Norman Foster’s timber-framed Maggie’s Center opens in his home town of Manchester



Materials palette combines warm, natural wood and tactile surfaces to help create a therapeutic sanctuary

The new Maggie’s Cancer Center in the grounds of The Christie Hospital in Manchester was opened earlier this year by HRH The Duchess of Cornwall – the president of Maggie’s. During her tour of the building, Her Royal Highness was introduced to the rationale behind the design by Lord Foster, who was born and raised in Manchester and is a cancer survivor. The new center will further the charity’s aim to provide free practical, emotional and social support to cancer patients across the UK.

Located across Britain and abroad, Maggie’s Centers are conceived to provide a welcoming ‘home away from home’ – a place of refuge where people affected by cancer can find emotional and practical support. Inspired by the blueprint for a new type of care set out by Maggie Keswick Jencks, they place great value upon the power of architecture to lift the spirits and help in the process of therapy.

Like the 18 Maggie’s Centers already established in the UK – designed by architects including Snøhetta, OMA and Richard Rogers – it offers a non-clinical environment where anyone affected by cancer can stop by for advice or support. The design of the Manchester
 center aims to establish a domestic atmosphere in a garden setting and, appropriately, is first glimpsed at the end of a tree-lined street, a short walk from The Christie Hospital and its leading oncology unit.

The building occupies a sunny site and is arranged over a single storey, keeping its profile low and reflecting the residential scale of the surrounding streets. The roof rises in the center to create a mezzanine level, naturally illuminated by triangular roof lights and it is supported by lightweight timber lattice beams. The beams act as natural partitions between different internal areas, visually dissolving the architecture into the surrounding gardens.

The center combines a variety of spaces, from intimate private niches to a library, exercise rooms and places to gather and share a cup of tea. The heart of the building is the kitchen, which is centered on a large, communal table. Institutional references, such as corridors and hospital signs have been banished in favour of home-like spaces. To that end the materials palette combines warm, natural wood and tactile surfaces.

Lord Foster, Chairman and Founder of Foster + Partners, said: “I have first-hand experience of
the distress of a cancer diagnosis and understand how important Maggie’s Centers are as a retreat offering information, sanctuary and support. Our aim in Manchester, the city of my youth, was to create a building that is welcoming, friendly and without any of the institutional references of a hospital or health center – a light-filled, homely space where people can gather, talk or simply reflect.”

Throughout the center, there is a focus on natural light, greenery and garden views. The rectilinear plan is punctuated by landscaped courtyards and the entire western elevation extends into a wide veranda, which is sheltered from the rain by the deep overhang of the roof. Sliding glass doors open the building up to a garden setting created by Dan Pearson Studio. Each treatment and counselling room on the eastern façade faces its own private garden.

The south end of the building, extends to embrace a greenhouse 
- a celebration of light & nature – which provides a garden retreat,
a space for people to gather, to 
work with their hands and enjoy 
the therapeutic qualities of nature and the outdoors. It will be a space to grow flowers and other produce that can be used at the center giving the patients a sense of purpose at 
a time when they may feel at their most vulnerable.

“That is why throughout the building there is a focus on natural light, greenery and views; with
 a greenhouse to provide fresh flowers, and an emphasis on the therapeutic qualities of nature and the outdoors. The timber frame, helps to connect the building with the surrounding greenery – externally, this structure will be partially planted with vines, making the architecture appear to dissolve into the gardens,” adds Foster.

The center, designed and engineered by Foster + Partners, also features bespoke furniture designed by Norman Foster and Mike Holland who heads out the industrial design team in the practice. These include kitchen units and table, sideboards and other shelving units. Other details also reinforce the homely aesthetic. Walls are painted white and decorated with framed artworks, and one of the seating areas is arranged around a wood-burning stove. In addition, tiles cover the floors inside the building, and also extend out to a generous west-facing veranda, sheltered from the rain by the overhang of the roof.

The newly built structure to house the largest Maggie’s Centre in the United Kingdom to date is a single-storey structure covering an area of around 500m2 over the site. The architectural expression is defined by the structure, making the close collaboration between the architects and the structural engineers a critical part of the design process.

The building comprises 17 symmetrical frames on a 3-meter grid, with a central ‘spine’ defining the line of symmetry. The building’s services and a small office zone are housed in this centralized horizontal core on the mezzanine deck. The remainder of the building is a combination of open, public spaces on the west side and more private cellular spaces on the east, created by non-loadbearing partition walls.

Functionally, the building is laid out to provide accessible open spaces along either side of a central zone, which contains administrative and service spaces. This spatial arrangement naturally led to a structural system where the primary support springs from a central spine, with a cantilevered roof over the spaces on either side. Further support is provided by slender columns just beyond each façade, making the entire structural system more efficient. These elements significantly reduce the bending moment in the overhead span, and remove the need for a deflection head at the top of the glass in the roof lights.

Timber was chosen as the primary building material for its aesthetic and structural properties, as well as cost and carbon efficiency. The timber beams are designed as trusses that reflect the magnitude and orientation 
of the loads acting on them – any portion that is superfluous to
 the structural support has been removed. The chosen structural material was Laminated Veneer Lumber, specifically Kerto®, due to its enhanced strength and stiffness when compared with ordinary timber.

The truss construction is composed of two sheets of Kerto-Q® with the main grain orientation aligned in the direction of the most severely loaded elements. These were milled using a CNC machine directly from a 3D model generated in Rhino during the design process. The two glued sheets were then complemented by two sections of Kerto-S® solid sections glued on either side to form the flanges.

An analysis of the stresses
 due to wind load (sideways) and snow and dead load (vertically) indicated where the timber could be optimized. The beams thus have a top and bottom flange,
and diagonals through the web that densify as the shear force increases along the section. The trusses taper as the bending forces reduce, towards to the cantilever tip, through the column to the pin connection at the ground, and at the central node above the spine.

The diagonal arrangement of
 the trusses in plan across the spine enable the structure to provide stability to the roof without the need for any additional bracing elements or stiffeners. The roof acts as a single diaphragm transferring the wind loads into the trusses, which provide rigidity as a portal frame across the building. Along the length of the building, the diagonal trusses deliver load into the spine. In this way, the structure of the building directly reflects the forces that it resists.

“The design development that went into the creation of the beautiful structure with timber specialist Blumer-Lehmann was quite incredible. This light and airy pavilion building will be nothing if not welcoming. The interior and exterior come together in a glass house in which numerous scented plants surround a central table at which our center users can gather 
to experience and enjoy this natural environment. Natural light pervades the whole building and warms the interior palette of natural wood, stone floors and woven rugs. Foster + Partners has created for us a truly remarkable building that perfectly complements our many programmes of support for all those who are affected by cancer,” concludes Chris Watson, Property Director, Maggie’s.

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