The Future Science Workplace Is Here Today (Part 2)

A Conversation with Professor Philip Withers, Chief Scientist of the Henry Royce Institute

December 9, 2020

Science and Higher Education Director, NBBJ

Editor’s note: From research to discovery, science buildings can be designed to encourage talent attraction, community and future flexibility. In the second of a three-part series, we speak to Professor Philip Withers, Chief Scientist of the Henry Royce Institute to gather insights about what it means for the future science workplace.


NBBJ: What do you consider to be emerging best practices in designing new workplace research facilities of the future?

Philip Withers: Science workplaces need on one hand to bring people together to share ideas and spark new ones, but on the other provide contemplative spaces to enable these ideas to be worked through in detail. They should reflect the aspirations of the company and provide a convergence point bringing together people from industry and academia and to enable serendipitous encounters between those visiting for meetings and those who are permanently resident.

The new science workplace must support the four key activities taking place within:

  • Engage: To draw in visitors and inform them about the science and to provide an informal meeting space/display area.
  • Collaborate: Where people can converge to discuss ideas formally in meeting rooms or in small groups, or perch for a short period to send emails etc., between meetings in the building.
  • Concentrate: To think, concentrate and contemplate – an aspect often overlooked in modern workplace design and critical to scientific discovery and learning.
  • Experiment: Fully serviced with state of the art facilities for cutting edge research with access electronically enabled.

Key to all of these areas is flexibility to adapt to the constantly evolving needs and opportunities for science and research.

NBBJ: Many research facilities are built with flexibility in mind, but how flexible have they proved to be in practice? What flexibility and longer term adaptability strategies need to be rethought, and how do they need to change?

Philip Withers: Scientific challenges of research institutes evolve quickly; indeed the challenges of Covid-19 and the subsequent recovery of our economic base are reminders of the pace at which the UK’s science and engineering challenges can change. Equally, there will be no such thing as a standard day in the life of a research building, with different types of activities, meetings and events taking place simultaneously.

Flexibility, agility and configurability are therefore key to long term strategies and may include placing meeting and engagement spaces at the front of the building to encourage and enable engagement; large windows into laboratory spaces to demonstrate ‘science on show,’ and creating visual connections between research groups to encourage collaboration.

New state of the art equipment will be acquired, groups will grow and move, and exciting, novel activities and interdisciplinary links will be forged. The ‘engine room’ spaces in a research building should be zoned according to different activities (bio, chemical, engineering, etc.) with the appropriate services/environments to accommodate and run different types of complex equipment supplied from the ceiling so they can be reconfigured to meet future needs.

NBBJ: Were there any other sectors — corporate workplaces, commercial development, healthcare, retail, process engineering/production – you looked to for inspiration when briefing a new space?

Philip Withers: Research spaces are often multidisciplinary, so ideas from diverse sectors can be helpful for developing the design brief. For example, large commercial developments may influence the way we incorporate open spaces, such as mezzanine levels with ‘mini atria’ interlinked by open staircases, to facilitate multidisciplinary collaboration between inhabitants on different floors.

At the opposite end of the scale, the way small companies use multipurpose reception spaces inspires ground floor presentation/immersion spaces. Small companies don’t have space for a dedicated large lecture hall to promote their company but we were inspired by a company in Delft which set up an immersive area for presentations and introductions. This is a fantastic way of enabling interactions between the scientists that work in the building and members of the public who are interested in what we do, as well as providing a great space for ‘Café Scientifique’ style meetings.

When designing the laboratory areas of a building, we look to hospitals for the most effective way of segmenting research space according to biological complexity to allow for different levels of work to be done in different areas. Similarly, we learn from process engineering labs that micro-scaling facilities would allow access to have a wider range of processes and more flexibility in the additive manufacturing and 3D printing spaces.

NBBJ: How do you see the development of technology and automation impacting facilities, workplace and general operations? As we move into the era of robotics, how will this define the new workplace and how do we safeguard a human-centric approach?

Philip Withers: In materials science, our field of expertise, there has been a move towards additive manufacturing, reconfigurable manufacturing and Industry 4.0. This looks at how we can use large numbers of sensors and information to increase the efficiency of industrial processes. Merging sensors and digital precision with computation and machine learning will accelerate the development of new materials.

In effect we have tried to build on the concept of the ’96 well plate’ used for high throughput screening to create prototype manufacturing systems which allow us to systematically make, test and characterise large permutations of advanced materials on a small scale.

Quickly iterating materials design through a combination of modelling, experimentation and machine learning will vastly accelerate the development of new materials systems. Further, we’ve been learning from our partners at Liverpool Materials Innovation Factory and Culham Centre for Fusion Energy how robotics can rapidly generate reliable and repeatable research data and handle hazardous materials, enabling scientists to efficiently and safely tackle the complex problems that challenge our society.

NBBJ: How do you see the Covid-19 pandemic affecting your working practices? How do you think the Institute will need to change in the future to support these changes?

Philip Withers: Covid- 19 reminds us how quickly priorities and working practices can change and the importance of the design of research spaces to keep up. Flexible design means we have the option to reconfigure laboratory space to ensure people can work together safely as required.

Here at the Henry Royce Institute, we have core capabilities at partner spokes across the UK and are open to all UK academics and industry. In fact, bringing together separate groups to collaborate is at the heart of what we do. Consequently, we were already practised at connecting numerous people at disparate locations using online meetings and providing remote access to equipment, but certainly the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated this process.

The response to Covid-19 also raises expectations about the degree to which working together in science and engineering can bring about rapid change and accelerate the rate of discovery. This must not be forgotten once the initial concern over infection has eased; rebuilding our economy will need the same adventurous and collaborative spirit.

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Responding to a China on the March

December 8, 2020

Editor’s Note: This piece, written by former Architectural Record editor Clifford Pearson, has been adapted from its original version and is used with permission here.


I’m not a political scientist or an economist or a military expert, but I have covered China as a journalist since the early 1990s and have learned a thing or two about the country by viewing it through the particular lens of architecture. First of all, it is many places with different peoples and languages. Go to the mountains of Sichuan, the river deltas of Guangdong, and the desert landscapes of Gansu and you’ll find an incredible diversity of attitudes, customs, and cuisines. Same as a road trip around America would.

In the nearly three decades since I first visited China, the country has been transformed into a global juggernaut. While this may have surprised many in the West, it is seen in China as a return to its rightful place at the center of the world. There’s a reason why the Chinese think of their country as “the Middle Kingdom” and see the previous two centuries as a brief (for China) period of humiliation at the hands of unscrupulous Western nations.

On my first trip to China in the autumn of 1994, I shook my head at all the new buildings clad in white bathroom tile and fitted with reflective blue glass — materials that seemed “modern” to the locals. When I visited the offices of a major architectural publisher in Beijing I noticed large piles of cabbage on the balconies of an adjacent building. They were the allotments of winter produce that the publishing company gave members of its work unit as part of their housing.

Today, all those blue-glass buildings are either gone or dwarfed by architecturally ambitious structures that grace the pages of magazines like the one I used to work for. Many of the most innovative buildings in the world rise from the streets of Chinese cities. In a few brief decades, China has developed the wealth, sophistication, technological skill, and ambition to build world-class architecture. Driving this boom has been a powerful competitive streak in the Chinese character, not dissimilar to that of America’s.

During this same period, China has also nurtured a generation of talented local architects. Many of them earned graduate degrees in the United States, Britain, and Europe, then returned home to set up their own practices. Because the nation was building so much, these young designers got the opportunity to work on the kind of ambitious projects that their American counterparts could only dream of. Although not well known outside of China, practitioners such as Pei Zhu, Zhang Ke, Xu Tiantian, Liu Jiakun, Neri & Hu, Urbanus, and Atelier Deshaus have been busy creating remarkable architecture around the country. In 2012, Wang Shu became the first Chinese architect to win the Pritzker Prize.

After establishing thriving practices in China, a few of these architects came back to the West to run academic programs, including Yung Ho Chang at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Ma Qingyun at the University of Southern California. (Disclosure: I worked for Mr. Ma at USC, teaching and running the school’s American Academy in China.) One Chinese architect, Ma Yansong, is a rising star both at home and abroad.

So a vibrant back-and-forth exchange is shaping the relationship between China and the United States in terms of architecture. Despite current geopolitical challenges, American architecture firms remain busy in China and Chinese architects are starting to make their mark in the U.S. Thousands of Chinese students are studying architecture at U.S. schools and when they graduate many of them work for American firms doing business in China. In 2018, China had 662,000 students studying abroad, more than any other country, and those in the U.S. accounted for a third of all international students here.

Engaging China has been remarkably rewarding for American architects and the architectural profession in general. According to the American Institute of Architects, China was the biggest market for American architecture firms working internationally in 2017—accounting for 26.8% of gross billings for foreign projects, compared to 19.9% for Western Europe, 11.6% for East Asia and the Pacific, 11.4% for Canada, 7.3% for the Middle East and North Africa, and 6.8% for South America.

While China now has a deep pool of talented native architects, it still relies on large foreign firms to design many of its biggest projects. For example, American architects have designed nine of the 10 tallest buildings in China and Hong Kong, showing how the country’s ambitions have strengthened a collaborative relationship between the two countries. In recent years, the expat community in China has hovered around 600,000 with Americans accounting for the second largest number, behind only South Korea.

As every athlete knows, you play your best when you play against the best. For the past few decades, China has learned from the U.S., while buying our products and providing business opportunities to our companies. “When I moved to China in 2008, all of the Chinese executives I met wanted to know what Bill Gates’ office looked like, what Google was doing,” says NBBJ partner Eric Phillips. “Now these guys are setting standards that American companies need to match.”

While architecture represents a very small piece of the complex relationship between the two countries, it shows how a competitive, two-way process can be productive for both sides. The presence of U.S. architects in China has made Chinese architects better and the flip side of this equation now is pushing American architecture and business forward.

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All Together: Summoning Ideals During a Period of Crisis

November 23, 2020

Principal, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This essay was originally published by Alex Krieger for the Harvard Graduate School of Design here


Optimism in America can be in short supply. A fearsome pandemic has taken an intolerable number of lives, with many more people succumbing daily. Livelihoods are at stake as millions remain out of work, and the economy is suffering. The particularly shocking murder of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of white police officers—and shootings since—have awakened wide-ranging cognizance of persistent racism, a much longer national crisis than the pandemic. And some political leaders shamelessly stoke divisiveness rather than speak out for tolerance and unity.

In truth, national unease was present prior to the arrival of Covid-19. Among a gathering of worries was climate change inaction, growing environmental harm, housing unaffordability, health care insecurities, and accelerating economic and social inequalities. Unlike prior generations—who trusted in a better future for their kids — today’s parents believe that the prospects for their children’s lives seem not as promising as were their own.

Along with optimism, expressions of ideals are in remission. Yet even amidst individual anxieties and the anger of the multitudes, one can sense a desire to reassert certain ideals. Let’s look again to the ones embodied in the opening sentence of the Constitution, “to form a more perfect Union,” and in our oldest motto, e pluribus unum. Would not the desire for equality, well-being, respect and acceptance of others, shared prosperity, valuing those who serve, caring for the environment, and access to health care be embodied in such aspirations? Add happiness, too, as in “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Ah, but you are thinking that such hallowed statements — voiced by the privileged — were not actually intended for all, despite the phrase “All men are created equal.” No, we have never fully met the challenge of America’s lofty aspirations. But should we not continue to try, especially now? That oft-repeated phrase — We are all in this together — heard both in relationship to fighting the pandemic and among the marchers for justice, is not unrelated to an intention to form a more perfect union.

Can we all together transition from marching in protest to overcoming racism and other inequalities? And while we’re at it, can we all insist that fresher air remains over our cities once the pandemic is conquered? Can we collectively distribute less carbon into the atmosphere? Continue to enjoy congestion-free, pedestrian-friendly streets throughout urban America? Keep a healthier balance of work and life? Prolong that respite from incessant travel demands? Continue spending more time with family? Maintain daily walks with a loved one when social distancing mandates abate? Why not commit to keeping those Himalayan peaks visible from broader regions of India? Such shifts have been, pardon the expression, breaths of fresh air, illuminated by a crisis.

Throughout American history, a reconfiguring of society following a crisis often catapulted the nation forward. Shouldn’t today’s interrelated crises do so as well? For inspiration, recall the earliest colonists, finding not the Eden they imagined while sailing to a new world, but confronting a harsh wilderness instead. They persisted to fashion a version of Eden in which to prosper. Against odds, their descendants defeated a mighty empire standing in the way of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Now remember the establishment of a Homestead Act in 1863, enabling any citizen to acquire a quarter-section of America—160 acres—at minimal cost, simply by occupying it and providing minimal improvements. Talk about affordable housing! Or, recall the Morrill Act, also passed in the midst of the Civil War. It required states to establish a public university with the proceeds from the sale of land granted by the federal government. Sixty-nine such land-grant institutions were founded, greatly expanding access to education and the “useful” skills necessary for a modernizing society. Among these were Texas A&M, the University of California, Cornell University, and MIT.

Now consider the determination to overcome distance: Construction of a transcontinental rail system was completed within a couple of decades during the second half of the 19th century. Concurrently, thousands of acres of parks and greenswards were “planted” in rapidly industrializing and increasingly harsh cities, in order to make them more humane for all those arriving from subsistence farms and across oceans. Remarkable environments such as New York’s Central Park and Boston’s Emerald Necklace were the result.

And we haven’t yet gotten to the 20th century, during which America prevailed in two world wars; invented a social security system and Medicare for the elderly; reconnected the country with roads, telephones, and the internet; increased the percentage of families attaining their measure of the American dream; and finally established civil rights in law (if not always in reality). We even landed a person on the moon, and even more remarkably returned him safely to Earth—a catalyst for major public commitment to scientific research in multiple fields.

To summon either aspirations or accomplishments of American culture is not to ignore, much less excuse, the many dystopic aspects of American history: the near total destruction of Indigenous cultures; the horrors of slavery and systemic racism; the conceits of Manifest Destiny and American exceptionalism; the continued corporate and political restraints on economic parity; the despoiling of the environment in the name of progress. Mere voicing of ideals have not led to their attainment. But to live and flourish in company with others — in more perfect union — requires shared ideals.

Summoning ideals during a period of crisis is hardly naive. Re-read John Lewis’s letter written right before his passing, imploring us to pursue “the next chapter of the great American story.” A lifetime of struggle against racism and for civil rights did not lead Lewis to abandon America’s ideals. And back in 1859, at an event in Boston’s Faneuil Hall, scene of revolutionary foment a century earlier, Carl Schurz — senator from Missouri, 13th secretary of the interior, and an immigrant appreciative of his adopted country — spoke to the value of following national ideals. “Ideals are like stars,” he said. “You will not succeed in touching them with your hands, but… you choose them as guides, and following them will enable you to reach your destiny.” Sound advice.

The pandemic will be conquered, vaccines are on the horizon and the economy will gradually rebound. An incoming administration promises to address partisanship and social discord. Many are hopeful for that effort’s success. Still, rather than pining for a return to a prior normal, lets commit, all together, to a destiny that enjoys the necessities of clean air, justice and equality for all.

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