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property report

The Peter Gilgan Centre for Research and Learning is the largest high-rise research facility in Canada.Tom Arban

Bay Street towers with 360-degree views and bright, airy work spaces are usually the domain of high-powered bankers and pricey lawyers, not lab-coat-wearing researchers. But when you're catering to the best pediatric scientists, exceptions are made.

"We wanted to create the kind of environment that's going to attract and retain the world's leaders in child health research," said Mary Jo Haddad, president and chief executive offer of Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, during a hard-hat tour of the Peter Gilgan Centre for Research and Learning.

The $400-million, 21-storey tower, scheduled to open next month, will offer work space for more than 2,000 Sick Kids pediatric health researchers.

The tower, which fronts onto Bay Street, takes up an entire city block just east of current Sick Kids facilities. But its façade is broken up by six undulating glass pods, stacked on top of one another, that jut right out over the street. The pods are gathering places in the building's six multi-storey "neighbourhoods," each one devoted to a different field of study.

Standing on the 21st floor, in the molecules, cells and therapies neighbourhood, one can look directly east or, because of the outcropping over Bay Street, north to treed ravines or south toward Lake Ontario.

But researchers on a break can also look down three storeys in their own neighbourhood and see fellow scientists relaxing in the lounge or sharing news of scientific successes. To join the conversation, they simply descend their neighbourhood's curving and open internal staircase.

This internal grouping of disciplines and the open concepts within each multi-storey section were part of Diamond Schmitt Architects' response to Sick Kids' request for open and collaborative spaces within the tower.

"The biggest challenge with this building was creating spaces that invited interaction and collaboration among colleagues," said firm principal Donald Schmitt, noting that tall towers are often faulted for simply whisking residents to their floor in an elevator, without offering organic meeting places. "But here we're bringing people to the centre and connecting them. The stairs curl up, floor upon floor, and people will meet here."

The internal staircases also meant the architects could reduce the number of elevators needed – from eight to six – and save valuable interior space for the researchers' technical equipment.

Other key places for collaboration among researchers, who are currently housed in various sites throughout downtown Toronto's Discovery District, are the laboratories. Taking up the entire length of the front and back of the tower, on 17 floors, the gleaming white labs boast 3-metre-high ceilings, full-length windows and highly configurable benches at which to work – a far cry from traditional cramped and airless, artificially lit research spaces.

Like many modern workplaces, the tower is short on private offices, instead offering "hot desking" – workers do not have permanent desks and anyone can sit anywhere – as a way to make the space more flexible and encourage researchers to interact and cross-pollinate once again. The private offices that do exist are earmarked for senior researchers and are located away from the glass walls, reserving views from the perimeter of the building for junior researchers.

Apart from attracting the best scientists and increasing collaboration among them, Sick Kids had one other important goal for the new building: to demystify science for the average person.

In order to do that, the hospital's fundraising arm had to first demystify research, for the benefit of its donors. According to Ms. Haddad, who has been at Sick Kids for almost 30 years, it's easier for donors to understand the need to raise funds for the emergency room or treatment rooms for sick children, than for "esoteric" research. In fact, the new research tower, which won't host any patients at all, only announced its lead funder, Peter Gilgan, CEO of Mattamy Homes, in 2012, two years after groundbreaking.

"Was it hard raising the money?" Ms. Haddad asked, rhetorically. "Of course, it's always hard. Especially at a time when there was such competition for dollars. But we recognized that we had really hard work to do and we had the confidence to know that we would get it done."

Through a combination of long-term borrowing, grants and donations – including $40-million from Mr. Gilgan – the hospital is just shy of its $400-million goal and even expects the project to come in slightly under budget.

In a physical sense, Diamond Schmitt Architects' design aims to demystify science by inviting the public into the building's lobby. (A pass card is needed to get through the doors leading to the elevator bank and up to the research floors.)

"If you're a passerby on the street, you get a sense of what's going on in this building," said Mr. Schmitt, nodding to the glass walls. "We're trying to reveal the mystery of research, which endlessly confounds people, with a sense of transparency."

The welcoming lobby features warm wood, floor-to-ceiling glass panes and pillars clad in polished stainless steel. It includes a multi-flight staircase leading to a terraced, wood seating area – not unlike the immensely popular City Room at the Four Seasons Centre, where Diamond Schmitt set out to demystify opera.

"Exactly the same principle is at work here," Mr. Schmitt said.

His client, Ms. Haddad, is thrilled with the outcome. "They took our words and our vision for bringing science to the street with this wonderful, incredible front space," she said.

And a good thing, too. Ever forward-looking, Sick Kids is now aiming to revisit its master plan, with a focus on upgrading clinical services and ambulatory care. Its partner for the upcoming projects? Diamond Schmitt.

Building stats

The Peter Gilgan Centre for Research and Learning is the largest high-rise research facility in Canada:

  • Storeys: 21
  • Size: 750,000 square feet, plus three levels of underground parking
  • Cladding: 12,125 panes of glass, 4,500 zinc panels
  • Population: 2,000-plus
  • Build time: Almost seven years, from awarding of contract to grand opening
  • Cost: $400-million
  • Lead donor: Peter Gilgan, CEO of Mattamy Homes, who donated $40-million