SickKids Research Institute’s mission is to improve the health of children, but the hospital-based research center was experiencing its own set of growing pains.

Since its founding in 1954, the Toronto-based organization had grown into Canada’s largest hospital-based child health research institute with six locations, more than 200 principal investigators, and a staff of nearly 2,000 people. While it had made significant discoveries in areas such as stem cell research, genetic and molecular causes of disease, and brain development and function, its fractured locations and dispersed staffs threatened its future.

“We were at risk of losing scientists because we didn’t have the facilities and we were busting out at the seams,” says Dr. Mike Salter, head of neurosciences and mental health at SickKids and associate chief of science strategy at SickKids Research Institute. “Although people were collaborating, it wasn’t optimal.”

After winning a grant from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, the research center, which is part of The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids), further secured funding from three levels of government. To top it off, a fundraising campaign brought in $200 million, with a lead donation of $40 million from Peter Gilgan to construct the Peter Gilgan Centre for Research and Learning.

The $400 million project features a 778,000-square-foot tower in downtown Toronto with a pedestrian bridge that connects the research center and hospital. The new building, which spans nearly half a city block, has room to bring everyone together. But with that size came some inherent design challenges.

DNA of design
To accommodate all 240 research groups and bring everyone together under one roof, the building needed to go vertical, rising 22 stories into the Toronto skyline. The result could have been an isolated high-rise with little interaction among staff.

But the project team, which included Diamond Schmitt Architects (Toronto) and HDR Architecture Inc. (Omaha, Neb.), wanted the building to reflect the transformation of biomedical sciences from individual researchers working in their own labs to teams of researchers with diverse backgrounds collaborating on big challenges.

“The concept of putting everyone together was not just to have a physical space, but how to use space to promote collegiality and interaction,” Salter says.

The solution was to organize the research into six neighborhoods housed on the upper 16 floors of the building: Brain and Mental Health, Organ Systems and Disease, Patients, Populations and Policy, Genetic and Genomic Medicine, Cancer and Stem Cell Biology, and Molecules, Cells and Therapies. The neighborhoods accommodate scientists and researchers from different disciplines in spaces that span two and three stories, and are connected by a shared atrium space that includes kitchenettes, white boards, and furnishings.

These collaborative spaces provide a counterpoint to the intensive lab work and are designed to foster interaction and conversation. The curvilinear bay windows in the atrium also bring views and light into the space and provide a defining feature on the glass building façade.

“You’re not just communicating via an elevator, you’re actually walking up one floor or down two; you’re interacting around those neighborhoods, and that becomes the DNA of organizing the building,” says Don Schmitt, principal, Diamond Schmitt Architects.

Growing outside the box
That collaborative spirit extends into the open lab spaces, which were designed to be flexible and adaptable, while bringing together diverse teams, including biologists, computer scientists, and geneticists.

“One thing you can always be sure about in a lab is that it’s going to change,” Schmitt says. “The worst thing you can do is box in that change.”

For example, a conventional lab might have three stationary lab benches in a row with a sink at the end that requires built-in plumbing and fume hoods.

At the Gilgan center, ergonomic dry lab benches (for computational research) can be adjusted to different heights and aren’t bolted to the floor. Electrical and gas lines are contained in service columns that can be removed if benching requires reconfiguring.

Wet lab research, which uses fixatives, preservatives, or solutions in experiments, has a designated area a few feet away from the dry lab benches and near the core of the building, where necessary services for liquids, such as plumbing and fume hoods, are installed for venting and draining of gasses and liquids.

This set-up allows researchers to move the benches around and reconfigure the spaces when a specific project is completed without disrupting any of the wet labs or plumbing support. It’s also cheaper, easier, and faster to change, Schmitt adds.

Thomas Guarino Jr., project manager at HDR, which oversaw the lab planning and assisted with interior furniture and color selection, says general research lab spaces are aligned along the exterior walls of the tower, while the interior core of the research floors are used for shared equipment and specialty work, such as tissue culture. Smaller enclosed research areas are designated for work that requires a specific temperature or lighting controls.

The research floors are broken down into roughly 75 percent lab space and 25 percent office space for researchers and technicians. Guarino says a modern aesthetic was introduced that includes light woods and pops of color in the furniture to highlight the offices and atrium spaces.

In addition, three floors of the building are reserved for conference and education facilities as part of a learning concourse, which includes a 250-seat auditorium. There's also leasable retail space on the ground floor, a standalone lab floor, and a mechanical penthouse on the 22nd floor.

Building in efficiencies
One of the biggest challenges on the project was addressing operating costs. “Labs are energy hogs,” Schmitt says. “There’s a huge amount of air being pushed around, there’s a huge amount of power, and they’re expensive to operate.”

However, the Gilgan building, which is LEED Gold certified, operates at almost 40 percent less than the model national energy code for this type of building, thanks to several design features, he says.

For one, the vertical orientation of the building allows for compact electrical and mechanical systems to be located on two floors at the middle of the tower to minimize the distances traveled by services, which help reduce the energy load. Air handling units with entropy heat recovery systems capture heat from computers and equipment, which is recycled to help meet the building’s energy needs.

In addition, 90 percent of the program areas and most of the labs have access to natural light to reduce the need for artificial lighting, while lighting controls are used to turn lights off when labs aren’t in use.

On the exterior, designers used a high-performance curtainwall with a ceramic frit for thermal control that retains heat and maximizes daylight while reducing glare and thermal gain. “By building ceramic frit into the glass, we reduce the air conditioning load,” Schmitt says.

“We want to stand out as an example
of an organization that’s not only doing fantastic work to help kids but that’s also a responsible corporate citizen,” Salter says.

Anne DiNardo is senior editor of Healthcare Design. She can be reached at


Sidebar: By the numbers

390 feet: Height of the 21-story building in downtown Toronto

17: Total number of labs floors

2,000: Staff and scientists working at the new site

3 miles: Length of laboratory bench top available

140,000 tons: Amount of glass, concrete, and steel used in construction

90 percent: Amount of building space that’s receives natural light

112: Work spaces per wet lab floor

140: Work spaces per dry lab floor

150: Bike parking spots

100: Car parking spots

3: Electric car outlets

For a source list relating to this project, see “SickKids Research Institute’s Peter Gilgan Centre for Research and Learning: Project Breakdown.”