Combining scientists, academics, clinicians and patients in one hyper-connective, tactile and welcoming building, Stanton Williams’ Zayed Centre for Research for Great Ormond Street Hospital sets a new benchmark for healthcare buildings.

By architectural correspondent Veronica Simpson

Great Ormond Street hospital is one of the world’s leading children’s hospitals, with a reputation for pioneering research in rare disease. And now it has a pioneering building to help advance both science and treatment, in the form of the Zayed Centre for Research, which opened at the end of October 2019.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Stanton Williams’ building is the way in which normally separate departments and hierarchies are now integrated into the eight-storey, 13,000sqm structure. There is, for example, one large laboratory on the lower ground floor. Here, up to 200 scientists can work side by side - those working in genetics, cell and gene therapy, or regenerative medicine – in the hope that this co-location of disciplines could help accelerate both understanding and cures.

Bringing scientists, clinicians and patients together in the same building will dramatically improve speed of diagnosis and response, says Dr David Goldblatt, GOSH director of research and innovation, and champion for this new facility’s radical design. Genetics forms the main part of GOS’s research into rare diseases, 80% of which have a genetic basis, he says. The proximity of outpatients and research labs here means that a gene could be taken from a sick child at the outpatient clinic, sent up to the state-of-the-art clean rooms for cell and gene therapy on the top floors, modified and then returned in its enhanced form, to start working its magic immediately within the child’s body. Says Goldblatt: ‘We are now curing several different diseases through this therapy.’

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Gavin Henderson, Stanton Williams partner says: ‘This idea of academics, clinicians, patients and families in the same building is a remarkable proposition for a healthcare building, providing bench to bedside translational research.’ As Stanton Williams’ first healthcare building, the practice brought a freshness of approach to the brief, focusing on connectivity both within the building as well as beyond.

Everyone comes in through the same front entrance – a glazed walkway over the labs - with outpatients turning right to walk along the partially glazed ceiling and walls of the double-height, 600sqm laboratory to the smaller, outpatient building on the right hand side. Amply daylit thanks to a small enclosed garden and a two-storey atrium, this building represents the second of the scheme’s ‘two hearts’, says Henderson; the other is the dramatic five-storey atrium in the main building. Outpatients’ reception features colourful sensory educational tools aimed at helping children of all ages to explore the concepts behind the science that informs their therapy.

In the main building, the atrium is a grand space of sculptural concrete walls, enriched by timber-panelled balustrades. It percolates daylight into the building’s core, illuminating staircases and the various soft seating spaces scattered around them, all aimed at encouraging serendipitous encounters and conversations between the 500 staff.

Connectivity beyond the building is also key. Stanton Williams took advantage of its northerly aspect to offer a fully glazed façade at street level, opening up the building to the wider neighbourhood. This aspect also provides views onto nearby Coram Fields, a park that has been dedicated to the wellbeing of children for over 200 years. These park views are enjoyed by outpatients waiting to be seen in the first floor consulting rooms, which are arranged in a sandwich formation around the first floor atrium; by placing two rows of consulting rooms either side of a small connecting corridor, consultants only have to open their internal door to engage with their colleagues.

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This northerly light, broken up with elegant terracotta fins, also floods into the open plan office on the second floor, down into the lower ground floor laboratory, and across the staff kitchen and lounge. Those meeting and seminar rooms where privacy is key – including an international consulting room, which offers multiple screens for consultation across GOSH’s elite network of experts – are placed deeper within the building.

Close consultation with patient groups – facilitated by GOSH Arts, the hospital’s highly respected arts entity - helped to justify Stanton Williams’ unusual palette of materials for a healthcare building: terrazzo, wood and exposed concrete. The consultation groups also approved the specially-commissioned art works, which enhance the building’s civic feel. These include Mark Titchner’s huge piece ‘Together We Can Do So Much’, made of digitally cut and sanded wooden pieces, at the entrance, and Random International’s delightful, metallic red balloon which bounces slowly around the main atrium, its drifting pathway dictated by a robotic response to the movement of visitors. Stanton Williams themselves designed the pulsing, decorative light wall that lines the entrance lobby, to replicate a DNA array.

As they saw the building evolve, says Henderson, the children were particularly excited by the chance to see into the labs. And ‘they have been awed and excited by the size and scale of the building,’ he says. What Stanton Wiliams and their client are more excited about, clearly, is the potentially game-changing nature of the science that might emerge from within its elegant, terracotta, glass and brick facade.