Neurological diseases such as autism, cerebral palsy, and Rett syndrome affect more than 1 billion people worldwide, including 300 million children. In a pioneering move, Texas Children's Hospital opened the world's first basic research institute dedicated to childhood neurological diseases and is bringing together a multidisciplinary team of geneticists, biologists, neurobiologists, physicists, behavioral scientists, computer scientists, and mathematicians under one roof to unlock the mysteries of childhood neurological diseases.

The Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute (NRI), which was designed by Perkins+Will and opened in December 2010, is a 13-story, 400,000-square-foot research facility in the heart of Houston's Texas Medical Center that accommodates 15 principal investigators and their research teams of 130 scientists under the leadership of Dr. Huda Zoghbi, a renowned neurogeneticist recognized internationally for her advancements in Rett syndrome research.

Collaboration became the theme not only for the building's intended function but also for the design process, which sought to achieve these primary goals:

  • Form a unified research environment with Baylor College of Medicine (BCM), Texas Children's academic partner, and neighboring institutions Rice University and University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, as well as international research partner Telethon Institute of Genetics and Medicine, based in Naples, Italy;

  • Foster collaboration, discovery, and innovation in a highly flexible facility able to readily adapt to changing research methods and technology; and

  • Create an environment to inspire researchers.

Design began with extensive information gathering, during which the design team, researchers, and Texas Children's Hospital administrators visited peer institutions across the nation and interviewed researchers to learn from the experiences of others involved in neurological research. With this valuable programming information in hand, Perkins+Will orchestrated a collaborative charrette, bringing together architects, engineers, contractors, Texas Children's facility staff, and researchers from the three collaborative institutions. The building site's location, facing a prominent intersection in the Texas Medical Center, prompted the team to seek a “worthy of wonder” (WOW) statement in the design. From the group's WOW initiative, a twisting tower was born with leaning columns that string together to visually form the double helix of a DNA strand, signifying the unification of science and research. The rotating floor plates suggest the life-altering research taking place within the facility and new directions cultivating in the building. Additionally, the twisting tower allows a look back across the medical center to the main Texas Children's Hospital campus five blocks away.

The design charrette also generated the desire to reinforce the research collaboration with other institutions by physically connecting the institute to the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and BCM. The NRI tower's second floor has an internal bridge connecting to M.D. Anderson, and its structure was designed for a planned future sky bridge to BCM. Both bridges originate at opposite corners of the tower, pulling the tower in opposite directions. This creates the momentum that generates the rotation of the tower, which the design team calls a vertical “bridge” connecting the research floors. The rotation theme continues in the outdoor plaza, where retaining walls and a sidewalk mimic the tower's twist.

A combination of metal panels, clear and fritted glass, granite, and precast panels gives the building a high-tech look, yet complements the architectural character of the existing Texas Children's Hospital facilities. Stone is carried into the building with granite and travertine walls and columns in the lobby. The lobby's terrazzo floor is a playful and colorful abstract interpretation of the DNA strand. Vibrant colors applied throughout the building on carpets, accent walls, and laboratory flooring remind researchers that their work will brighten the outlook of millions of children with neurological diseases.

The research laboratories located in the heart of the building were carefully planned for maximum flexibility and collaboration, which is a guiding principle of the institute. The “collaboratories” start with the column spacing and lab module, utilities placement, vertical circulation, and mechanical shafts, and finish with movable casework. The lab support spaces were planned to frame the interior core laboratories. Responding to input from researchers during the charrette, the design team located offices and write-up stations along the perimeter of the open laboratories for easy access, daylight, and views.

Natural light and views to the outside world were priority considerations in creating attractive, inspiring spaces. In planning the laboratories, the design team located the equipment corridor at the center of each research floor, yet it receives daylight at both ends. This space plan keeps major equipment out of the laboratories, which results in open, day-lit, collaborative spaces and a much lower noise level in the laboratories than that afforded by traditional equipment placement. By centralizing major equipment, researchers are engaged in sharing, which encourages collaboration.

Several design features contribute to the high volume of daylight permeating into laboratories. Angled louver-blade sunshade devices on the building's exterior reduce the impact of direct sun rays into the building and at the same time reflect light into the laboratories via ceilings that slope downward from the exterior window wall. Light shelves along the perimeter also reflect light. This abundance of light has had a positive impact on researchers who say they enjoy being able to see the outside environment throughout their work day.

In addition to daylight and views, the building incorporates several other sustainable design strategies, and the design team anticipates it will receive a Silver USGBC LEED for Core and Shell certification. A daylight-harvesting system reduces the energy use in lighting. Among the energy-efficient equipment installed throughout the building, an indoor environmental quality system reduces the number of air changes per hour in the lab spaces. Most of the building materials either contain recycled content, or are manufactured or assembled locally. The building's location in proximity to Houston's light rail and major bus routes qualify for public transportation credits, plus shower facilities located on each research floor encourage bicycle transportation.

The majority of the costs for building the NRI are donor-funded, including the hospital's largest donation ever received from the late energy industry icon Dan Duncan and his wife, Jan. Other prominent supporters include Texas Children's board member Tony Petrello and his wife, Cynthia, whose daughter suffers from a neurological disease and was the inspiration behind the vision for the institute. The design team worked closely with Texas Children's Hospital to incorporate additional donor naming opportunities into the building to recognize the many supporters of the project.

The institute is well positioned to attract research funding from the National Institutes of Health, as shown in the recently awarded, stimulus-related Extramural Research Facilities Improvement Program (or C06) grant to build out additional research space within the building. With so many world-class scientists concentrated in a collaborative environment, the synergy is expected to spearhead discoveries to benefit children worldwide who suffer from neurological diseases. HCD

With 49 institutions, almost 100,000 employees, and 33.8 million square feet of healthcare and research space, Texas Medical Center in Houston
is the world's largest medical center. Texas Children's Hospital is one of the nation's leading pediatric hospitals, renowned worldwide for breakthrough developments in clinical care and research, and ranked nationally in 10 subspecialties by U.S. News and World Report in America's Best Children's Hospitals 2010-2011. The Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute is part of Texas Children's $1.5-billion Vision 2010 expansion program, which also includes a comprehensive obstetrics facility and a community hospital in suburban West Houston.

Jason T. Chan is an associate and project manager in the Houston office of Perkins+Will. Chan can be contacted at For more information on Perkins+Will, visit Healthcare Design 2011 March;11(3):38-44