Lab of the future now open in Toronto

Research scientists know what they want; their laboratory facilities must be set up “just so” to do their work properly. Often, however, they don’t know what “just so” is until they start working and by then, the lab has already been configured. Changes are expensive and can force down time stretching into days, weeks, or even months.

University Health Network (UHN), a network of three teaching and research hospitals clustered in downtown Toronto, took that into account when it announced plans to occupy nine floors of the Toronto Medical Discovery Tower in the innovative MaRS Centre.

MaRS takes a unique approach by positioning itself as a self-supporting, leading-edge convergence innovation centre that clusters top researchers alongside technology-based companies and others who are involved in the commercialization of discoveries made by researchers. Adjacent to UHN and other hospitals, MaRS is just steps from the University of Toronto, and a stone’s throw from the financial district.

At the heart of MaRS is something that could give scientists the “just so” they need to make all those world-class discoveries happen. The result is the new $100-million Toronto Medical Discovery Tower, which opened to tenants last fall.

The 15-storey tower boasts 400,000 square feet of lab and office space. And the big draw for tenants is lab space that researchers can configure and reconfigure themselves in as little as two or three hours without having to tear anything down or bring in construction help. The result? Almost no down time and maximum low-cost flexibility; the researcher sets it up just the way he or she wants.

General contractor Ellis Don erected the tower’s 15-storey shell while Black & MacDonald took the lead on facilities management planning, AMEC subsequently won the contract to design and erect the laboratory space in what the construction industry has dubbed the biggest tenant fit-up of its kind in recent Canadian history. A joint venture – ABE – was formed consisting of AMEC, Black & McDonald and EllisDon ensuring the project was delivered on-time and on-budget.

At the heart of the interior design is the Flexilab system, the result of AMEC’s vast experience building hospital and other bio-medical facilities around the world. Flexilab features ceiling-mounted outlets across the entire building for laboratory gases, water, computer networks, and power. Researchers use quick-connect hoses – no tools required – to safely hook up services to their benches. They can place those benches, which come in modular and glider-mounted mobile varieties, anywhere in the open-plan facility. This allows a research project to grow from one bench to dozens as needs expand. And it works just as smoothly in the opposite direction, allowing for the easy downsizing of projects that have reached completion.

The design was conceived to take into account the way researchers work; they can’t always know initially where their work will take them, which means they often can’t know until well into a project how much they need in terms of space, people, facilities and equipment. Flexilab allows them to alter their facilities painlessly and as often as they need.

The tower’s labs currently house, or will soon house, some of Toronto’s most advanced programs in genomics, proteomics, integrative biology, infectious disease, image-guided therapy, structural biology, regenerative medicine, stem-cell research and drug discovery.

Researchers can draw on two 800-mHz nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometers, used in identifying the structure of proteins. Each of the devices weighs 10,000 kg installed onto the third floor by crane in a unique feat of engineering that combined brute force with delicate maneuvering. The tower also boasts one of Toronto’s first Class 1000 clean rooms, offering the pure atmosphere required for research applications involving nanotechnology, bio-micro electromechanical systems (Bio-Mems), microfluidics, and lab-on-a-chip.

Tenants include The Hospital for Sick Children, which leases five floors of the Discovery Tower for its research work along with some of the UHN’s own key research programs. Other tenants within the MaRS complex include GlaxoSmithKline, Heenan Blaikie LLP, NPS Pharmaceuticals and RBC Technology Ventures.

The tower, along with two other buildings at the site on College St. and University Ave., constitutes Phase 1 of the MaRS Centre and boasts a total of 700,000 square feet. Within the next few years, MaRS will open Phase 2, adding another 1,000,000 square feet of space. Total capital cost of the complex will be about $450 million. Financing has thus far come from a bond issue and government grants.

The Toronto Medical Discovery Tower will serve as a world-class example of cutting-edge research technology for years.