Project Team

  • Architect: HOK/PLP
  • Structural Engineer: AKT II
  • Main Contractor: Laing O’Rourke

Exploring the Francis Crick Institute

The £435m Francis Crick Institute is a global powerhouse of medical science and is a building that might just save your life.

The first thing to appreciate about The Crick is that, although it has seven floors above ground arranged around a 130m-long central street or atrium, it is not at all like an office building. Comprising mainly high-spec laboratory space, it is very highly serviced indeed, requiring a mind-boggling range of liquids and gases to be piped throughout the building, a colossal amount of air-handling equipment, independent power supplies and a host of fail-safe and back-up systems.

The decision to go for a concrete frame was taken at an early stage – a key factor being the need to create a vibration-free space for the use of high-power microscopes, scanners and other sensitive laboratory equipment.

Much of the plant is located in the basement, where two of the four lower levels are largely given over to it. More sits high up beneath The Crick’s distinctive roofline. The building’s concrete mass acts as a barrier and a damper to vibration and has been specially designed for exactly this purpose – starting with the extraordinary basement.

This accommodates one-third of the building and is bounded by a reinforced-concrete piled diaphragm wall, up to 28m deep, 540m in perimeter and 1m thick. Its bulk helps to shield the building from vibrations and electromagnetic interference caused by nearby traffic and underground trains. It also stabilises the surrounding ground.

Having excavated the 8m to the second basement level, contractor Laing O’Rourke then proceeded with a complex top-down construction programme. This involved sinking 260 cylindrical hollow steel piles, mainly with diameters between 900-1,900mm, from the level-two basement into the Thanet Sands some 40m below ground. These were part-filled with concrete before steel box-section plunge columns of up to 600 x 600mm were lowered down inside, and concreted into the piles at the bottom.

Upward construction could then commence, supported by these columns. As the lower two basements were excavated, the cylindrical steel pile casing could be removed and the exposed plunge columns encased in concrete.

Crucially, however, there were several areas where the steel plunge columns could not be used due to the planned location of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) scanners. As these have to be kept away from ferrous metal, the steel columns in these areas were replaced by four enormous concrete plunge columns.

Another unusual aspect of the top-down construction resulted in basement levels zero, two and four (the basement slab) being cast in situ, whereas the basement’s plant levels of one and three were thinner precast slabs hanging from the thicker slabs above.

Those who work in The Crick will see little of all this concrete wizardry – perhaps a glimpse of concrete soffit here and there, in the plant levels or stair cores. A notable exception however is the shot-blasted coffered units that cantilever above the atrium space and provide a distinctive edge to the upper floors. They have an even, very precise appearance characteristic of their precast manufacture – a fittingly engineered finish for a building of such technical brilliance.

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