PEARL, the Person Environment Activity Research Laboratory, is University College London‘s (UCL) first net-zero carbon in-use building. This new and unique research facility for the creation of full-sized environments will test how people use infrastructure and cities, with the goal of improving urban design, for a more accessible and sustainable future. The highly adaptable research and collaborative workspaces serve as a prototype for new post-Covid ways of working.
“This is the most amazing research facility I’ve ever had the opportunity to visit. A flagship for creative trans-disciplinary research at UCL. Hats off to Professor Nick Tyler for having the vision and the persistence to make Pearl come into existence!” Professor Hugo Spiers, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience UCL, Fellow of the Royal Institute of Navigation
PEARL’s objective is to improve the built environment and the way we interact with it. Life-sized environments, such as a railway station, high street, or a 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.
– Peter Murray OBE FRSA Hon FRIBA, Co-Founder and Curator-in-Chief, New London Architecture
‘A building to house the world!’ Nick Tyler, Chadwick Professor of Engineering and Director of University College London's Centre for Transport Studies
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.
Further technical information can be viewed on UCL’s website.
University College London’s (UCL) 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.
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.
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.
“As an increasing number of organisations set ambitious targets for carbon reduction, we’re excited that PEARL will be UCL’s first net-zero carbon building, helping to set the bar for future developments. This is thanks to a combination of highly efficient building fabric and services, as well as taking advantage of the extensive roof space for solar PV panels.” Ben Stubbs, Senior Sustainability Manager
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. 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).