Press Releases 02.24.2022

Penoyre & Prasad complete first-of-its-kind research lab to simulate the urban environment

“A building to house the world!”
Professor Nick Tyler, Chadwick Professor of Engineering and Director of UCL Centre for Transport Studies

London-based architecture practice Penoyre & Prasad, a studio of Perkins&Will, has completed University College of London’s (UCL) unique research laboratory, PEARL. The research centre’s goal is to improve the built environment and the way we interact with it. Life-sized environments—a railway station, high street, town square for example—will be built under controlled conditions to examine how people of all abilities interact with their urban environment and each other.

This highly collaborative project—bringing together engineers, architects, biologists, social scientists, neurologists, artists and public—is leading the way in designing for a more complex, integrated understanding of ourselves and our interactions with our environment.

The versatile laboratory where environments will be built under controlled conditions to examine how people interact with their urban environment and each other.

With a floor area totalling around 4,000m2, a volume of 44,000m3, and ten metres high, the laboratory space has been designed and engineered with 40m clear structural spans to house hugely varied research experiments. Also equipped with indoor ambient environments and sound systems, the laboratory can test the impact of environmental conditions, such as space, colour, lighting, smell, visibility, appearance, touch and sound on people’s behaviour and perception— bringing experiment conditions as close to real-life scenarios as possible. The laboratory interior is black, and the background sound level and reverberation are very low—core aspects of the building’s design— intended to remove people’s sense of ‘being in a building’.

A series of gridded rigs, made from theatre-style trusses, are suspended from the primary steel structure, accommodating specialist lighting, speakers, other equipment props and cameras and sensors.

UCL’s Centre for Transport Studies, part of the Department for Civil, Environmental & Geomatic Engineering (CEGE) will use the rich data from this research for the design of real urban systems.

The versatile laboratory where environments will be built under controlled conditions to examine how people interact with their urban environment and each other.

To the north-west corner of the main space is the ‘Groove’, a free-standing two-storey cross-laminated timber structure that houses the public entrance, community-facing facilities, workshops and highly flexible academic workspaces.

Directly connected to the lab space is a workshop and maker space facility for small scale testing, prototyping and manufacturing of experiment equipment, and a sound preparation studio where the soundscapes for experiments can be researched and created.

The welcome space is the main point of arrival for visitors and leads to the ground floor laboratory space, and up to the ‘Groove’.
The ‘Groove’ – the highly adaptable, collaborative academic workspaces on the first floor.
Patterns in the corten steel fins are derived from crowd flow analysis and the murmurations of Starlings.

Externally, the building’s form and materials relate to the site’s industrial architectural heritage; crisp detailing and weathered steel provide a contemporary twist.  The scalloped west facade references the roof form of its Grade II Listed neighbour, one of the first examples of shell concrete structure in the UK.  9m high, rusted steel panels gradually fan out across the frontage, providing shading to the Groove and signalling the entrance to PEARL.

Perforations in the steel mediate the scale and bring a sense of movement to the façade.  Repetitive patterns can cause distressing visual noise for people with sensory or neurological conditions. Working with Professor Nick Tyler and his team we looked to natural, non-linear imagery—people flow and crowd movement—both of which are key areas of research inside the building. The three-dimensional and abstract nature of the perforations also represent the flow of individual and collaborative ideas that swirl together and continue into the building to inspire the research that turns these ideas into innovations for the design of the future environments.

The scalloped, rusted steel west façade announces the facility from afar and signals the entrance.
Early concept sketch

A triangular forecourt to the south-west of the building will locate some of PEARL’s larger experiments, including the use of tube/train carriages, and a decommissioned aircraft fuselage which is due to arrive in 2022. The aircraft will be connected to high-level openings in the facade via two-jet bridges, animating the building’s external appearance and helping to create a real sense of identity for the facility.

As UCL’s first net-zero carbon in-use building, PEARL demonstrates the university’s strategic commitment to lead by example and operate in a sustainable way. Pearl has achieved BREEAM Outstanding—the first finished building ever to achieve an Outstanding rating under the new BREEAM standards.

The building is projected to be carbon negative thanks to its highly efficient fabric, services and the production of its own energy from a vast array of photovoltaics covering the entire roof. Built for deconstruction and the circular economy, the design maximises the use of recycled and recyclable materials, whilst minimising waste from site through off-site prefabrication and cut and fill site preparation.

Located in Dagenham, PEARL sits beside several other regeneration projects in the wider area. It aims to be a hub for the local community and is already working closely with multiple schools and colleges across the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham.

PEARL is one of the core national public service laboratories in the UK government’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)-funded UK Collaboratorium for Research on Infrastructure and Cities (UKCRIC).

Ian Goodfellow, Principal, Penoyre & Prasad, said: “This has been an incredibly exciting project to work on, not only because of the ground-breaking academic and environmental vision, but also the opportunity to design a building which is itself an integral part of the innovation ecosystem.’

Neil Turvey, UCL Estates Development Assistant Director said: “This new research centre, expertly designed by Penoyre & Prasad and the team, consolidates UCL’s place at the forefront of environmental research into infrastructure and cities.  Exceptional teamwork from concept to completion has delivered this exemplar carbon-neutral facility safely throughout Covid, on time and to budget, adding to the portfolio of Estates Development projects we have delivered achieving outstanding sustainability credentials.”

Professor Nick Tyler, Director of the Centre for Transport Studies, UCL CEGE, said: “We all have a responsibility to take action on climate change. With PEARL we had a chance to make choices that could really make a difference, so the design of the building and its operations had to enable us to do all our research and education activities and to do this in a way that is beneficial to the environment.

 “We are very proud that this has led to UCL’s first carbon-negative building. Achieving net-zero carbon in-use and A+ energy efficiency is great for the planet and pretty cool for UCL. Having this at the heart of all our decision-making from the outset has enabled this outcome.”