Graphene, a 2-D carbon material, was first isolated in a lab in 2003 by researchers Sir Kostya
Novoselov and Sir Andre Geim at the Univ.
of Manchester. The two went on to receive
the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010. Now
heralded as a “wonder” material for its
superior properties of strength, conductivity,
stiffness and transparency, graphene is sought
for many applications, including electronics,
energy and medicine.
For a “wonder” material this unique, you
need an ideal environment for world-class
graphene research. The National Graphene
Institute (NGI) at the Univ. of Manchester
is a five-story, 85,000-sf Institute dedicated
to graphene research including two large
cleanrooms, modular labs, chemistry labs,
electromagnetic room, furnace rooms, sample
preparation rooms, an optical lab and a laser lab.
Working closely with Sir Kostya Novoselov,
British architects Jestico + Whiles created
an artistic expression to depict the world-class research inside. The architectural team
included CH2M Hill providing technical and
Going into the project, the Univ. of
Manchester knew fairly well what they
wanted for the building. And through
detailed discussions with Novoselov early in
the design process, the team knew roughly
how big each of the two cleanrooms would
be and knew the key to designing a suitable
building relied on its vibration performance
(the two cleanrooms and the optical labs were
the most important working areas).
This knowledge helped the architects to
determine the layout of the building. It was
ultimately decided the main cleanroom,
which is about 17,000 sf, would be located in
the basement level of the NGI. The reason for
this: soil investigation.
“We did some soil investigation in which
we drilled holes into the ground to see the
condition of the earth,” says Tony Ling, lead
architect of the project and Director at Jestico
+ Whiles. “We discovered the top 10 to 12
feet was fill—the soil had been constructed
on before. But below that about 12 feet was
pretty solid rock.”
It was decided early in the design process
to place the main cleanroom at basement level
so the concrete slab would be directly on top
of the bedrock layer. This, in turn, provides a
very stable performance to aid in the research
conducted, as the design standard set for this
cleanroom was vibration curve D (VCD).
“We achieved in some areas, through this
thoughtful planning, vibration curve E (VCE)
in this large cleanroom,” says Ling.
The actual ground floor layout of the
cleanroom is unusual. The cleanroom has
three components: the raised floor area, the
10-ft-high working zone and the ceiling
space. “The ceiling space is another 10-ft
space incorporating the ducts and air inside
which is pushed down into the cleanroom,”
says Ling. “It’s such a large space you could
walk among the mechanical systems.”
Novoselov not only played a strong hand
in determining the cleanroom layout and
location, but he also had a large impact on
the cleanroom design itself. The team decided
upon a bay and chase design where the room
itself is divided into different, small zones
with chases (returning air shafts). Inside these
chases are the distribution of gases, pipes,
pumps and other mechanical devices, but also
a return air plenum for the air driven back up
to the ceiling so it can recirculate throughout
A flexible nature
Graphene is touted as a disruptive
technology expected to contribute to many
applications. However, with graphene
research constantly evolving and developing
and breaking into new directions, the NGI
needed flexibility in its lab environments.
To meet this need the Institute includes two
cleanrooms (the larger 17,000 sf and a smaller
5,000 sf one) and nine or 10 modular labs
about 500 sf each, which can be adapted to
almost any kind of science.
During the early design process, Novoselov
wanted the upstairs labs to reflect an open lab
plan. These labs in total equal about 7,000 sf
and are lined with offices opening to the labs.
This design provides a sense of community
on each of the floors.
The open labs all have standard benching,
standard sinks and standard gases, and
are completely flexible in that they can be
equipped to do most research in any kind
of physics or chemistry lab, and potentially
biology or life science in the future.
A new equation
The building’s façade not only reflects
graphene’s nature, but also its research in a
creative and architectural way.
The building has a lot of windows—they
are present in the office, workplace, lab and
cleanroom areas—but it also has a lot of solid
areas, according to Ling. The solution the
team came up with in the end was to clad the
whole building in a relatively cheap insulated
metal panel, which itself isn’t interesting, but
cover that material with a second layer of skin
which is perforated, like a veil, which wraps
around the whole building.
The veil is made of a black stainless steel
panel. As your eyes travel upward to the
higher part of the building, where there
is more daylight or sunlight, the material
becomes colorless. It acts as a mirror,
reflecting whatever surrounds it.
This façade material is symbolic, because
it’s very thin and black, just like graphene.
Subtly embedded into the façade itself
are the equations actually used in graphene
research. The equations are made just using
the perforations (holes) in the metal.
The National Graphene Institute’s design reflects the research within.
The National Graphene Institute’s exterior.
Image: Jestico + Whiles Architects