The RIBA award-winning National Graphene Institute (NGI) is a world-leading research and incubator centre dedicated to the development of graphene. Located in Manchester, it is an essential component in the UK's bid to remain at the forefront of the commercialisation of this pioneering and revolutionary material.
Jestico + Whiles was appointed lead architect of the new National Graphene Institute at the University of Manchester in 2012, working closely with Sir Kostya Novoselov – who, along with Sir Andre Geim, first isolated graphene at the University of Manchester in 2004. The two were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.
Located in the university campus’ science quarter, the institute is housed in a compact 7,600m2 five-storey building, with the main cleanroom located on the lower ground floor to achieve best vibration performance. The ceiling of the viewing corridor that wraps around the cleanroom is cleverly angled so that scientists in the basement are visible to the public from street level.
The building also includes a second cleanroom in addition to laser, optical, metrology and chemical laboratories. Also housed are offices and ancillary accommodation.
On the insistence of Professor Novoselov most of the laboratories, including the cleanrooms, have natural daylight and view, to ensure that the intense work schedules do not deprive researchers of awareness and enjoyment of external conditions. All offices are naturally ventilated with openable windows controlled by occupants. Offices and labs on all floors are intermixed to create flexible and autonomous working zones which are easily changed and adapted to suit emerging new directions of research and changing team structures, including invited industry collaborators.
The building also provides generous collaborative and breakout spaces for meetings, relaxation and social interaction, including a double height roof-lit atrium and a top-floor multifunction seminar room/café that opens onto a south facing roof terrace with a biodiverse garden. A special design feature that has been incorporated to promote and facilitate informal exchanges of ideas is the full-height ‘writable’ walls along the corridors – a black PVC cladding that functions like traditional blackboards but obviates the health and safety issue of chalk dust.
In many successful designs, the architectural form, finishes, materials and function fuse coherently to forge an inseparable identity which becomes the building. The design of the façade at the NGI fulfils disparate demands and requirements, in a way that meets technical performance and simultaneously provides a distinctive, innovative outcome.
The façade comprises two distinct elements: an inner skin of an economical and reliable insulated sandwich panel which is weathertight and provides thermal, acoustic and other isolations that ensure performance and minimise risks. This is enveloped by a perforated outer ‘veil’ which sweeps over the irregular building features underneath, such as the central utilities block and the roof garden to provide a smooth, coherent form for the building as a whole.
The appearance and imagery of this building was of high importance to the client, who recognised the significant impact a cutting-edge research facility for such a potentially world-changing material could bring to the university. Nobel laureate end users, heads of departments, the Estates Directorate, and different members of the design and project team all made contributions to deciding what this was. Speaking in an article in the New Yorker, fellow graphene researcher James Tour of Rice University, Texas said ‘What Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov did was to show the world the amazingness of graphene.’ Our design sought to convey this ‘amazingness’ through the imagery and materiality of the NGI.
The material chosen for the outer veil is a black Rimex stainless steel, which has the quality of mirror-like reflectivity, but infinitely varies in colour depending on light conditions and the angle of the view. The resulting image is that of a mysterious, ever-changing mirage that evokes the universal experience of scientific exploration. An exploration enveloped by a 2D, ultra-thin, black material that has a mercurial, undefinable character – a perfect visual reference for graphene.
This mystery is deepened by subtle delineation of the equations used in graphene research all over the façade through perforations in the panels. These are intentionally obscure and only apparent upon inspection. The equations include two hidden deliberate mistakes set by Professor Novoselov.
The perforations themselves are hexagonal in shape, representing the 2D atomic formation of graphene. They are laser cut based on a completely regular orthogonal grid, with only the variations in the size of each hole making the pattern of the letters and symbols of the equations. We believe this is a unique design in using parametric design tools to generate organic and random looking patterns out of a completely regular grid.
The NGI is first and foremost one of the world’s most advanced research laboratories in physics and material science, dedicated to the development of a new miracle material, and its functions demand complex and onerous research environments of the highest standards. However, it is also fundamentally a place of work, for the scientists and support staff, and has been designed to provide efficient, delightful and inspiring work spaces in which to carry out the complex research under the direction of Prof Novoselov, Nobel laureate and co-discoverer of graphene.
Jestico + Whiles is an employee-owned international architecture and interior design practice based in London. A talented team of 100 people has completed major projects worldwide.
We have proven expertise in sustainable design across a wide range of sectors. Many of our projects involve major urban regeneration, refurbishment of historic buildings or low-energy designs. The diversity of our experience brings a natural richness to our work.
We deliver spaces that both meet our clients’ needs and excite and inspire them. Our buildings are identifiable through the quality of design, attention to detail and thoroughness of thought. We make all of our projects special.
The way in which we forge imaginative solutions is handled with an eye for what is appropriate, efficient and attractive. Ultimately we love to design, and do it with ingenuity and care to produce buildings of stature, value and invention.
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