The Pirbright Institute’s Plowright Building transforms the standard box-in-a-box bunker-like containment facility into an interactive environment filled with natural light, expansive views through full-height windows, and extensive opportunities for collaboration. Offices, a cafeteria, and a three-story glass atrium all exist within the containment barrier, reducing the number of times researchers need to shower and gown in and out each day.
For the first time, Pirbright will be able to host all-staff meetings and symposia on site without researchers having to leave containment. They can eat, attend a conference, write their lab notes, and hold a meeting, all within the containment barrier.
The layout takes the typical Category 4 biocontainment facility (equivalent to a BSL-3 Enhanced in the U.S.) and turns it inside out, with high-level containment labs—an infectious disease laboratory, insectarium, and tissue culture labs dedicated to the study of livestock diseases, including foot and mouth disease—around the perimeter of the building, and work and collaboration zones at the center.
In meeting the U.K.’s stringent Category 4 containment standards, the team applied a layered approach, based on the risk level of a given space in the facility. Researchers start at the center of the building, in non-containment, and work toward the highest-risk spaces along the perimeter. Transitioning from one risk level to another does not necessarily require staff to shower in or out—it may call for simply changing shoes or removing gloves and gowns.
Half of the second-floor cafeteria is in the containment zone, while half remains accessible to researchers from other buildings on campus; a 15-foot-high glass wall is all that separates the containment dining area from the general cafeteria.
A three-story glass atrium topped by a glass oculus offers views of the containment area and the sky, even from the ground floor, where the atrium is not within the containment barrier. Shared, unassigned write-up space is located on the first floor, within the containment barrier, and offers views through the atrium to other floors. Containment areas within the atrium are accessible to all researchers in the facility, fostering cross-disciplinary interaction.
A risk assessment identified and ranked potential risk, including the severity of those risks, from which the team developed a layered approach to containment. The labs are sealable and realize a negative-pressure air cascade to areas working with the most dangerous infectious diseases. Non-solid waste is processed through an in-house effluent plant, and all solid waste is autoclaved, greatly minimizing the risk of viruses escaping the facility. All air passes through the air systems’ HEPA filters.
Using a fully functioning, two-story, 1,600-sf mockup of a typical three-person lab unit, the design team was able to perfect a gasket system for the through-wall penetrations. It involved casting stainless steel frames into the concrete wall at each of the 2,182 penetration points. Penetration elements—windows, doors, service ducts—were then bolted to the frame with a neoprene gasket, thus meeting stringent air leakage performance standards in a way that can be easily serviced and maintained over the building’s lifespan.
The mock-up allowed the team to test nearly every component of the building—from the seven-layer containment coating for the concrete walls, to the performance of the low-air-leakage-rated doors, to the fastening system for the lab benching, to the mechanical systems.