Top researchers have been lured to a transformed Institute of Child Health which lets scientists and clinicians mingle happily. Peter Sandy reports.
People work well if they are given good environments. For Roland Levinsky, dean of the Institute of Child Health, that means he must provide his staff with top-quality laboratories, seminar rooms and conference facilities.
"At the same time," he adds, "you must remember that science is not so much about solitary ideas as the exchange of ideas. If the only place people can meet is in a corridor, they won't talk much."
He believes that for organisations like ICH, a postgraduate research and teaching unit at Great Ormond Street Hospital, it is vital to provide an environment where scientists and clinicians can rub shoulders and exchange ideas.
Professor Levinsky and architects ORMS have applied these principles with startling success at ICH's Bloomsbury site, where the back-to-back configuration of ICH and hospital buildings is being transformed into a face-to-face relationship.
At the same time, Professor Levinsky has exploited the appeal of his building programme to lure several international research stars and their teams to ICH. "We would not have attracted them unless they believed in what the future was going to be," he says. "I had a vision, but I needed people like ORMS to put it on paper, and give me the model and the plans I could use to say to people, this is what we will deliver."
ICH's fortunes have risen too. Since 1992 the number of academic staff has grown from 290 to 480. A grade 5 research rating has been awarded, funding is in place for the next four years (only 18 per cent from the funding council), and ICH has been integrated into University College London Medical School.
The seeds of change were sown back in 1992 by a feasibility report by ORMS's Martin Shirley, which addressed ICH's basic problems. The institute lived in a tangled web of laboratories, computer operations and seminar rooms. It spread across an unplanned group of buildings unrelated to the hospital.
The first step was to organise related activities into each of three main buildings, dealing primarily with teaching, laboratory and office-based research functions. "First of all we refurbished laboratories and then we created some breathing space by putting a two-storey roof extension on top of one building," says Professor Levinsky. "I used that project to test ORMS. What they provided was a delightful structure, which expressed the optimism I felt about the place and which Camden planners commended as one of the most attractive new buildings on their patch in recent years."
After designing a new library, to accommodate the UCL students, the team moved on to the main project. "After much debate with ORMS, we finally concluded that we should demolish our lecture theatre and replace it with a seven-storey building incorporating a 300-seat auditorium, where people could meet informally on the lower floors, with offices for research and teaching above," says Professor Levinsky.
This is the Wellcome Building, financed by £4.2 million from the Wellcome Trust and a further £2.5m from the special trustees of Great Ormond Street Hospital. As well as providing 40 per cent more space for expansion, its site on the main internal street linking ICH and the hospital will create the close relationship Levinsky wanted.
"It's all coming together now," he says, watching from his office window as contractors Shepherd put up the new building on an extremely tight site. The building is due to open in October. "It's a beautiful design," he says. "It will provide a natural congregation area for the hospital and the institute. While retaining our individual identities, we will now have a shared focus at the heart of our site."