Climate control for pollen studies


The University of Worcester’s new research lab needs to provide a range of environmental climates for allergen studies. The complexity of the facility design is nothing to be sneezed at

The environmental test chamber designed to mimic different climatic environments Picture courtesy David Stewart, photographer

The University of Worcester’s new research lab needs to provide a range of environmental climates for allergen studies. The complexity of the facility design, provided by the Leadbitter Group and other contractors, is nothing to be sneezed at.

Where would you like to go today? The desert, the Arctic or a rainforest…? The new state-of-the-art facility at the University of Worcester can replicate any environment on the planet – from the Sahara to the Arctic. This fully sealed facility is capable of dropping the temperature to 20 degrees below freezing, increasing humidity levels to those of the tropics or taking oxygen out of the atmosphere to replicate different altitudes.

The facility, designed for the testing of pollen and other airborne allergens, is part of the University’s National Pollen and Aerobiology Research Unit (NPARU) and was constructed by the Leadbitter Group, which worked in conjunction with Design Environmental, a specialist equipment provider, and Cleanroom Design and Construction (CDC), a specialist design and build contractor of containment laboratories.

As well as the climatic test centre, the two-storey Charles Darwin building, located on the University’s St John’s Campus, provides new laboratories, teaching areas, administration facilities and two cleanrooms for scientific experiments on allergens. At the heart of the building is the plant room area, which incorporates all the typical equipment for the main building, such as heating, ventilation and control systems, together with all the specialist plant for the cleanrooms, fume cupboards, safety cabinets and the environmental test chamber.

CDC was employed as the specialist design and build contractor to carry out the installation of two category II containment laboratories, built to ISO 14644 class 7 standard. This included the installation of equipment such as laboratory furniture, laminar flow cabinets, fume cupboards and microbiological safety cabinets.

Mark Hookins, project manager for Leadbitter, said: “As you would expect, this was an extremely technical build, especially as far as the plant room was concerned. Exact specifications were required at an early stage in the design process to ensure that the build went smoothly. Close consultation between all parties was needed and we overcame this challenge by getting everyone together – including the structural engineer, architect and mechanical and electrical services engineers from Building Design Partnership – to thrash out all the technical issues at the planning stage. We then had to schedule deliveries into the building as the works progressed and before the envelope was closed, in a sequence that allowed other works to continue.

“The result is that all the plant fits into the space, leaving room for maintenance access and for the University to expand the range of equipment when required.”

As the building has such a specialist function, meetings were held at least once a month with a representative from NPARU to ensure that the design met the client’s needs. University staff were also included in meetings and involved in all aspects of design, layout and end usage.

Hookins says: “In addition to this, we took the client’s representative to the factory where the environmental test chamber was being developed to see the works in progress and to discuss the University’s requirements.” According to equipment provider Design Environmental’s Keith Barber, the University wanted a piece of equipment that was extremely versatile and quite unusual. “It needed to control the temperature by refrigeration and by electrical heating for higher temperatures, while at the same time being able to inject humidity to replicate rainforest environments. In addition we needed to be able to inject or deplete the oxygen content to replicate altitudes of up to 4,500 metres.”

Leadbitter and Design Environmental had to work closely to make sure they understood exactly what the client required. “We built the equipment in our factory, then had to take it apart and put it all back together on site,” says Barber.

The project was not only complex from a functional point of view; it also held challenges on a practical day-to-day basis. The site is constrained on two sides by other University buildings (which were in constant use), on a third side by a sports field and on the fourth side by a primary school. In addition to instituting standard measures for working on tight sites, such as “just in time” deliveries to minimise the need for material storage, Leadbitter’s project manager and site manager maintained close communications with the University to ensure that the staff and students were not affected by the construction programme.

Timber hoardings and additional lights were installed and emergency exit routes around the site were provided to ensure the safety of the University’s users. Leadbitter formed a link with the neighbouring primary school in order to educate the children about the dangers of construction sites. It worked with the University to organise a site visit for a class of five-year-olds where each pupil was provided with protective equipment and Site Manager Peter Hackwell spoke to them about site safety and the importance of playing in safe areas such as parks and playgrounds. The children were then given a tour of the site under strict supervision to see the construction first-hand.

Both the University and Leadbitter worked hard to balance BREEAM criteria and building requirements. At pre-assessment, the facility received a BREEAM rating of “Excellent”. However, further review of the recommendations revealed that the nature of this research facility would make it difficult to incorporate all the “green” technologies that Leadbitter and the client would have liked – not least because of the energy needed to create the different climates. However, Leadbitter worked with the BREEAM assessor and architect to ensure the building meets the BREEAM criteria wherever possible.

All timber was obtained from sustainable sources, local labour and materials were utilised and the landscaping scheme incorporates nine different low-allergen plant and tree species indigenous to England to improve the biodiversity in the area. Consequently the facility received a BREEAM rating of “Very Good”.

Despite the complex nature of the build, the client was happy with Leadbitter’s work and gave the company an additional contract to fit out the first floor of the building, a phase of work which is now complete and was handed over a week early.