Diamond Schmitt’s towering achievement

The Peter Gilgan Centre for Research and Learning opened yesterday at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) in Toronto, bringing under one roof 2,000 researchers, trainees and staff previously dispersed throughout six buildings. At 778,000 square feet (72,354 square metres), the 21-storey laboratory designed by Diamond Schmitt Architects with HDR Architecture (see below)  is believed to be the largest child health research tower in the world and among the largest laboratories in the high-rise form.

Situated on a dense urban site, the building will serve as a centre of excellence for SickKids to further its commitment to advancing paediatric research. “With state-of-the-art laboratories, learning facilities and multi-level interactive spaces, the entire building is designed to enhance collaboration and interaction,” says Donald Schmitt, principal, with the design firm.

Six thematic research neighbourhoods each have open two- and three-storey collaborative spaces connected by stairs. These working lounges have kitchenettes, white boards, soft furnishing and incomparable views of the city through glazing with high transparency. These innovative and dramatically arranged spaces provide gathering points where scientists, clinicians and students can share information and fuel innovation. The curvilinear form of the stacked bay windows differentiates these spaces as a defining feature of the facade and the curvilinear form continues inside to create a dynamic hub space.

Working closely with the hospital, the architects sought to demystify the role of medical research by bringing it to street level. Conference and education facilities populate a learning concourse on the ground floor through level three. Teleconferencing and distance learning technologies allow for information exchange around the world facilitated in a 250-seat auditorium.

To further overcome the constraints of a tall building silo culture, the 17 floors of labs are open and flexible for reconfiguration, where modular mobile benching converts from web lab to dry lab as research demand requires. “This accommodates scientists and researchers from different disciplines to interact and who normally wouldn’t rub shoulders,” says Dr. Janet Rossant, Sick Kids’ chief of research. “Not only will cell biologists, computer scientists and geneticists work side by side in the labs, researchers will also meet over coffee in the neighbourhoods’ open, light-filled atriums. Those spontaneous meetings present incredible opportunities to share information and promote new discoveries in children’s health.”

An abundance of natural daylight is just one element that puts this “green” facility on track for LEED Gold certification for sustainable design. Fully 80 per cent of the tower’s high-performance glazed enclosure is covered in a horizontal graduated ceramic frit for thermal control that maximizes daylight harvesting. Natural light penetrates to over 90 per cent of the program areas and most of the labs enjoy two aspects of light (i.e., windows facing both north and east, or south and west).

The colour patterning of the building’s glass panels creates a mosaic design that contrasts the clarity of the vision glass in the bay windows and the three-storey learning concourse. “These visual elements enhance the Gilgan Centre’s identity, projecting a beacon of distinct colour and luminosity that reinforces the Hospital’s role in the city and on the city skyline,” adds Schmitt.

The Gilgan Centre takes a whole-building approach to sustainable design in five key areas of human and environmental health: • sustainable site development with 75 per cent waste diverted from landfills; • water efficiency produces a 50 per cent reduction in water use; • energy efficiency measures will bring a 38 per cent reduction in energy use; • materials selection with 22.5 per cent recycled content for new construction materials; • improved indoor environmental quality from low VOC-emitting products.

The Peter Gilgan Centre for Research and Learning is connected to the hospital by pedestrian bridge. It forms the eastern gateway to Toronto’s Discovery District of health care and biomedical research. Funding and support for $400-million project was provided by the Canada Foundation for Innovation, three levels of government, and a $200 million fundraising campaign with a lead donation of $40 million from Peter Gilgan.

Project Team: OWNER: The Hospital for Sick Children; ARCHITECT: Diamond Schmitt Architects Inc.; CONSTRUCTION CONTRACTOR EllisDon Corporation; MECHANICAL ENGINEER: HH Angus and Associates Ltd.; ELECTRICAL ENGINEER: HH Angus and Associates Ltd.; CIVIL ENGINEER: MMM Group Ltd.; LEED CONSULTANT: CDML Consulting Ltd.; BUILDING SCIENCES PROFESSIONAL: Halcrow Yolles Partnership Inc.; LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT: du Toit Allsopp Hillier; ENERGY ENGINEER: Integral Group; COMMISSIONING AUTHORITY: Stantec Consulting Ltd.


Diamond Schmitt Architects (dsai.ca) is based in Toronto with a practice that is worldwide. The firm has extensive experience in laboratory and healthcare facility design in addition to academic, commercial, residential and cultural commissions. Recent projects include the New Mariinsky Theatre opera house in St. Petersburg, Russia, opened in 2013. Current projects include Public Health Ontario Clinical and Research labs at MaRS Phase II in Toronto, the Global Innovation Centre at Wilfrid Laurier University, a Master Plan for The Hospital for Sick Children and the transformation of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.


HDR Architecture provided laboratory planning and design services for the new tower; the laboratory spaces make up approximately 70 per cent of the building. HDR also provided equipment planning, security, and interior design services. 

Inside the $400 million tower, more than 2,000 scientists and staff – previously scattered in six different locations – are conducting state-of-the-art research in disciplines ranging from genetics and brain sciences to genome biology, neurosciences and children’s mental health.

“This is a unique facility in that it integrates many different research types – vivarium, fish, imaging, biology, chemistry, robotics, etc. – within the building,” says Clare Swanson, principal laboratory planner with HDR. “We’ll often design research buildings to include one of these research types, but the sheer volume of labs and the differentiation in research within this building is impressive.”

The tower includes 16 floors of laboratory space with the main research being focused on genomics, cancer research, stem cell research, brain behavior research and organ research. The entire building was designed to enhance collaboration and is divided into six research neighborhoods connected through staircases and shared spaces. In these research neighborhoods, scientists from a variety of disciplines are working side-by-side to accelerate improvements in child health outcomes.

“The goal was to create synergies across diverse disciplines in an effort to create new knowledge and discoveries,” addsSwanson. “In traditional science buildings, departments are often separated into silos where they each independently conduct research. In this tower, the silos are dissolved as researchers are encouraged to work together to ‘cross pollinate’ and generate innovative health solutions.”

The large laboratories are completely flexible, enabling researchers to move work benches if they choose to work in an open area. Laboratory spaces are also clustered around important shared core facilities housing equipment, further encouraging researchers to work together while reducing duplicate equipment. To put the scale of the laboratories into perspective, it has been calculated that the building houses more than three miles of laboratory bench top.