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McGill University Life Sciences Complex in Montreal Print E-mail
Tuesday, 05 May 2009 02:16

McGill University Life Sciences Complex by Diamond+Schmitt Architects Inc. and Provencher Roy+Associés architectes
The primary function of the McGill University Life Sciences Complex is research in cancer and biomedicine. This includes five key components: chemical biology, complex traits, developmental biology, cell information systems and cancer research. The Complex integrates the new facilities, the Francesco Bellini Life Sciences Building and the Cancer Research Building, as well as the existing McIntyre Medical Sciences and Stewart Biological Sciences buildings.

mcgill_sciences_07.jpgNeither of the existing buildings have the same floor-to-floor heights, and have different base elevations. Other site conditions were an existing underground parking structure; solid granite below grade; an adjacent park setting and historic buildings; the need to maintain a through service lane (and a requirement to consolidate loading and materials management, including hazardous waste handling for the entire campus); and the restrictive view planes from Mount Royal.

There is wide spread acknowledgement in campuses and research institutions world-wide of the need to facilitate the convergence of disciplines. Old professional and disciplinary boundaries have, of necessity, dissolved.
mcgill_sciences_05.jpgThere is also acknowledgement of the value of chance and or informal contact between university wide faculty, research personnel and students, and of the high value of the quality of work place in a world competing for the best faculty, researchers and students.

Finally, there is the perennial need to provide the form of flexibility in laboratories that means that neither the building nor the trunk infrastructure need to be altered to reconfigure changing research regimes.

Utilizing an integrated design process, where the client took a more active role than usual; the architect became a team leader rather than the sole form-giver; and the structural, mechanical and electrical engineers took on active roles at an early design stage.

Employing this “whole building” design process included the active participation of the design team, users, faculty and administrators from the University.

Through the knowledge obtained from a series of integrated team meetings, the design took shape. By merging the existing buildings with the new structures in a seamless manner, the complex creates spaces to eliminate the physical separation of researchers and to encourage different disciplines to work more closely together to develop new medical treatments. The new facilities are home to 60 principal investigators and 600 researchers, joined by over 2,000 researchers, technical personnel, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in the renovated Stewart and McIntyre buildings.


The solution to all these conditions and problems was to make the connections between new and old buildings places to meet; by placing the vivarium in the mountainside, this programmatic component of the building remains effectively concealed; by bridging over the service lane, traffic flow remains uninterrupted.

Providing abundant natural light in the laboratories was the foundation of creating a satisfying work environment; by locating meeting places at strategic locations of pedestrian crossroads (both vertical and horizontal) the probability of chance meetings is enhanced; by maintaining a low profile the scale of the building on Pine Street is consistent with that of the historic buildings. The design of the complex also ensures that the park setting was not infringed upon.

Two volumes interlock on the site, each with its own research program identity. Subtle variations of expression are used to distinguish one from the other based on exposure, interior program or composition.

To emphasize the discrete nature of each material, special attention was paid to the junction between them. The transition from glass to zinc is flush and the curtain wall glazing is either capless or creates solar shading through the use of razor sharp horizontal mullion extensions. In juxtaposition to the light volumetric expression, the base is clad in ironspot, black brick, echoing the Canadian Shield granite within which it rests.

mcgill_sciences_20a.jpgThe Life Sciences Complex is now a physically linked and programmatically integrated cluster of disciplines that comprise the health sciences precinct. The strategically placed informal and formal meeting places have become the locus of interdisciplinary interactions.

The consolidation of vehicular servicing has not increased the area of this function, despite a significant increase in the size of the complex to be served. Movement paths through the building are visible from the exterior and have, as a consequence, abundant natural light. Entrances and exits to the movement paths are clearly signaled.

By the careful use of high grade materials, delicate detailing, a high proportion of fenestrated areas to gross wall area, well modulated benching, good natural light, the clear arrangement and relationship of preparatory spaces to laboratories, the flexibility provided for lab configurations and the strategic distribution of trunk services, the Life Sciences Complex has become a case study in the satisfaction of both campus wide and individual building user satisfaction.

Academic program requirements
Planning for laboratory flexibility was addressed using three approaches: open concept wet bench areas with adjacent support alcoves; combined with modular reconfigurable lab casework that allows components to be easily relocated by the users as their requirements change; and a core equipment facility centrally located between the two wings of the complex that is configured to allow the users to share access to expensive equipment. These core spaces are provided with electrical and mechanical service that will allow upgrades to equipment to take place with a minimum of disruption to other ongoing research activities.
Historic resource issues – buildings, grounds
To the west and south of the site, the 1960’s era McIntyre and Stewart buildings dominate the 19th century mansions and outbuildings to the east. These are set in a landscape designed by Fredrick Law Olmstead and are a historically significant ensemble. The City of Montreal also places height restrictions on all building projects along the historic and environmentally sensitive slopes of Mount Royal.

While respecting this restriction and allowing for views to and from the geographic city landmark, the design tightly packs an efficient 180,000 square feet of new research space into the site, energizing its surroundings.

mcgill_sciences_11.jpgOpen space and pedestrian circulation
Linking elements and informal social spaces tie the new facility to both adjacent buildings. At the upper levels, this allows for research inter-connectivity. At the lower, more public levels, these spaces encourage casual interaction between users during breaks. The four-storey interior atrium space doubles as a pedestrian passage, leading to vertical circulation into the complex and enhancing social and academic campus life.

Sustainability – building systems and materials
The Life Sciences Complex is sited adjacent to one of the most cherished green spaces in Montreal – the upper slopes of Mount Royal. The sensitive context, coupled with the University’s sustainable building mandate and the architects’ commitment to reducing the ecological impact of architecture, helped to establish the design team’s goal of constructing an unobtrusive energy efficient building. The new Bellini and Cancer pavilions are designed to achieve LEED Gold certification with the Canadian Green Building Council.
An integrated design approach, including design charettes and value management sessions, were utilized to ensure architectural integration of sustainable design features and to fully understand the impact each decision would have on operating and maintenance costs during the life of the building. Each energy conservation measure was considered individually, based on a 10-year payback benchmark. Overall, the total building will use 53kwh/sq ft annually, 36% more efficient than the Canadian National Model Energy Code reference building.
Vehicular access – service, drop-off, and parking
The incorporation and expansion of the existing loading and hazardous waster facility for the entire campus allows for a clear separation between service and public areas. The design of this zone ensures that the flow of sterile material and supplies for the extensive research facility within the Cancer Pavillion is not compromised by adjacent waste management.

Despite the challenges of a complex and restrained site, the design of Life Sciences Complex succeeds to clarify the existing flows of pedestrian and vehicular traffic. The east/west corridor also guides pedestrian flow to Montreal’s celebrated Mount Royal park.

All photographs by Tom Arban
Text by v2com

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