Behind the scenes of a state of the art Research Facility: The University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre

As the higher education sector becomes more competitive, many universities are recognising the importance of developing state of the art research facilities in order to attract more sponsorship and revenue.

While many universities are aware of the benefits research facilities can provide to the bottom line, many are still unsure about the latest lab design features and technology needed to support world-class research facility development.

So what strategies and tools are actually needed to design, construct, operate and maintain a topnotch research facility?

Ahead of Research Facilities Design and Development 2015, Dr Ian Garthwaite, Laboratory Services Manager – Research at The Charles Perkins Centre, provides an inside look into the $385 million purpose-built research facility the Charles Perkins Centre at Sydney University and the strategy behind the design, construction and development of the 900 person laboratory.

Tell us a little about the Charles Perkins Centre…

Ian: The Charles Perkins Centre is just on a year old now and it’s something the university created to change the way that it works. Instead of setting up a research facility with multiple silos, the university decided to set up one common laboratory to answer real world problems by incorporating lots of different faculties into the building.

Inside the Charles Perkins Centre

The building is home to seven open-plan 80-person laboratories which host eight to 10 research groups, sharing equipment and support rooms.

State-of-the-art laboratories and support rooms contain co-located specialist equipment and each lab has an adjacent external write-up space including open-plan desks for research and technical staff and hot-desking for up to 36 higher degree research students and visiting collaborators.

What were the main objectives of the design and development of the Charles Perkins Centre? How did you communicate these objectives to the project team (architects)?

Ian: The main objective was to facilitate collaboration. That’s the one key outcome we want to see from this building. It’s very much talking to people and producing strategic ways that they can interact.

What steps did you take to ensure the design of the laboratory supports new technology and instruments that are entering the market? Why is this so important?

Ian: The main thing was to make sure the labs are flexible and are able to be reconfigured according to what’s available and necessary. We had to ensure we had infrastructure to allow us to support new technologies.  For example, making sure we’ve got the power requirements for the labs, making sure that we were able to be flexible with the air conditioning and to add additional ducting work to get fumes out of the spaces.

How are you ensuring your facility complies with safety requirements and regulations?

Ian: The team running the laboratory is well versed with the Australian standards, and we engaged a number of consultants in the process to work through those standards. It’s important to make sure that you employ people who are very up there with the standards and with compliance requirements.

What key elements did you incorporate into the design of the Charles Perkins Centre to create an energy-efficient and sustainability laboratory? How has this reduced operational cost?

Ian: One of the things we incorporated in the design, was the use of water cooled -80 freezers, which  in itself brings along its own challenges which is something to think about and discuss at conferences such as Research Facilities Design and Development 2015. There were also a number of lighting requirements for the building. Also, the air that comes into the building is actually chilled through a labyrinth before it’s brought into the air conditioning duct and used to work for the building. So tempering the air using ground tunnels is quite a good use of the design.

From the outside

What are the major lessons learnt from the project so far? If you could go back, would you do anything differently?

Ian: There’s always something to learn in projects like this one.  I was involved in a process for designing some labs elsewhere and we’ve taken some learning’s from this lab into the design for that space. Simple things like being ahead of the standards and looking at hands-free hand wash facilities, dispensers for the gels that you use there. Those are changes that have come into the legislation since the building was originally designed. Trying to second guess those and incorporate some of those activities can be a challenge.

The thing I’d look at changing is looking at the back-up power or the emergency power resources that you have in the building and looking at how you support those. It’s important to have very good input from your end users on storage space and what’s necessary. There the two things I would probably look for in designing labs for the future.

Since the opening of the new research facility, what research outcomes have been realised so far?

Ian: The interaction spaces are probably the area where this building is leading the way in terms of research design. When we bring people round from other institutions, it’s certainly an area which impresses people – other institutions don’t have these types of collaborative spaces.  The ability to interact, the ability to facilitate that interaction, is one of the key things that this building has.

Another thing is it’s really important to get your AV right and making sure that within that AV, you have a solution that you can connect to a website – whether it’s a Mac or a PC or and android device, whatever you’re using, making sure that you can actually show what you want onto a big screen and share it. Then being able to update that infrastructure in terms of new version of the software – so even if you’re video conferencing via Skype, making sure that you’re updating all the time is one of the key lessons.

Interested in learning more?

We also interviewed Ian at the Charles Perkins Centre – you can watch it here

Ian is also leading a site-visit at the Charles Perkins Centre as part of Research Facilities Design and Development 2015. to find out more call +61 2 9229 1000 or email


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s