The seven-storey Robert H.N. Ho Research Centre building is an important new addition to the Vancouver General Hospital campus. The 69,350-square-foot facility was developed as a headquarters for hundreds of scientists and clinicians from the Centre for Hip Health and Mobility, OvCare and the Vancouver Prostate Centre.
It will also bolster the ability of the University of British Columbia's Faculty of Medicine and Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) to recruit and retain world-class scientists and health professionals.
Attached to the existing Jack Bell Research Centre on the corner of West 10th Avenue and Laurel Street at VGH, the Robert H.N. Ho facility posed interesting design challenges for Musson Cattell Mackey Partnership and CEI Architecture Planning Interiors, who were retained by VCH to develop the base building and functional interiors respectively.
"We collaborated closely with CEI to determine how the inside planning would affect the exterior appearance," says MCM associate Renante Solivar.
Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute executive director Robert McMaster notes, "While the final interior design remains more or less the same as the initial design that was proposed in 2005, the exterior is totally different. However, the finished product is spectacular on an esthetic and functional level."
Originally, VCH retained Stantec Consulting Ltd. to help put together a consulting team that included Diamond + Schmitt Architects Inc.; this team considered various development options for what Stantec project manager Sarrah Busby describes as "an extremely constrained site. We looked at everything: wrapping a new building around the Jack Bell Centre - you name it."
The project was temporarily put on hold after the options were deemed to be unfavourable from an economic standpoint. "Escalating prices during development was the single biggest challenge of the entire project," says McMaster.
When the project was reactivated in 2007, "VCH initiated a second RFP that resulted in MCM and CEI coming on board in a joint venture," says McMaster. "We then decided to construct a new building that would occupy an existing parking lot and be attached to the Jack Bell Centre."
CEI partner-in-charge Bill Locking and his colleagues embarked on an extensive design phase with input from user groups to determine the customized design and placement of laboratories and offices within the new building as well as to "ensure that we met all the wet lab/dry lab requirements," he says.
"A major consideration was to make the interior spaces as open and filled with as much natural light as possible, since we had such a narrow floor plate to work with. Every amount of space that could be used was used, and our design featured many modular components to accommodate evolving research and clinical needs."
McMaster explains the reason for the open space concept: "We thought it would be visually pleasing and facilitate collaborative research."
Busby describes the design phase as "like assembling a jigsaw puzzle. While natural light was required for many spaces, components such as imaging suites and equipment rooms had to be placed in the interior of the building away from windows."
One of the most striking aspects of the exterior design is the seemingly haphazard spacing (and curved shape) of windows on the north and south sides. To the uninitiated they resembled dots and dashes, but Solivar explains, "The inspiration came from DNA markers. It's the antithesis of traditional, sombre window patterning, and we designed the wrap-around sun shades to seem like an organic part of the metal cladding. Plus, with the open-space interiors, the patterning could be appreciated in many interior areas."
The metal cladding was chosen over other materials because according to Solivar it imparts "a technical feel, like an instrument of healing." The red 'G' shaped protruding edging that flanks the east and west sides of the building is an architectural expression that echoes design elements of other buildings on the VGH campus.
"The use of colour was encouraged by VGH because it imparts healing," says Solivar.
Construction of the facility commenced in August 2009, and existing services were relocated to maintain continued operation of the Jack Bell Centre. In comparison to the design process, the construction process turned out to be relatively straightforward.
“However, because crews were obliged to work on such a small site, careful scheduling and coordination became vitally important,” says Busby. “Also, since there weren’t many ceiling in the interior – radiant slabs were used extensively throughout [to complement a radiant floor heating system] – it was a task to install the ductwork and plumbing in a way that would be visually and spatially acceptable, and this required a high degree of coordination between the sub trades.”
Mechanical components were located in the basement, which Scott Construction, the general contractor, linked to the basement of the Jack Bell Centre via a tunnel (further connections between the two facilities were achieved via a common atrium at ground level and accesses on the second, third, fourth and fifth levels).
Throughout construction, special attention was paid to a series of oak trees lining West 10th Avenue that nearby residents wanted to be preserved. “We retained an arborist to ensure that they remained in good health,” says Busby.
By November of 2010, most of the metal cladding was in place and exterior window installation was well underway. Five months later, the entrance canopy concrete foundation was poured and crews were busy with interior painting and millwork.
“Thanks to a great relationship between Stantec, the architects and Scott Construction as well as VCH, we have stayed on time and on budget, with the facility expected to be handed over on May 1,” says McMaster.
McMaster and colleagues credit not only the building’s namesake, Robert H.N. Ho, for project funding, but also the Canada Foundation for Innovation and BC Knowledge Development Fund for a series of grants that helped facilitate the project.
Dr. Martin Gleave, director of the Vancouver Prostate Centre, and Dr. Heather McKay, director for the Centre for Hip Health and Mobility, were instrumental in applying for the grants. Major support by the Province of BC to the Centre for Hip Health and Mobility provided the final funding required, allowing the project to proceed.
For her part, Busby is grateful to have participated on what she regards as “a memorable project. The design process was unusually complex, but the hard work paid off, and although the Jack Bell Research Centre and the Robert H.N. Ho Research Centre differ significantly in appearance, for all intents and purposes they are a single facility that will enable bone and prostate research to continue well into the future.”