Built to attract the world’s top researchers, Singapore’s lush and bright CREATE campus is designed to foster the entire innovation process.


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The Campus for Research Excellence and Technological Enterprise (CREATE) is divided into two key sections: the 16-story primary tower housing the dry laboratories, and the three narrow bar buildings to the east housing the wet laboratories. The wealth of greenery is meant to evoke the jungle-like forests of the tropics. Image: Perkins+Will   

Discounting its size and population, Singapore is one of world’s most productive and technologically advanced countries. For years, the small island nation has been emblematic of the growth of research, innovation, and enterprise in South Asia.

Already home to several highly rated research universities, Singapore, in the last decade, has sought opportunities to bolster its capabilities by organizing a truly international research facility, one that would draw leaders in science and engineering and form the heart of an influential and long-lasting research campus.

The Campus for Research Excellence and Technological Enterprise, or CREATE, was conceived about a decade ago. After a six-year process of design and construction, it is now one of Asia’s leading research sites, able to eventually host more than 1,000 researchers investigating anything from micromachines to the future of urban life. Yet, CREATE is more than just a site for international teams to collaborate. The campus, in addition to its sustainability and ecological goals, is ultimately designed to stimulate the commercialization process as much as the innovation process; the National Research Foundation (NRF) has a vested interest in seeing practical, marketable technologies emerge from CREATE’s shiny—and jungle-covered—walls.

For its ambitious aims, and for a project that embodies the best of modern laboratory design, R&D Magazine’s judges have selected CREATE, owned by the National Research Foundation of Singapore and designed by Perkins+Will, San Francisco, as its 2013 Laboratory of the Year.

A transformable laboratory
From the beginning, the CREATE project was intended to attract research talent. NRF officials wanted to host professors, research investigators, and doctoral and postdoctoral researchers as a way to anchor high-level research groups. For example, research centers at CREATE, conducting work on renewable energy or medical technologies, would take advantage of not just the collaborative environment, but also the opportunity provided by a large number of skilled graduate students at the nearby National University of Singapore. In turn, CREATE would strengthen the capabilities and knowledge of the university’s graduates.

“The concept of CREATE is for top research universities to establish their interdisciplinary research centers in one campus,” says Prof. Lui Pao Chen, advisor to the National Research Foundation and the chairman of the CREATE Master Planning and Development Committee.

To help rationalize what could become dozens of different research organizations operating on campus, the types of work are expressed through research “themes”. The five themes are organized as systems, says Lui: human, urban, environment, energy, and “system of systems”. Researchers working in the same theme are encouraged to collaborate with the sharing of common research facilities, conference facilities, and social spaces.

“As laboratories will change with time, the laboratory spaces must be designed for easy and rapid reconfiguration. This is facilitated by having large, column-free spaces and highly modular service elements,” says Lui.

Despite CREATE being NRF’s first major construction project, the agency had a well-established vision of what they wanted to achieve through the facility. They relied on Perkins+Will to help that goal, which is to house a wide variety of different research types in the same type of space, yet foster a collaborative, interdisciplinary work environment.

“The laboratory would be located just across the highway from the main campus. The design was intended so that CREATE could be recognized from anywhere on the campus. People would be able to locate themselves in relation to this building. It was designed to draw people in,” says Rachel Lee, senior associate at Perkins+Will and senior project architect for the CREATE project.

The project was divided by laboratory type. The wet laboratories were to be concentrated east of what would become an expansive, unifying town plaza. As the project took shape, the profile of the buildings became clear: narrow, to allow significant light to stream in. The East Lab buildings, which contain the wet laboratories, are narrow and range from five to seven levels. The lower building height and smaller footprints relieve the ground plane and help permit the flow of natural light and views out onto landscaped gardens in between. The gardens in the town plaza are conceptual transformations of the natural jungle hillside to the east. Looking west from the center of the campus, the 16-story main tower contains dry laboratories and public spaces, and is a composition of three slipped narrow modules sitting above a two-story podium west of the town plaza. The West Tower features large open gardens composed within its central shaft. All told, the buildings encompass more than 68,000 m2.

“The transparent and narrow bar design enables the complex to have this attitude of openness and connection to the nature, people and activities around them. The researchers are very well aware of their dynamic surroundings and are able to find formal and informal gathering spaces close by,” says Lee.

Complicating this mission was the knowledge of how research would be managed at CREATE. Unlike many laboratories, which are built with a dedicated scientific or research mission that could last decades, CREATE represents a new direction in international research destinations. Research groups sign a contract for a five-year term. Some universities will rent the space. Some will have the cost included in the research projects themselves. At the end of this period, the group is evaluated. Depending on the results of criteria, including performance and goal measures, the contract is renewed or terminated. As a result, turnover is expected to be relatively frequent, so Perkins+Will needed to deliver flexibility.

According to Lee, the whole complex was designed using a 3.3-m-by-3.3-m module. The buildings were situated so all the modules are aligned. The wet laboratory buildings, for example, are 16.5-m wide, which equates to about five modules.

Approximately every nine laboratory modules is a mechanical shaft. The spacing between shafts allows the division of modules into 200-m2 sections. A direct access to the mechanical shaft is available in each of these modules so users can tie in fume hoods and other equipment without the need to install additional utility services. Additionally, researchers can connect to any of the main lines to access the cable tray for electrical and networking support.

“This ability to connect to the main line from so many places minimizes the disruption of adjacent spaces,” says Lee.

Each space intended for research functions in the tower, bar buildings, and basement has power, standby power, data, and 100% outside air supply and exhaust ducts from a centralized air conditioning system, heating hot water and condensate drain stubbed into the floor. In addition, the research spaces in the bar buildings and basement have industrial water, pure water, laboratory waste and vent, compressed air, and vacuum lines stubbed into the primary shaft on each floor. This consistency, along with a strict vibration criteria, lends crucial flexibility to the laboratory.

Green spaces, green buildings
A laboratory in a tropical climate consumes a tremendous amount of energy, a challenge that Perkins+Will has seen from working on laboratory projects in the Middle East. In Singapore, an added challenge was the strict limitations on water usage; all potable water in the country is imported from neighboring Malaysia.

As a result, designers equipped the main tower building and adjacent laboratories with a variety of sustainability measures, including high-performance enclosures, durable materials, shared research equipment, innovative water and low-energy HVAC systems, and a reusable plug-and-play kit of parts laboratory casework system.

According to Lui, designers faced a major challenge in fulfilling the need for both air conditioning and airflow in the laboratory spaces. The smart monitoring of demand and matching the demand with supply via sophisticated sensors and computer processors helped CREATE to achieve the highest recognition from the Singapore Building and Construction Authority: the Green Mark Platinum Award.

This award, the first for a scientific facility in Singapore, is comparable to LEED Platinum in the United States, says Lee. A major part of this achievement was saving 66,000-m3 of potable water, or about 90% of what the laboratory might ordinarily use. The team also achieved 9 million kV a year in energy savings.

“Through our studies we were able to prove to our client that using these energy-saving measures paid off so quickly that they made sense,” says Lee. As compared to the United States, which has a far cooler climate, in general, the cost-recovery time in Singapore is quite rapid for these measures, which included the use of chilled beams in all of the laboratories and offices, and placement of wet laboratories in separate energy-efficient, low-rise wings.

Part of the water savings comes from a water treatment facility that reduces dependence on municipal water through the treatment and re-use of rainwater and graywater from showers and lavatories.

Other design elements include glazed windows to reduce solar transmission, sunshades and motorized internal roller blinds to maximize daylight and reduce heat glare, solar panels embedded on the building facade and rooftops, and vertical and rooftop foliage installations to improve ambient cooling.

“The narrow bar building for the wet laboratories is very unusual. We did a sun study to find out how natural light penetrates into the building in this location. With the floor-to-floor height that we had, we discovered that sunlight would penetrate into the building about 9 m,” says Lee. The bar-shaped laboratory buildings are 18 m deep, which meant that 100% natural light into the laboratory spaces was achievable. The opportunity to integrate that level of daylighting into the laboratory buildings was a significant positive factor on the design, according to Lee.

Perkins+Will takes sustainability seriously, and certainly in any new laboratory project a lot of attention is given to the way the environment affects the well-being and productivity of the average researcher. But at CREATE, the designers realized they had to pay extra attention to this aspect of the design.

“Researchers are there for six months at a time for five years. They are traveling across the world and relocating for several months at a time. Many of them were homesick. We wanted to give them a beautiful space to work in, a space that alleviated homesickness,” says Lee.

For this reason, the town plaza concept was extended.

The idea of the town plaza has been implemented in other laboratory design by Perkins+Will, Lee continues; but the plaza at CREATE is extensive, interlocking the three laboratory buildings as well as the main tower.

Collaboration on a grand scale
From the project’s beginning, the future tenants who had committed to the CREATE campus were consulted as the building design took shape. These included Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich).

These partnerships are significant. Established in 2007, the SMART Centre is MIT’s first research center outside of Cambridge, Mass., and its largest international research endeavor. The institute has established five interdisciplinary research groups investigating subjects such as low-energy electronics, biosystems, and infectious diseases.

The other major tenant, the ETH Zurich Singapore-ETH Centre for Global Environmental Sustainability has the focused mission of investigating how cities of the future will operate efficiently and sustainably.

Now, CREATE has 15 active interdisciplinary research centers and ten high-profile research universities from outside Singapore working at the center.