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Collaboration-based Lab Design Furthers Cancer Research

Siloed research areas eliminated to promote partnerships

MaryBeth DiDonna
Oregon Health and Science University's Knight Cancer Institute in Portland houses over 600 researchers and administrators dedicated to cancer research.
Photography ©Brad Feinknopf/OTTO

Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) in Portland wanted a state-of-the-art research facility to support and facilitate a team science approach, where they could bring together some of the world’s top experts and physicians dealing with cancer research. The state of Oregon answered the call by investing $160 million in the project, and an additional $500 million challenge grant came from Nike co-founder Phil Knight—the challenge generated $1 billion, to be spent on research, clinical trials, outreach, and an endowment. The resulting building is the Knight Cancer Institute, a $160 million, 320,000 sq. ft. facility housing 650 researchers and administrators dedicated to cancer research, which opened in September 2018. The project team consisted of a construction joint venture team of McCarthy Building Companies, Inc. and Andersen Construction (McCarthy/Andersen), along with architect SRG Partnership, Inc. (SRG) and consultant B+H Advance Strategy. The groundbreaking on this LEED Platinum facility took place in June 2016. 

The Knight Cancer Institute offers picturesque views of the Portland area, including the Willamette River and Cascade Mountains.

Creating a space for collaboration was important to both the project team and OHSU researchers, says Laurie Canup, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, principal with SRG Partnership. The design plan reduced the number of research floors yet increased the size of each floor, which allowed for the inclusion of communicating stairs to form both functional and visual connections between different floors and the research teams that inhabit them—the experimentalist labs and office suites are grouped into interconnected “neighborhoods” to promote partnerships. Before moving into the building, Canup comments, the different research groups found themselves siloed according to their respective research areas, and therefore cross-collaboration was difficult. The neighborhoods in the new building provide the modest-scale areas preferred by researchers, while maintaining a flexible design that allows space to be reallocated if needed. Glass walls are used to establish visual connections with other working groups, while also letting in more sunlight and creating a collective identity among all those who work in the Knight Cancer Institute. “This group can now completely collaborate and truly develop a model based on team science. As we designed, we asked ourselves, ‘What does that mean?’ and they asked themselves, ‘What would that mean for us?’ They created a very clear set of guiding principles about what team science means to them,” says Canup. She adds that some research groups agreed to give up their private offices and come out into the open environment because they felt so strongly that an open area would best benefit the entire workplace. “We believe that shared daylight really was a better outcome for a team science research,” she says. 

Collaborative spaces offer a sense of unity. 

Informal gathering spaces are located throughout the building, in the form of quiet work spaces, a central kitchen area, and a lounge with an adjoining roof terrace that offers views of the Willamette River and Cascade Mountains. The center is also home to a 200-seat auditorium and a conference center, as well as a retail café. Casual seating areas are located in numerous areas in order to create a shared culture and promote spontaneous discussions and cross-collaboration. The goal with these collaborative spaces is to foster a sense of unity and “team science,” and establish the common goal of curing cancer, says Canup. “We were all united in this mission to deliver a building for them to allow them to work differently,” she says. “That meant a different way of looking at what a research building can and should be.”

SRG utilized a collaborative workplace strategy to develop its design plan for the Knight Cancer Institute. Project team members observed 17 different scientists from five separate labs throughout the course of a typical day, in order to establish how they interacted with their surrounding environments. A survey was also issued to ask researchers about their jobs, how they utilize their respective spaces, how they collaborate with each other, and their feelings toward assigned and shared spaces. Respondents were also asked about features they would like to see in the new building, to help ease their work life and allow them to perform more effective research. As part of a collaborative project delivery plan, SRG worked alongside representatives from OHSU, the Knight Cancer Institute, engineering and construction consultants, and Andersen/McCarthy Construction in order to develop the design and Revit model for the Knight building. The integrated team was co-located adjacent to the project site, in order to communicate more effectively and to build a culture of trust and transparency. “It’s a tribute to the power of integrated project delivery, on what we were able to achieve as a team,” says Canup.