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Exterior view of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center
The Steam Plant on Seattle’s Lake housed the Union Seattle Light and Power public utility from 1914 to 1987, and served as a biotech/pharma company’s headquarters until 2016.
Doug J. Scott

Fighting Cancer in a Former Steam Plant

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center serves as a living memorial to a baseball legend

MaryBeth DiDonna

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Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle, WA is an independent, nonprofit research institute and home to world-renowned scientists searching for new and innovative ways to prevent, diagnose, and treat life-threatening diseases. Fred Hutch or “The Hutch,” as it’s often known, contains the nation’s first National Cancer Institute-funded cancer prevention research program, as well as the clinical coordinating center of the Women’s Health Initiative and the international headquarters of the HIV Vaccine Trials Network and the COVID-19 Prevention Network. Thanks to their groundbreaking work in bone marrow transplantation during the 1970s, scientists at Fred Hutch uncovered the first definitive, reproducible example of the immune system defeating cancer, leading to the development of immunotherapy. Led by Dr. E. Donnall Thomas, the team used bone marrow transplantation as a treatment for previously incurable blood cancers, which led to him becoming a co-winner of the 1990 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

The center was established as a living memorial to former Detroit Tigers pitcher Fred Hutchinson, a Seattle native who died of cancer in 1964 at the age of 45. His older brother, surgeon Bill Hutchinson, had already started the Pacific Northwest Research Foundation to study heart surgery, cancer, and endocrine diseases. After Fred’s death, Bill developed the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center as an extension of his existing foundation. Fred Hutch opened its doors in Seattle’s First Hill neighborhood in 1975.

Photo of one of the Hutch's labs
With views overlooking Lake Union, the steam plant facility features modern labs in an open floor plan designed to foster collaboration
Doug J. Scott

The center eventually expanded into a former industrial area on the shore of Lake Union with a 1.3 million square foot campus comprising 13 buildings organized around a central art-filled courtyard. Immediately adjacent to this campus is the historic Lake Union Steam Plant, home of the Seattle Light and Power public utility from 1914 to 1987. The steam plant then served as the headquarters of biotech/pharma company ZymoGenetics, which was later acquired by Bristol-Myers Squibb—following this acquisition, ZymoGenetics announced in 2016 that it would not renew its lease on the steam plant, leading Fred Hutch to acquire the building in 2018 for its much-needed expansion. The newly renovated research space opened in October 2020. 

Building on Seattle history

The 106,000-square-foot historical building accommodates nearly 300 scientists and staff who specialize in immunotherapy, translational data science (the practice of transforming large amounts of complex data into meaningful information), and related programs. The new space expands Fred Hutch’s wet lab space by 15 percent and is designed to promote collaboration between those who develop cutting-edge tools and those who put them into practice.

The use of the historic steam plant, which already contained lab space from its prior retrofit, was not only a time-saver for this project but also tells an interesting story. “Over the years, the building had been brought up to code in a minimalistic way to ensure safety and functionality, but not to support the high-performance lab facility it is today,” says Allyn Stellmacher, design partner at ZGF, the architecture firm that worked on the project. “It needed a new vision—one that saw the potential in its original concrete and steel structure, high floor-to-floor spans, large floor plates, and of course, the exceptional views overlooking Lake Union.”

Interior shot of the offices adjacent to labs in the Hutch
Offices and meeting spaces are situated near lab facilities to spur conversation and networking about the research being performed by Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center's scientists.
Doug J. Scott

The steam plant will also be used as a modern learning facility for early-career scientists. “It’s critical that the next-generation of immunology researchers incorporate data science to get the most value from their work,” said Dr. Geoff Hill, scientific director of Fred Hutch’s immunotherapy Integrated Research Center, Hematopoietic Stem Cell Transplantation and holder of the José Carreras/E. Donnall Thomas Endowed Chair for Cancer Research, in a press release. “Bringing together experts with different backgrounds in an open space environment provides diversity of thought and encourages the integration of new perspectives into solving some of the most challenging scientific questions.” 

It was announced in April 2022 that Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA), Seattle Children’s, and UW Medicine completed a restructure of their longtime relationship to form the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, a unified adult cancer research and care center.

Unique research in a unique space

Fred Hutch’s goal is to use and create new technology to better understand disease, and to offer personalized treatments and therapies for its patients. The center’s research focuses on developing effective, enduring cellular immunotherapies for difficult-to-treat solid tumor cancers such as lung cancer and breast cancer, and accelerating curative therapeutics for blood cancers like myeloma and leukemia. These scientists use advanced gene therapy to treat malignant, inherited, and infectious diseases.

The center utilizes new technologies to read the genetic playbook of tens of thousands of cells at once, and to get a high-resolution view of how patients’ cancer and immune cells interact. An example of the high-level research going on at Fred Hutch is its Immunotherapy Integrated Research Center’s work in building the next generation of CAR-T cells to improve their ability to target solid tumors safer and more effectively. 

Fred Hutch’s research extracts meaningful insights from the terabytes of data generated by these technologies, which demands continuous, intensive collaborations between data scientists, laboratory researchers, and clinicians. The expansion into the steam plant was necessary to help evolve the concept of interdisciplinary science, the center says. “The steam plant is an expansion, not only of space, but of the way we do collaborative research and the connections between people and disciplines,” said Dr. Thomas J. Lynch Jr., president and director of Fred Hutch and holder of the Raisbeck Endowed Chair, in a press release. “It’s more square footage, but it’s also about proximity—proximity of individuals to others whose work enhances their own and proximity of working groups to other complementary groups. It’s an evolution of the concept of multidisciplinary research.”

Photo of private offices in the Hutch.
A view of some of the private offices overlooking Lake Union.
Doug J. Scott

Researchers who work in the steam plant participated in the design plans for this facility by suggesting open, light-filled labs and office spaces, as well as flexible spaces for individual work. The design team at ZGF used extensive glazing in labs, offices, and corridors to maximize transparency, views, and daylight, which reinforces the center’s commitment to health, wellness, and sustainability. Other requests included spaces to hold private discussions and small meetings, as well as large symposia gatherings with the goal of strengthening existing collaborations and creating new connections to develop new ideas. 

The collaborative layout plan for the building uses these open labs and shared spaces to build connections from experts across scientific disciplines, so that they can collaborate on cutting-edge tools to better understand, treat, and cure cancer. “The steam plant’s transformation is symbolic of harnessing the collective strength and value of research teams, and their integration with others, to advance scientific discovery and ‘supercharge the research,’” says Stellmacher.

The steam plant facility opened to Fred Hutch researchers in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and the “Great Resignation” movement, which has kept the project team mindful of the importance of designing a scientific research facility to keep bright minds interested and content. “The quality of the environment must be strong to attract and retain talent in today’s market, particularly as organizations struggle to get employees back on campus or back in the office. The steam plant renovation was not only a transformation of space into a modern lab environment, it was also a transformation of how Fred Hutch practices science. A lot of great minds came together to craft this environment,” says Stellmacher.

Photo of a meeting room in the Hutch
The use of a bright, modern design plan, combined with an open-concept workplace housed in an interesting historical facility equipped with modern research tools is crucial to the acceleration of highly collaborative science.
Doug J. Scott

The use of a bright, modern design plan, combined with an open-concept workplace housed in an interesting historical facility equipped with modern research tools is crucial to the acceleration of highly collaborative science. The space inspires researchers who would not normally network or collaborate to seek out new ideas and hold inspired discussions with each other.

“It takes great people, but also shared collaborative effort,” says Stellmacher. “That’s what makes the Hutch, the Hutch: great people, pressing on problems from a number of angles, who have a desire and ability to come together with different viewpoints, to inform new approaches to disease research and discovery.”