the needs of the building holistically has brought together an efficient approach to providing mixed energy sources with a creative approach to reducing the energy demand.

Efficient gas boilers, a CHP (combined heat and power) unit sized to meet the needs of the project and south facing solar PV installations on the roof of both the North and South cores contribute to a varied energy management strategy. Meanwhile, natural ventilation in the atria and high efficiency air handling plant with heat recovery optimises comfort temperatures while minimising energy demand and carbon consumption.

Sustainable Outcomes

The building services were designed and delivered in BIM (Building Information Management) and BSRIA Soft Landings was adopted to ensure a ‘bump free’ transition from construction to occupation with optimised operational performance. BIM has not only been instrumental in minimising waste and maximising efficiency during the construction phase, but has also ensured that structured asset information contained within the ‘as built’ 3D model can aid management of the facility going forward. 

The result is a research centre that addresses the University’s academic, commercial and operational needs at handover and also has adaptability built in to both the physical design and the design process, underpinning a sustainability strategy that encompasses building fabric, energy consumption and longevity. 


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