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AHR applies innovative biophilic design principles at The Spine building

For the northern home of The Royal College of Physicians, AHR Architects was tasked with creating a building that leaves its occupants healthier.

29/09/2022 4 min read
This article first appeared in Mix Interiors Issue 221

Words: Lauren Teague


The Royal College of Physicians (RCP) is an institution with over 500 years of history – founded by Royal Charter from King Henry VIII and the oldest medical college in England. All of this tradition has, until now, manifested within its Grade I listed London home, designed by Denys Lasdun in 1964. But as the institution began to outgrow the site, then-President Dame Jane Dacre saw an opportunity to reach beyond the capital, with Liverpool winning out.

The ‘Knowledge Quarter’ at Paddington Village is a campus district for some of the world’s most influential science, health and technology businesses. This vision was compelling to the RCP, whose spatial requirements included not only teaching space but facilities to run practical examinations with medical simulation spaces – something they had not previously been able to do in-house. Links to complementary industries became an important part of the development, with RCP taking half (75,000 sq ft) of the building and the remainder being let out to like-minded businesses.

AHR Architects was appointed to design the institution’s new northern home, The Spine. “The brief was one line,” says director Robert Hopkins; “for the occupants to be healthier when they walk out of the building than when they walked in. The project was all about embracing the RCP’s impact and reflecting on its incredible outcomes. When we won the competition, we worked with the client to turn the ethos and values of the college into architecture.” AHR approached The Spine as a project that would perform the antithesis of the more traditional London building, as a celebration of the institution’s future.

This meant promoting openness. The large café space upon entry, within the double-height entrance atrium, is open to the public. In fact, the ground floor is almost entirely permeable, with no physical barriers but instead a subtle change of flooring material – from oak to porcelain – that signifies the division between public and college areas. In place of the traditional black-box lecture theatres at the London site, AHR installed a cascading social stair that promotes the receiving and sharing of knowledge as an open and outward-looking activity.

Throughout the work floors there are three degrees of spatial privacy: public, semi-private (for invited visitors) and fully private member workspaces. On the thirteenth floor is a conference and event space with fine dining capabilities for up to 150 guests, and on twelfth floor an education centre.

One of the building’s most iconic features is its shining glazed façade. Manifestations that resemble the patterned surface of the human skin are formed using a mathematical formula that appears, at a glance, to be random. In fact, it is carefully constructed to combine aesthetic effect with environmental performance. At a macro level, from the streets below, the pattern sprawls equally across each of the four elevations and the ‘spots’ look the same. But each of the 23 million polygons is unique: a different shape, a different size, a different orientation. This, says Hopkins, enabled AHR to manipulate the design to respond to the natural elements: “On the south side, more of the surface area is covered in order to reduce solar gain, whereas on the north side, the pattern is less dense.” As the sunlight streams through, they also create the effect of dappled light – like sunbeams through a forest – which induces a calming effect, that reduces stress and stimulates a positive impact on the creative parts of the brain.

This is one of many ways in which the building’s materiality is used to nourish neurodiversity and stimulate wellness for its occupiers. AHR used scientific evidence to make decisions about the building’s design that would create the best possible internal working environment. “The client was incredibly open minded. When we started, there was yet to be a WELL Platinum building,” says Hopkins. “We pitched to the client the idea of pushing towards the highest possible standard of wellbeing and, because it’s grounded in research and data, the client was genuinely excited and interested in how the decisions we were making were backed by science. Everything we did – from material choices to air ventilation systems – was done not just to achieve a WELL Platinum rating but to push the science as far as we could.”

All of the materials used throughout the building were chosen for their honesty and wellness properties: claywork walls provide a rich texture, while the use of Johnson Air Pure paint throughout neutralises formaldehyde; carpets are born from recycled fishing nets in a structure which pulls dust particles from the air; and biophilic gardens are used throughout each of the three double height spaces at the south of the building – known as ‘the lungs’ of the building – backed up by a 1989 Clean Air Study that looked into the effects of photosynthesis on improving oxygen quality and the ability of plants to remove toxins from the air.

In every way, The Spine promotes wellness, openness and the sharing of knowledge. Intelligent choices, backed up by science, challenged AHR to think differently. And these are lessons that Hopkins says he’ll take into future projects: “My design process has changed a lot through working with the college. Their scientific minds allowed us to push the boundaries by making choices backed up by data and research at every point of the project and the building is all the better for it.”

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