British Columbia cancer research centre

award magazine December 2004

The BC Cancer Agency’s new Research Centre — owned by the BC Cancer Foundation and operated by the BC Cancer Agency — is long overdue. The agency’s research scientists currently work in cramped, outmoded facilities. However, the wait for a new building means the agency and its design and construction partners can leapfrog existing technology, putting phase one of its new centre at the leading edge.


“We were in an old bakery, originally built in 1924,” says BC Cancer Agency head of research Dr. Victor Ling. “The BC Cancer Agency bought the building in the 1970s. Right now we have more than 350 people in the building. It’s bursting at the seams. And we couldn’t do a lot of things we needed to do.”


Genomics research was one of the agency’s key objectives. So was building a facility that would attract the finest research scientists from around the world, as well as keeping the best scientists already working in Vancouver from going elsewhere.


To meet those objectives, the BC Cancer Agency’s leaders, together with  project managers Stantec Consulting, assembled a team including architectural firms IBI Group and Henriquez & Partners, construction firm Ledcor and myriad consultants that gathered with the agency’s research scientists to imagine the finest facility they could and make it a reality.


“We can’t predict the future. Form follows function; we need flexibility, which is why it was built as an interstitial building,” says Dr. Ling. “We looked at best practices around the world and we realized that this kind of building would allow us to configure different ways to set up the labs. Genome science means demands that are different from other regular labs. We wanted to have an open architecture. We want people to be able to bump into each other, to connect by serendipity rather than always in planned meetings, so the more open the architecture is, the more likelihood people will interact with each other. Yet at the same time, we had to protect the necessary privacy to allow for individual creativity.”


“Many labs in other buildings are configured as separate entities,” says Stantec’s project manager, Michael Kennedy. “There’s a lab with an office in the corner. Here, the labs are open concept, and the offices are together at the west end of the building, so the scientists will run into each other regularly.”


Phase one is an interstitial building: the bulk of the building’s floors are research laboratories. Between each lab floor, a services storey contains conduits, pipes, cables, ductwork and every other element of the heating, cooling, water and electrical systems for the labs. Each services storey is modular; everything can be changed, re-routed or reconfigured according to lab requirements.


“In the long run, that’s going to save us operating dollars,” Dr. Ling says. “If we pour a lot of money into our operating infrastructure, the less money there is for research. And the less downtime we have for reconfiguration, the more opportunity there is for productive research.”


Contributions from donors to the BC Cancer Foundation as well as provincial and federal government money are paying for the centre, and that also figured in its design and construction.


“Because we had to raise the funds for this building we wanted it to be appealing, not just for the fact that it was going to be doing incredible science for a cause that was so worthwhile, we wanted it also to be something that people would go, ‘See that building over there? We gave to that,’” says the BC Cancer Agency’s CEO Mary McNeil. “It has so much symbolism in it, and that makes it a really good story for us to tell donors. That makes it appealing for them to give to.”


The BC Cancer Foundation also wanted to make sure people would know instinctively that the building was primarily for research — an idea that was made explicit with immense round windows on the lab floors, evoking Petri dishes.


“You have to start building a critical mass of people that approve of the building so you can get enough critical mass of thinking inside the building,” says architect Ivo Taller of Henriquez and Partners. “What we’re building now is fourteen storeys high — six floors below grade. That’s for about 600 people. There is a premium for building the interstitial design, but you can stick two office floors into the space of one lab floor with an interstitial. We were able to build 12 office floors in the same vertical space as the lab floors.”


Taller says dividing the building into a lab portion and an office portion — a division clearly visible from the exterior — was aimed at making it look like a couple of different structures rather than a single, imposing slab. That also helped allay the city of Vancouver’s concerns regarding density issues and its decision to rezone the property to meet the cancer agency’s needs.


“We split the office part into two, one piece is bigger than the other and the spiral staircase, which is like the DNA spiral,” Taller says. “All the views of colored glass around the offices are the run of a DNA sequence of a chromosome, which was one of the first in identifying cancer. We have abstracted that and represented it on the façade so it’s related to the work they do there.”


“The building’s been designed according to the LEED standard [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design],” says Stantec’s Michael Kennedy. “For a building like this to be a Silver is exceptional, because the building uses so much energy as a research building. We embarked on the LEED process four years ago, before it became a mainstream design process.”


All those achievements should make the centre a magnet for the best cancer research minds in the world. Initial reviews make that look likely.


“I had a guy come in just the other day,” says Dr. Victor Ling. “He’s from Europe, and trying to put up a similar building. He was very laudatory about what we’ve done here. He said, ‘Wow, you guys have thought of everything. I could learn a lot just by walking through this building.’”


Project: British Columbia Cancer Research Centre

Location: 601 West 10th Avenue, Vancouver, British Columbia

Owner/developer: British Columbia Cancer Agency

Architect: IBI Group/Henriquez & Partners [joint venture]

Project management: Stantec Consulting Ltd.

General Contractor: Ledcor Construction Ltd.

Structural Consultant: Glotman Simpson

Mechanical consultant: Keen Consulting Co. Ltd.

Total size: 225,000 square feet

Total cost: $95,000,000