The New Oxford Biochemistry Building: Art Over Science?

Last fall, most of the Oxford Biochemistry Department moved into a fancy-schmancy new building (imaginatively named "New Biochemistry"). A few of us stayed behind (have you ever tried to move a 6-magnet NMR facility?), and--to be totally honest--I can't say that I'm too disappointed about this. Granted, the new building is notable enough to warrant a recent write-up in Nature due to its open design and various art installations. On the other hand, I think that most of the faculty, postdocs, and students in the department are probably more interested in doing serious science, so this is really a non-issue. More than that, the design of the building may even make various aspects of work more difficult than they would be in a more traditional building.

I should preface the following by emphasizing once again that I don't actually work in the new building. So my thoughts are based on what I've heard from others who do work in the building and on my own impressions from my frequent visits to the building. I will say that as people have gotten used to their new surroundings, complaints have decreased somewhat in number, but they still persist. Also, I won't comment at length on the artwork--which I'm ambivalent toward--but rather on the layout of the building.

The New Biochemistry building does have a fairly novel design. The center of the building is one large atrium. Stairways criss-cross this atrium at various interesting angles, and overall I find it pretty visually appealing. You can get a decent idea of what it looks like here. Surrounding this atrium is the building's office space. Unusually, though, this office space is not closed off, but is totally open to the atrium. And, that is where the real problem lies.

The lobby of a building is a noisy place. Imagine placing your desk in the middle of one, and that's basically what working in the new building is like. Headphones are a must, which is a bit counterproductive, considering that the whole point of this open design was to encourage socializing. Also, don't count on having a private conversation about sensitive results--the postdocs in the lab across the atrium will hear every word.

Surrounding the office space, in the outermost ring, is the lab space. This, of course, is sealed off--as it should be. The thing about having the labs on the outside (with nothing but floor-to-ceiling windows separating you from the public outside) is that you feel a bit like you're working in a zoo if you're on the ground floor. However, New Biochemistry is located in the middle of the science area, away from major thoroughfares, so there really aren't that many people peering in and looking over your shoulder while you work. In a sense, though, that's kind of a shame, considering that the building is quite a visual experience (see pictures here and here). On the upside, you get a little more sunlight while in the lab (what little sunlight you can get in Oxford, anyway), so having the labs around the outside isn't such a bad thing.

So, the New Biochemistry building isn't all bad, but it's not great for science. And, it's not like these issues were totally unforeseeable. For example, Jim Hu and Derek Lowe, two science bloggers who have never seen the building in person, have raised some of the same concerns on their blogs. Clearly, the building could have benefited from a little more input from practicing scientists. It's nice and all to have a fancy new building, but not if it's going to get in the way of the reason that it's there in the first place.

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I've worked in a similar building at Stanford for a couple of years - the Clark Center ( and I'll agree that the open plan did take some getting used to - ours is an office/lab/corridor space combined. I really like the way it is so easy to talk to others - getting help with protocols and kicking new ideas around is a lot easier here than when everyone is scattered in individual offices and labs with doors and walls between them. But it's true that when someone needs to do some serious writing or reading and needs a few hours without interruption or distraction, they'll usually head off to the library or home. With wireless internet and mobile phones it means they're never actually that far away, but they have a less-distracting working environment.

As for the usefulness of housing scientists with good architecture and art, our building is also a bit of an architectural landmark, and I think it gives two benefits. One is that every morning when I come in I feel valued - that someone thinks that my work is important enough to put me in this very expensive and aesthetic building. Graduate students usually don't feel valued, so a fancy building is one way of improving that. This also works to motivate me - I'm taking up some very expensive lab space that someone else is excluded from due to my presence here. I'd better make sure that I work harder and produce better results than that someone else.

Heh. But when it comes to doing science, bad design of office space is one thing - bad design of the lab part is another. I know an institute in Germany which allegedly received a prize for its architecture. It won't receive a prize for functionality, with the two floors of each departmental wing being connected only by staircases outside the biohazard safety area, meaning that officially, it's probably not allowed to move GMOs from one floor to the other. Pity if the incubators are on one floor and the centrifuges on the other... Of course, the staircase itself is not very practical either, given that it's an open staircase of wooden boards. If someone DID carry a bunch of flasks with cultures upstairs and stumbled on the stairs, and someone was just standing below, he'd be showered in bacterial culture.... But then, that can't happen, right, because people aren't really allowed to do that anyway...

Unusually, though, this office space is not closed off, but is totally open to the atrium.

What a fucking joke!

BTW, it's worth pointing out that "open lab" floor plans--while sold as being "great for collaboration/interaction"--are really just for administrative convenience. Unlike traditional layouts--completely separate individual labs with their own front doors and PI offices inside--"open lab" floor plans with PI offices in a separate office area allows administrators to squeeze and expand the lab space allocated to individual PIs very easily as grant fortunes rise and fall.

I'm surprised to hear you so negative about the new Biochem building; perhaps because you haven't worked in it. I spent 10 days in there in January and found it a restful, work-conducive place to be. 'Open-plan' sounds bad but it's not like a Dilbert office - there is no sound at all in the atrium (they used concert hall sound-damping) so that lab work feels just as private as if I were in my 'underground prison' here in Grenoble - only much more friendly. I liked the colors too, in the end!

I feel that the most incredible design flaw is this:
The ceiling is transparent to allow natural light in (great!). However, a large part of the ceiling has been covered in solar panels - in order to generate electricity to light the building!

By Anonymous (not verified) on 30 Apr 2009 #permalink

I love the New Biochem. building. I don't work there but I wish I did. I had never seen it before until a few of us have been moved from the Dunn School to... the Old Biochemistry Building! Now, that is something to complain about...

I couldn't disagree with the author more. The key to this building is communication. What he didn't put into context is how previously Oxford's biochemists were sprawled over several aging buildings - structural biologists (such as the author) in one building; geneticists in another; microbiologists in another. They are now all housed under one roof. The scientific value of this should be immediately apparent.

Having worked in the building, most of the complaints were initially from teething troubles. The atrium is prone to occasional noise, but the office spaces are acoustically isolated by the timber cladding, so think of it more as a background hum. There are seminar rooms to escape to if you need to talk about sensitive results. Some of the other complaints were from a reduction in bench space, but we still get a fairly standard 1.5 m each. The visibility to outsiders is a bit of a non-issue as there is only one ground floor lab and it is set back behind a partition.

I feel that the most incredible design flaw is this:
The ceiling is transparent to allow natural light in (great!). However, a large part of the ceiling has been covered in solar panels - in order to generate electricity to light the building!
Not a design flaw but a design feature. The ceiling allows through plenty of light. The panels are quite small and are designed to provide a small amount of shading. Granted, the amount of power they generate is only token but it certainly contributes towards the lighting.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 18 Aug 2009 #permalink