Royal College of Pathologists moves into the modern world

Words:
Pamela Buxton

Pathologists got used to living with well crafted elegance in their Nash-designed HQ, and Bennetts sustains that at its new east London home

Concrete soffits, board-marked concrete, concrete screed floor and waxed steel: it’s a far cry from the Royal College of Pathologists’ former home in Carlton House Terrace.
Concrete soffits, board-marked concrete, concrete screed floor and waxed steel: it’s a far cry from the Royal College of Pathologists’ former home in Carlton House Terrace. Credit: Peter Cook

Members of the Royal College of Pathologists may get something of a surprise when they visit the institution’s new headquarters in the East End of London for the first time. With an interior showcasing exposed board-marked concrete, brick and waxed steel, it’s quite a contrast to the College’s previous Nash-designed Carlton House Terrace home in the West End.

Not that this should be a problem, since the £16.9 million building, designed by Bennetts Associates, is a triumph of well-crafted, contemporary elegance. And in this, the flooring plays an important part, from the polished concrete of the reception through to the extensive use of solid walnut. Both are key components of a pleasing and rich material and colour palette – you’d be hard pushed to find a white surface anywhere.

When the college decided to sell its lease and invest in a new London headquarters, it turned to Bennetts, which had completed several projects at its previous grade I-listed home over the years. The new location was occupied by undistinguished 1980s offices within a terrace close to Aldgate. With low floor-to-ceiling heights and a floor plan riddled with columns, the po-mo building was not suitable for a retrofit. Instead, Bennetts retained the foundations but designed a completely new eight storey building, providing 4,500m2 of accommodation – an increase of one third – with a layer cake of uses including members’ facilities plus learning, events and hospitality accommodation below three floors of office space. At the top, a set back pavilion creates terraces for events as well as housing a modest apartment for overnight accommodation. 

Sustainability was the priority, and for that the building required clear floor spans to adapt to future needs. 

‘A Royal College is a serious organisation so the new headquarters needed a sense of gravitas. But it also had to be contemporary and flexible in order to be suitable for the next 100 years,’ says director Simon Erridge.

Externally, the sober front elevation is, he says, a ‘classical facade in brick’ with the double-height entrance atrium clearly expressed and brick piers reaching the full height of the facade. The rear is less formal, with bays creating shading and angling views over the square.

The site footprint was, at 30m, quite deep in relation to the 20m width. Rather than incorporate a central atrium to funnel light deep into the heart of the building, Bennetts cut into the edges of the plan from either side through the creation of double-height spaces to bring light further into the building. These include the impressive concrete, brick and walnut reception area and a triple height space at the rear of the third floor.

 

  • Steel is softened with timber treads and handrails.
    Steel is softened with timber treads and handrails. Credit: Peter Cook
  • The waxed steel stair is a monumental sculpture within the main volume.
    The waxed steel stair is a monumental sculpture within the main volume. Credit: Peter Cook
  • A simple palette of materials is used throughout: concrete, brick, steel, timber.
    A simple palette of materials is used throughout: concrete, brick, steel, timber. Credit: Peter Cook
  • Softer carpet and timber take the edge off the echoes in the lecture room.
    Softer carpet and timber take the edge off the echoes in the lecture room. Credit: Peter Cook
1234

Visitors step onto a polished concrete screed, made by concrete flooring specialist Lazenby in a light natural standard mix. This is the first taste of a material that is very much the essence of the project. For both the structure and aesthetic of the building is all about the exposed concrete frame. Created in-situ by concrete sub-contractor Oliver Connell & Sons, this has a larch board marked finish that contrasts with the floor and the deeply coffered soffits. 

‘It’s finely-crafted, like joinery,’ says Erridge. ‘It’s all about the concrete. If you don’t get the concrete right, the building won’t work. So we put all our efforts into that and kept the palette simple.’

The exposed soffit was created using fibre glass moulds to give a smooth texture but still with a matt finish. 

The concrete is combined with a double-height brick wall, the upper half in hit-and-miss brickwork with concealed insulation behind to soften the acoustics in such a high space. 

From the reception to the lifts on a line with the first exposed soffits, the flooring changes from concrete screed to engineered walnut in 190mm wide boards supplied by Whiteriver. Walnut is another key material throughout the building, chosen for its rich dark tones by the architects, which also considered oak. 

‘Palette was really important… We experi­mented with different tones to find one that was right to go with everything else,’ says Erridge.

In total, around 500-600m2 of walnut is used up the main, waxed steel staircase, and for circulation and break-out areas, and is carried through in joinery for the ground floor library-like members’ area. And it appears as lift floors and surrounds and tactile hand-rails.

Walnut also forms borders around the perimeter of the main events and hospitality rooms on the first and second floors. In the middle of each room are deep pile 500mm by 500mm Arcade carpet tiles by Desso, specified to be plush and soft. The grey/blue was chosen to tone with the walnut and concrete palette. 
‘It’s neutrally grey, slightly blue. It just sits tonally really well with everything else,’ says Erridge.

The same carpet is used in the members’ room and individual meeting rooms. In contrast, a less plush shorter-pile Merge tile, also by Desso, was specified in the two floors of offices for Royal College of Pathologists staff. This has a variegated neutral tone to break up the expanse of flooring and has an acoustic backing to reduce in-room noise and noise transmission.

In the washrooms, Bennetts specified a Domus Petrology porcelain floor tile in 1195mm by 396mm grey. This is teamed with a close-up images of digital microscopy showing human body cells/diseases on the rear wall of each cubicle,  which make for surprisingly colourful and pleasing images. In the basement commercial kitchen, Altro’s Stronghold Monsoon rubber sheet flooring was used. 

For the college, the new building is an investment in its future – however grand, the previous Nash building may have been, it offered far less flexibility of use. In contrast, as well as column-free spaces throughout, the new headquarters includes an extra office floor that can be either occupied by the College or let out. Improved hospitality facilities offer more scope for income generation from external clients.

The practice is fast becoming something of an expert in Royal College buildings. It completed premises for the Royal College of Ophthalmologists and is working on a new headquarters for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists near London Bridge. 

Credits

Client Royal College of Pathologists
Architect Bennetts Associates
Structural engineer Waterman Group 
Services engineer Troup, Bywaters and Anders
Contractor Gilbert Ash
Project manager CBRE
Cost consultant Equals Consulting
Acoustic consultant Sandy Brown Associates
Lighting consultant Pritchard Themis
Fire consultant The Fire Surgery

 

Latest

This seminar aims to inform specifiers on the key information required for specifying sanitaryware

This seminar aims to inform specifiers on the key information required for specifying sanitaryware

Hand Held to Super Scale: Building with Ceramics looks at a flourishing architectural medium and investigates whether the renewed popularity of brick has helped

Exhibition reveals ceramics’ growing role in architecture

What is it that’s so appealing about these slightly tacky miniature worlds?

Will Wiles finds particular delight in the Table Top Museums

From road signs to café seats, Preston's birthday exhibition permeates the town's Harris Museum

Monumental masterpiece that townspeople took to their hearts