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Creating “in-between” spaces in research facilities

July 05, 2018

To truly support cutting-edge research and attract the best, health science buildings need rooms for collaboration and informal learning

Performing cutting-edge research is a crucial aspect of health sciences education today—dentistry, too. But many venerable institutions are finding that their aging spaces, laboratories, and lecture halls, which ably served them for decades, are a poor fit for today’s pedagogies. And a simple update-and-replace approach may not fulfill all their needs, either, as these research institutions are not unlike higher ed, even corporate institutions, they need space for a range of human activity and connection to be successful.

Fifth floor collaboration space at the updated Faculty of Dentistry in Toronto.

The University of Toronto’s Faculty of Dentistry enjoys a global reputation for applied dental education. The five-story building is home to both dental research and a large public clinic that serves more than 75,000 patients every year. This combination of research and hands-on learning within one building creates incredible opportunities for “bench-to-chair” innovation.

The Faculty of Dentistry’s labs were outdated and below standard.

But working in the facility had become a frustrating experience. Originally built in 1958, with a significant addition in the early 1980s, the Faculty’s labs were outdated and below safety standards. Small and enclosed labs, often with adjoining private offices, resulted in an isolating environment which inhibited faculty and student interaction.

In today’s highly collaborative, cross-disciplinary research environment, these spaces were clearly insufficient. Obviously, labs would need to be updated while modern workspaces were created for faculty and students. But could our design team take it further?

Researchers work long hours, far more than 9-to-5, so their facility has to become a true “home” for them.

Dr. Bernhard Ganss, Vice Dean of Research at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Dentistry (or Ben as he’s known), is the kind of leader that can get you excited about dental health. Ben had a vision for the future of dental research and needed to find a way to make that vision reality.

Dr. Bernhard Ganss, Vice Dean of Research at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Dentistry, and Dr. Celine Levesque, Associate Professor, consider planning for the new Faculty of Dentistry.

From the very first visioning session, Ben pushed for a third type of space: not labs (for conducting experiments), not offices (for heads-down writing, or meeting with students), but rather an “in-between” space where faculty and students would meet informally and discuss their work, a space designed to encourage serendipitous collisions and cross-disciplinary collaboration—both of which have been shown as crucial to the success for organizations that want to innovate. It would be the true heart of the institution. The vision was clear—our team just had to figure out how to achieve it.

The design challenge for the Stantec team was two-fold: 1) there was limited space available in the program to support this “collaboration space,” and 2) the logical location for the space on both floors (in-between the new open labs and offices) had no access to daylight.

Open lab at the Faculty of Dentistry.

The design we created takes inspiration from Canada’s summer patios. Patio culture is a big part of life in Toronto, and we wanted to create a space that embodied that feeling all year round. On the fifth floor, we found that through the renovation of the mechanical systems, we could reduce equipment sizes and open up more space in the middle of the building. We then opened an entire wall to an exterior courtyard, allowing natural daylight into the newly created space. On the fourth floor, we used that same existing courtyard, and created two new enormous skylights to drive daylight into the core of the building.

Students have already told us how the new space has changed the research atmosphere—where once they worked in isolation, now collaboration is part of their daily routine.

Fourth floor collaboration space at the new Faculty of Dentistry, where large skylights allow daylight deep into the building.

Researchers work long hours, far more than 9-to-5, so their facility has to become a true “home” for them. Modern research facilities must feature safe, functional laboratories and workplace environments that allow for focus.

But to be truly supportive of cutting-edge research and help attract and retain the best faculty and students, we must also create spaces that actively encourage collaboration and informal learning. New social spaces will set the stage for Ben’s energetic vision of the future of dental research—pushed forward by collaborative idea generation and innovation. After all, the next great grant-winning idea might be born over a cup of coffee.

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