How one team overcame design and construction challenges to create a cutting edge research facility

Earlier this year we spoke with Dr Ian Garthwaite, Laboratory Services Manager – Research at The Charles Perkins Centre, about the design and technological elements that make Sydney University’s $385 million purpose-built research facility ‘world-class.’

In the interview, Ian revealed a change to the procurement method from a traditional to a design and construct methodology, meant the facility had to be designed and documented as it was being built via a fast-track process.

This not only bought about a unique set of challenges for architecture practice FJMT (in association with Building Studio) and the contractor Brookfield Multiplex, but it also meant the client and project team had to work very closely together to ensure the vision of creating a leading research facility was delivered.

In order to uncover the specific strategies the project team used to overcome major design and build challenges to deliver a leading research facility, we asked Matthew Todd, Principal at Hassell (formally a Principal at FJMT) to shed some light on his experience in designing and buikding the Charles Perkins Centre…

Project objectives: meeting the client brief

The main objective of the research component of the project was to  facilitate cross-disciplinary interaction between various groups within the university. That was  the over-arching goal of the brief.  We had to meet and deliver that vision to the  University of Sydney.

This is a unique project in the sense that it originated from a traditional design and documentation process undertaken by Hassell. However, following the University’s appointment of the contractor Brookfield Multiplex (BMPX), an alternate fast-track D&C procurement methodology was pursued to ensure the project was delivered on time and budget. FJMT (in association with Building Studio) was the architect on BMPX’s team.

The core of the BMPX alternate proposal was an entire building redesign. There was already a lot of great work done by Hassell on the earlier version of the building, and we came along and re-examined the brief. We had a six month window before BMPX started construction. We had to go back to the basics of the brief and run a huge number of meetings and workshops to ensure we were all on the same page and that the vision of our client would be met with a new building design. These meetings needed to be time efficient yet effective because as the facility was being designed, it was being built.

The 50,000 square metre project was designed, documented and constructed in two years – a testament to the skills and commitment of the entire project team.

The importance of stakeholder engagement

It goes without saying that collaboration and engagement with stakeholders is critical to the success of any large scale project. Regular meetings, workshops and presentations all played an important role in engaging everyone involved.

But from a design perspective, our other strategy was full-scale and extensive prototyping. This is something that doesn’t always happen as much as it should, but it’s a really important process which enables the user to physically see and interact with the full-scale vision.

We created a variety of prototypes in an offsite location that included a portion of the research lab module, workplace (an office, workstations, hot desks) and informal meeting area.  Users were invited to visit and provide feedback on the prototypes.


Charles Perkins Centre Exterior

It was a great process which resulted in numerous refinements as we fine-tuned the design, details, materials and finishes based on direct feedback of the prototypes.. This iterative process was

especially critical due to the PC2 certification sought for the research labs as the little details are really important!

Key elements of design

In relation to the research components of the building, the key design elements were driven by a desire for clarity and legibility of the building for occupants. Despite the scale, this was achieved by a deliberately straight-forward layout of the research labs, workplaces and informal meeting and interaction spaces all surrounding a distinctive atrium.

As the symbolic heart of the building, the top-lit atrium gathers all the primary circulation elements (stairs, lifts) and interaction spaces to capture the energy of the occupants and facilitate informal meetings between different groups. The design of the varying curved atrium edge and locations of vertical circulation enables clear views between, and across, the floors right into the research laboratories.



On another level, our flexible and modular approach to the research laboratory design was fundamental to the design. Loose, yet modular, lab benches and mobile under bench cabinets are inherently reconfigurable by occupants – essential if the spaces are to react to the specific research requirements of each group. Likewise, services spines suspended from the ceiling are able to accommodate increased power, data and gas supply densities as needs arise.

Design challenges

There were a series of challenges affecting the design that we faced during the project, which were often interrelated. The construction timetable was a challenge – due to the fast-track process it was difficult to know when and how packages were being procured as changes were frequent.

Because of the proximity of the facility to St Johns College and the age of the campus itself, heritage was another key challenge. We had to ensure that the design of the Charles Perkins Centre integrated well with the surrounding buildings and campus.

Due to our programme milestones, we needed planning approval within a short timeframe to enable construction to continue.  We managed to do so through proactive engagement and staging of the planning submissions with the City of Sydney and the Department of Planning and Infrastructure.

Another challenge was the integration of technology. Technology, in particular audio visual, is constantly changing from the time you commence a project to when it is installed on site. So it was important for us to be able to get the latest and greatest technology into the facility, particularly for the 240 person teaching lab, known as the X-lab, which was a key to the success of the spaces.

Lessons Learned

There are always a lot of lessons from projects of this nature and scale but the main takeaway for me would be to ensure genuine collaboration between all parties involved. I’ve worked on a number of projects over the last 20 odd years and it has reinforced the fact that if everyone is together on the same page, you will deliver better outcomes.

Often there are problems when expectations within the team are quite different. That is when friction occurs. So it’s important to ensure you’re openly collaborating with each other at all stages of the project.

Another lesson we learnt is that starting with a thorough client brief is key to success. The clarity of the brief (prepared by Liz Partridge) helped us to ensure that expectations were aligned and that we delivered what the client was seeking.

Forecasting for the future

Matthew: Over time things always change in university buildings, but particularly in research labs. Obviously there are different research groups that come and go, and they need to be able to expand and contract depending on their size and the nature of the space.

The university did all the background work to understand the users’ needs and how they might change in the future. They then briefed us quite extensively and on the probable requirements for future allowances to services and spaces.

Charles Perkins Centre Day One of teaching 6 February 2014

Research and teaching spaces enhanced by technology

This was a really important process in terms of forecasting what space allocations we would need to make and helped us to future proof, particularly for new or additional services. It was a similar case with the technology. To anticipate and accommodate future change we designed flexible mobile benching and made allowances for the occupants to be able to insert new fume cupboards in the building for example.

But probably the most important tool for future proofing was taking the brief from the client and then translating that into a BIM model. The integration and power of BIM is really useful not only in terms of design, coordination and construction of research facilities but for facility management in the future.

Matthew Todd and Dr Ian Garthwaite and will be further exploring the lessons learned from the highly collaborative environment designed and fostered at the Charles Perkins Centre at Research Facilities Design and Development 2015.

For more information download the brochure here or visit 


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