The Wellcome Trust has expanded its campus for human genome research to include an awesome supercomputer and a suite of state-of-the-art laboratories.

Britain’s most internationally famous, cutting-edge medical research project has recently expanded into a larger, multipurpose campus that is just as cutting edge. Far from being a regimented maze of boffins’ labs, the £95m campus expansion is a relaxed, freewheeling collection of buildings clustered around a landscaped square and surrounded by the lush Countryside south of Cambridge.

The buildings and the spaces between them come in a rich variety of irregular geometries, with inward and outward-sloping walls, sharp angles, wide overhangs and gently curved green roofs like natural mounds. Materials on view include panellised curtain walls, metal and sedum roof coverings and even precast concrete panels with exposed flint aggregate.

The project is the Wellcome Trust’s Human Genome Project, which can justifiably claim to lead the world in decoding the human genome. Over the past nine years, the Wellcome Trust’s research team has contributed about 35% of the human genetic code, or genome, more than any other single organisation in this global project. To get an idea of what that means, consider that the human genome contains 3 billion units of chemical information, which is the equivalent of a printed document 70 m thick.

Now that the basic mapping of the genome is complete, Wellcome’s research at is moving into a second phase. It is progressing from the relatively repetitive linear process of decoding to more open-ended, complex and demanding research into the application of the genetic code to the differences between individual humans, to medical conditions and possible treatments for them. This involves the combination of traditional laboratory research with the new-fangled science of bioinformatics, which involves complex mathematical analyses of biological data and the manipulation of visual images.

This phase of research calls for an increase of staff from 650 to 850, and the corresponding expansion of the premises to house them. But since the nature of the research is becoming more diverse and open-ended, a more diverse collection of building types is needed to house it.

To accommodate the first phase of the project, the world’s first research centre was purpose-built in 1996 next to a converted Georgian manor house at Hinxton, 10 miles south of Cambridge. Designed by Sheppard Robson, it took the relatively conventional form of a linear sequence of laboratories. The newly completed second phase, situated in an adjoining 30 ha site, combines laboratories, bioinformatics offices, a large animal house and a data centre of awesome capacity. It also includes a large amenity building to serve the whole expanded campus. And two later phases to be built over the next few years will comprise a biosciences innovation centre and additional facilities for genome-related start-up companies.

The newly completed phase and the two project phases of the campus make up the first project designed by the British office of the giant American architect NBBJ. In the newly completed phase, a gracious pedestrianised square forms the centrepiece and sets the tone for the whole 20,300 m2 campus. Most of the square is paved in riven buff-coloured granite, and on warm days it hums with groups of young researchers eating, drinking and conversing around a cluster of timber tables. The tables are overlooked through a window wall by the adjoining restaurant, and a few are shaded by its curving metal roof overhang that is as wide as an aeroplane wing, comes to a sharp point at one end and is supported on sloping struts, also with an aerodynamic feel.

Facing the restaurant across the square is the main research building fronted by an outward-sloping curtain wall of blue and brown tinted panels. This two-storey building combines the laboratories and their write-up spaces, bioinformatics offices, the data nerve centre and a power plant. And hidden behind the research building is the large, windowless animal research house.

The entire campus is no more than three storeys in height, and largely because the restaurant and its external dining area are given such prominence, it has a relaxed, playful, somewhat Californian atmosphere. This loose layout expresses the more

open-ended nature of the current research programme. It also reflects the social character of the campus, which consists of a dynamic community of young multinational researchers with an average age of 35.

There informal ambiance, the close arrangement of diverse research and amenity spaces and the central square and restaurant have a serious scientific purpose. That is to generate buzz and interaction between the people involved in the different strands of research. As Alan Bradley, the centre’s director, puts it: “There are now dozens of teams working on different projects, and we have to get them all working together like a community. There’s a lot of science that is nucleated by casual connection – you know, sitting down and having a cup of coffee, or bumping into one another in the hall.”

One other generator of the low-rise informal layout was its location in the area of outstanding natural beauty that lies alongside the River Cam, within bucolic farmland and next to two ancient villages. Planning permission for change of use from agriculture was a fraught issue that involved two public inquiries. As a result, the restaurant building and the animal house have roofs planted with sedum, and these curve towards the site perimeter as if to merge into the surrounding landscape. In addition, fingers of landscape stretch into the heart of the complex, dividing it into four hamlet-size clusters. And there are no forbidding security fences guarding the animal house from protesters: all security devices are hidden from view underground.

Other measures to reduce the impact of the complex include limiting the car parking spaces and hiding them in a podium below the central square. And 6 ha of wetlands on the far side of the Cam are being conserved as a public nature reserve with a lake, which conveniently doubles as flood overflow.

Building the accommodation on top of a car parking podium also has a practical function. “I said it’s got to be above the flood plain,” says Bradley, who took over as the centre’s director in 2000. “In phase one, there were building failures after seven days of flooding, and this set back research disastrously.”

Architectural purists will struggle to find any sense of coherence in the many irregular shapes of the buildings and disparate materials used to build them. On the other hand, what this hyperactivity does convey is the campus’ dynamism, and that in turn perfectly reflects the activity of the community of researchers who occupy it. “People visiting all remark on the sense of energy, excitement and buzz,” says Bradley. “And many people working here have said: ‘It’s amazing. Our productivity’s increased since we’ve moved in’.”

The super-powered data centre is open to view in the research building
The super-powered data centre is open to view in the research building

Project team

client The Wellcome Trust
architect & interior designer NBBJ
project manager NAI Fuller Peiser
structural & services engineer FaberMaunsell
laboratory planner Research Facilities Design
cost consultant Turner & Townsend
construction manager Mace

Building a home for a super supercomputer

Of all the facilities in the Human Genome Campus, by far the most record-breaking in capacity and innovative in concept is its nerve centre, the computerised data centre. The centre has a capacity of 300,000 gigabytes, about 7500 times greater than that of an average desktop PC. With such intense IT activity, the 2000-odd computer “blades” – highly-compact but powerful servers stacked together in racks and costing some £65m produce a heat output of 2000 W/m2, whereas the upper limit for large data centres in the UK is taken as 1200 W/m2. And looking to future, the campus’ IT director, Phil Butcher, reckons that capacity may need to double to a sizzling 4000 W/m2.

The data centre takes the novel form of a three-storey, steel-framed cube standing towards the rear of the main research building. The ground floor, where the racks of computer blades are housed, has a clear-glazed front facing the bioinformatics offices. The upper two floors are entirely given over to cooling plant, nicknamed “the ice cube”, and faced in icy-blue frameless glazing.

The ground floor is 1000 m2 in area, 5 m in headroom and divided into four identical machine rooms working independently. Butcher has adopted what he calls “the fallow field principle”, in which one room is kept empty so that it can take new equipment at some future date while another room is decommissioned without causing disruption.


The all-important building element in the data centre is the cooling system. The highly innovative solution breaks a data centre taboo by running water tubes directly above the precious electronic hardware. The risk is that a simple water leak could cause computer meltdown.

The design involved using computational fluid dynamics and a £50,000 physical test model. Despite these complexities, the completed cooling system turns out to be downright basic. A grid of cooled water pipes is suspended at ceiling height above the rows of computer racks and below a series of high-powered fan-coil units. The fans are arranged so that air is blown down over the cooled water pipes into the aisles between the fronts of the computer blades. The air is then drawn through the blades by their own inbuilt fans. The warmed air that collects in the rear aisles is sucked upwards by ceiling fans working in reverse.

As for safeguards against water leaks, the ceiling pipes are divided into discrete sections with each section having a pressure gauge. At the first indication of a leak, the water pressure drops, and the section shuts down.

The research building

The main research building brings together five distinct but closely related uses within a mainly two-storey building. As well as the data centre, there are the laboratories, the offices of the bioinformatics group, a meeting room and an energy centre. As the five function in different ways, they were conceived as separate blocks, but to foster creative interaction between their staff, they are brought together around an entrance hall and a narrow daylit atrium.

The laboratories are fairly conventional and comply with regulations for containing infectious substances, as classified by the Advisory Committee of Dangerous Pathogens. They are arranged on two floors along window walls on each side of their block with the central areas given over to intensive shared equipment and service risers. Whereas the labs of the first phase were divided into several discrete blocks each housing a separate research group, the new labs are all brought together so that the research groups can rub shoulders and can expand or contract as their projects demand. Desks for instant notes are located along the perimeter walls, while a larger, communal office is located at the front of the building.

The bioinformatics researchers are housed in low-key offices with linear benches supporting small unassuming flat-screen monitors. Although the researchers grapple with awesomely complicated mathematical problems, the requisite hardware has all been off-loaded to the data centre beyond the narrow atrium.

The communal meeting room is a sub-Alsop pod shaped like a square tube. Its timber-lined interior, complete with curved corners above and below and glazed ends, makes such an attractive space that it the main campus board has decided to hold its meetings there.


Each block in the main research building has an independent structure. The research labs have a ribbed insitu concrete frame, which can absorb vibrations and allow extra service holes to be drilled between the ribs. The write-up and bioinformatics offices in front have an irregular steel frame made of tapered fabricated box sections.


The laboratories are air-conditioned and have services that drop down from the ceiling. The offices are naturally ventilated, with fresh air drawn through by the natural stack effect created by roof-level vents in the atrium. Chilled beams provide cooling.

Animal house

The animal house, known by the euphemism “research support facilities”, houses all the mice and fish used for medical research experiments. It is a windowless steel-framed building the size of a football pitch, with a large area given over to steam-cleaning equipment.


Stringent standards for maintaining sterile conditions in experimental animal houses is laid down by the Home Office. To comply with these, 100% fresh air is used for ventilation, and temperature, humidity, lighting noise and air movement are all strictly controlled. As a result, the entire upper floor of the animal house is devoted to services, and this allows maintenance to be carried out without disturbing the sensitive animal accommodation below.

Cost control

A 5% contingency sum was earmarked for the changing brief, and this was additional to the more conventional contingency sum of £3m covering procurement, design and construction changes. As final accounts are being drawn up, quantity surveyor Turner & Townsend anticipates that the total cost will come in £1m below the all-in budget of £95m.

The contract

A construction management contract was adopted to cope with anticipated changes to the brief and design. The works were divided into 35 packages, nearly all of which were let as lump-sum contracts. The client laid down a zero-defects policy, which led to all manufactured components being tested before delivery to the site. Through this rigorous testing system, it was found that the first consignment of chilled beams failed to live up to their specification and a new supplier was appointed.

Research campus key points

  • State-of-the-art biosciences laboratory complex devoted to human genome research
  • The rural site combines diverse research facilities and generous social amenities
  • Compact, dynamic yet relaxed campus with central square and restaurant encourages interaction between researchers
  • Innovative super-powered computer data centre forms nerve centre of IT-based research project

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