First look inside AstraZeneca's new £500m-plus global HQ and R&D centre on Cambridge Biomedical Campus
Visiting a pharmaceutical company has traditionally been akin to an airport experience: all security checks and restricted areas… a sense of important work unseen.
By contrast, at AstraZeneca’s new £500million-plus global headquarters and research and development centre, under construction on Cambridge Biomedical Campus, transparency and openness are the watchwords.
And that manifests itself architecturally in the preponderance of glass. From the outer, triple-glazed panels that help form its intriguing saw-tooth design to the double-glazed inner panels overlooking the central quad, light pours into this building from all sides.
Indeed, even the inner sanctum of the large drug development laboratories is opened up with glass walls, so that everyone can see the scientists at work.
“We’ll have screens on the outside of the labs to tell you what’s going on in there,” explains Dr Andy Williams, AstraZeneca’s VP, Cambridge strategy and operations.
The biopharmaceutical company has taken the concept further, by opening up the central courtyard to the public. A ground-floor cafe will serve staff, visitors and curious passers-by alike.
If you like your latte served with a side of science, it promises to be an intriguing option.
You should, by that stage, also have a pleasant view of four oak trees - currently growing in a nursery somewhere - that will be lifted into place, providing some shade and greenery to the courtyard.
“The idea is based on a college quad,” says Andy, adding that outdoor seating and evening events are on the cards too. A 250-seat ground-floor staff restaurant will also look out on to the courtyard.
Architects Herzog & de Meuron said the aim was to create “a centrepiece which connects all the external areas and is somehow the external heart of the building”.
The disc of the building - it’s not quite a triangle, and not quite a circle - features six well-defined blocks containing all the laboratories.
Three main entrances to the courtyard and the building lie between these blocks. It almost feels like entering a stadium.
But this isn’t the Camp Nou - indeed, it is surprisingly low at 36 metres.
The architects said the intention was to create something “of human scale and not imposing and that brought us to the critical step where the floors became large and the building became low - three stories”.
Inside, that sense continues. The design almost demands that the company’s staff keep in touch with one another.
By the reception is a broad wooden staircase, with generous landings, designed to act “almost like a meeting space, a plaza”.
And the shape and structure of the interior are designed to keep staff connected.
The labs that lie at the heart of the building were designed in close consultation with AstraZeneca’s scientists who, Andy says, have been pleased to see their recommendations become reality.
Among the features they are pleased to see is connected laboratories, which means they do not have to take off and put back on their lab coats when moving between them.
They will be home the to company’s largest centre globally for oncology research, along with scientists focused on respiratory, cardiovascular and metabolic diseases.
“The labs are huge,” says Andy, noting that they will also be home to AstraZeneca’s global biologics arm, MedImmmune, currently housed at Granta Park.
“This will be the only place in the world where we have the large and the small molecule organisations side by side. Modern treatments can require both a biologic and an antibody approach.
“So it’s not just about collaborating externally but also internally.”
And that explains the array of informal and open meeting spaces around the building.
In view of the labs is the outer ring, to be used as write-up space, while the inner ring contains meeting rooms and collaboration areas. Various other areas for staff refreshments will be dotted around the building.
“There are no offices - scary but true,” says Andy. “The global corporate company boardroom is here. We wanted to bring the headquarters of the company to be closer to the science.”
Even CEO Pascal Soriot will hot-desk when in the building - a practice he has already adopted when visiting AstraZeneca’s existing Cambridge sites.
Throughout, glass links staff to each other and the outside.
“We brought a VIP guest recently who had breast cancer and she said she used to look at the building from Addenbrooke’s,” says Andy.
“One of the big motivations for coming here is the hospital. If nothing else, it’s a real reminder. There’s nothing like walking to an A&E department to bring things back to the reality of why we’re doing this.
“The ultimate aim is to bring all the different capabilities from the organisation into one place to let us collaborate together, rather than being separated all over Cambridge, and secondly to let them collaborate with the wider community.”
The location for the building at the heart of Cambridge Biomedical Campus - near to Addenbrooke’s, the new Royal Papworth Hospital and to external collaborators such as the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute and University of Cambridge research institutions - will be invaluable to AstraZeneca when the building opens in 2020.
But it does represent a challenge for the 2,000-plus staff who will be coming on to the site because, of course, they have to get there in the first place.
“We are completely challenging people in their comfort zones,” acknowledges Andy. “Not only are we going to put them in the middle here, working side-by-side with no offices, they’ve got to find ways to get to work that matches the way Cambridge works.”
With no dedicated car parking at the R&D building - a multi-storey is proposed to form part of a new ‘enabling building’ over the road - AstraZeneca is keen to encourage staff to use other methods of transport. Indeed, the planned parking allowance provides access for an average of 25 days parking per member of staff per year.
“Do you want to be sitting in stationary traffic as others cycle past? No, we want you to get on a bike,” says Andy.
“What we can do is make sure they have high quality lockers, and parking spaces and help support the development of cycle paths in the area, which is what we are doing.
“We are really committed to making our staff like Cambridge. They are part of the community and we want them to think as the community.”
The guided bus, meanwhile, will stop right outside the main entrance to the building.
AstraZeneca’s sustainability credentials extend to the construction of the building too.
The high-tech glass panels are designed to reduce ‘solar gain’, while an array of 198 boreholes that plunge 200 metres will bring up residual heat from the ground to warm the building.
An energy and data centre located over the road - and connected by a tunnel that AstraZeneca’s contractors constructed - provides all the heating, power, cooling and data requirements for the building.
Services within the building are carried in easy-to-lift modules beneath the floor, except in the lab spaces, where they lie above.
At the moment, it remains a building site. In August last year, AstraZeneca announced the opening would be delayed until 2020 and that contractor Mace would carry out the scientific fit-out and commissioning, taking over in November from Skanska, which had worked on the construction since 2014.
But with the structure in place and the first labs beginning to take shape, it is clear that the building will be special.
It represents the culmination of AstraZeneca’s 2012 strategy, which sought to change the culture of the company and provoke innovation.
It may also come to represent a new way of doing science in a commercial setting.
New enabling building on campus could house 1,000 staff
AstraZeneca is to apply for planning permission for a new ‘enabling’ building over the road from its gleaming new headquarters and R&D centre on Cambridge Biomedical Campus.
It would house up to 1,000 people - including communications and legal professionals, and some of its scientists - and feature a multi-storey car park and amenities including a creche and gym.
The building would wrap around its existing data and energy centre, which services the new R&D site.
“The Enabling building will have more scientists - the whole of the late-stage organisation will be there,” said Dr Andy Williams, VP, Cambridge strategy and operations.
More by this authorPaul Brackley