The UK is a world leader in scientific research and those involved are demanding ever more sophisticated laboratory buildings in which to conduct their work. Nick Flanagan, director of cost management at Aecom, reports

MRS Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge Biomedical Campus, Cambridge

MRS Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge Biomedical Campus, Cambridge

01 / Introduction

The Science and Innovation Strategy published in December 2014 by the coalition government has created a favourable environment for investment in the research sector.

This set out a ring-fenced commitment of £5.9bn for public capital investment in science from 2016-21.

The quality of UK research is recognised internationally and world-class laboratory facilities are required to support the research community by delivering inspiring environments, whether in universities, publicly funded research or private companies – including pharmaceuticals, home and healthcare product suppliers.

02 / The research market

Providing the highest quality research facilities helps attract world experts to the UK.

Government funding for scientific research is channelled principally through seven research councils, which between them invest some £3bn each year at their own institutes and universities.

Recent examples include Medical Research Council’s investment in new facilities at Cambridge and London and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council’s investment in Cambridge and Norwich. Government funding continues to encourage partnerships and translational research. This can be multi-stakeholder collaboration bringing together research councils, institutes, universities and other interested organisations such as hospitals, or cross-discipline such as innovation between engineers and clinical researchers.

International science and research-driven companies choose the UK for a variety of economic reasons. Among these is the availability of skilled labour, underpinned by the prevalence of universities conducting high-quality research, and confidence in the ring-fenced government budget.

Domestically, there is demand for laboratory space from both small and large established companies and from start-ups, sometimes spun out of universities. Despite a lab being inherently a functionally-driven building, blue chip companies along with world-leading academic and research institutions are increasingly using their buildings to attract the best researchers, investment or enhance their brand.

Developers are providing small, serviced laboratory spaces with shared access to expensive equipment as well as conventional laboratories for major players.

Often the demand for laboratories will arise in a specific place because of the benefits of clustering. One of the best examples is Cambridge, where there are more than 10 research parks within 15 miles of the city.

03 / Factors in laboratory design

There are a range of factors in the internal design of laboratories that set them apart from other types of buildings.

They are designed and constructed to complex criteria. Given that environments need to be kept stable, there are high proportions of services to be co-ordinated and commissioned, compliance with regulatory safety standards must be maintained and resilience of services is needed in the event of any system failure.

Use of air

Room fabric junctions must be constructed to reduce air leakage, and safety compliance with regulatory requirements is essential.

Laboratories commonly need a higher air change rate than normal buildings for safety reasons, while the temperature and humidity controls needed for biological research results in more conditioning of supplied air.

Specialist services

Multiple water systems are often needed, with a standard supply to toilets and hand washing facilities, separate category 5 water supply to laboratory sinks and purified water to laboratory benches and equipment. If the hot water is centrally distributed rather than through point-of-use heaters then this further increases the number of systems.

Some laboratories will require the supply of six or more different gases, either from a central source with a reticulated system throughout the laboratory or directly fed to specific rooms or local bottle storage. An assessment should be undertaken to ensure compliance with the Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations (DSEAR) in design and occupation.

Servicing strategies

Plant room spaces can account for more than 15% of the net laboratory floor area. Vertical risers and any interstitial or service corridors will further increase the gross footprint.

Selecting the most appropriate overall servicing strategy is essential. This will, both vertically and horizontally, affect the mass and efficiency of internal planning. Minimising the services distribution can improve the efficiency of the systems, reducing capital and operational costs.

Typical approaches include rooftop plant rooms for supply and extract air plant.

Risers can be routed vertically through the main floors or may be taken outside the building facade to reduce the building’s footprint and constraints on internal space planning.

Plant towers reduce available functional footprint per floor but revert main distribution to horizontal in-ceiling voids, and reduce internal risers. Interstitial floors may be used, so that a plant room sits directly above laboratories to which access must be restricted.

Horizontal services distribution to these areas also takes place within the plant room so that all filters, valves and dampers can be maintained without entering the technical areas.

Prefabrication of services has become standard on new-build laboratories with packaged plant rooms and service distribution modules in ceilings and risers. These reduce installation time and quantity of labour on site during the congested fit-out period and bring off-site quality control benefits. Improvement in BIM point cloud conversion and 3D clash detection are creating similar opportunities in refurbishments.

Equipment interfaces

The density of some equipment items such as fume cupboards and safety cabinets can generate design co-ordination challenges, such as spatial fit for the dedicated extract systems through the building service zones.

Vibration criteria are important in many laboratories. For example, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners and electron microscopes can be very sensitive to vibration, resulting in a requirement for enhanced structural measures to reduce this or to isolate such equipment from the main structure.

Sensitive equipment is sometimes located away from lifts, certain mechanical services plant and, occasionally, nearby roads. Radio frequency shielding around scanner rooms reduces operational disruption.

These rooms may have stringent requirements for temperature and humidity levels to maintain the equipment correctly.

Equipment needs vary across research projects, but efforts have been made by laboratory managements to promote equipment sharing to achieve greater levels of efficiency.

Shared freezer space, just-in-time equipment management, and centralised equipment requests and delivery are examples.

04 / Controlling hazards

Containment levels

The work undertaken in some laboratories requires barriers both to the entry and exit of harmful materials. There are four containment levels categorised by the Advisory Committee on Dangerous Pathogens (ACDP), based on the infectivity of the materials used, to determine the hazard group of a laboratory, with level 1 being the lowest and least complex. The equipment used provides a barrier to contain the hazard, and the room a secondary barrier.

Delivering containment

Laboratories need dedicated, highly controlled environmental temperature conditions and pressure regimes. Increased containment levels can result in additional humidity controls, enhanced airtightness, increased air changes per hour, high-efficiency particulate air filtration and a higher quality of fabric and finishes.

Some laboratories will also require full backup to main mechanical and electrical services to maintain safety and operation and protect research in case of unplanned shutdowns.

Pressure regimes

Establishing a negative pressure cascade between the laboratories, lobbies and corridors is required to assist in preventing the escape of pathogens and protecting people both inside and outside the building. This results in greater controls on the mechanical systems and pressure seals on doors and through wall penetrations. This is assisted by establishing an air flow through the room, from users toward the potential contamination source.

Air handling and filtration

Higher levels of containment require extracted air to be filtered through high-efficiency particulate absorption filters to protect the environment from contamination. The degree and extent of filtration is important in establishing the cost of containment and setting the initial servicing strategy.

Supplied air can also require filtration in some containment laboratories, which will affect design and cost. In these instances, supplied and extracted air should be controllable from outside for ease of maintenance, with mechanisms such as gas-tight dampers used to shut off the air systems for specialist cleaning of laboratories.


All floor, wall and ceiling finishes must be easy to clean. As the containment level increases they need to create a sealed barrier at all junctions and airtight surfaces to prevent the escape of contaminated pathogens.

Wall finishes may become multi-layer applied specialist paints and chemical resistant floor finishes would be used. At the higher containment levels, tiled ceiling systems are replaced with a continuous ceiling construction and all services penetrations are sealed.


In higher containment level laboratories, the material being used may be classified as a dangerous substance. In these instances reinforced walls, doors, CCTV and access control standards increase, with a consequential impact on the cost.

Compliance standards

Early identification is essential during the briefing and design process of the appropriate designated personnel within the client organisation for any specialist licensing purposes. This person can work with the design engineers to understand the regulatory requirements for key operational processes, the heating, ventilation, air conditioning and building management systems in particular.

This will ensure that temperature, humidity and lighting levels are maintained, and provide for the reporting of information, processes for inspection and how alarms are raised when needed.

Within higher containment laboratories, issues of decontamination, effluent treatment and resilient systems to manage operational risks must also be addressed.


The commissioning and validation process is vital to the successful occupation of laboratories, whether this is robustness and resilience in mechanical and electrical services or quality of specification and installation of building fabric. The risk around this can be reduced by early appointment of an independent validation engineer to advise during the design stages and work alongside the construction team during installation and commissioning and into operation.

05 / Laboratory planning

Net:gross efficiency

A typical Containment Level 2 laboratory might benchmark 60-65% net to gross efficiency. This is influenced by the proportions of laboratory to office space and the type of research undertaken, both of which affect the amount of ancillary, riser and plant space required, and hence the building’s gross area.

The efficiency can reduce as the amount of high specification containment space and large equipment increases. Equally, efficiency can increase as the type of research simplifies and facilities incorporate less adaptability.

Space allocation

The amount of net space per person in laboratories will vary depending upon the type of research. The greater proportion of space would generally be primary laboratory space, with a smaller proportion devoted to secondary space, such as equipment and preparation rooms. Minimising these spaces by centralising equipment and sharing facilities across research teams gives a more efficient development.

The office areas could form 25-50% of building net area in a typical containment level 2 laboratory. Therefore, setting an efficient approach for offices, including write-up space, yields benefits in the overall building size.


Laboratories must be future-proofed against expensive adaptation costs. While each has its own initial purpose, allowance must be made for mechanical, electrical and plumbing services beyond the current requirements.

Centralising the main services risers, or taking them out of the laboratory space entirely, can leave the internal floor space clear for future adaptation.

Adopting generic structural grids and lightweight partitioning can facilitate future layout permutations and minimises disruption.

Services isolation and connection points may be located within the ceiling voids to allow bench locations to change through “plug and play” designs without the need for work to the internal finishes.

There must always be a balance, however, with day one capital costs. For instance, enabling fume cupboards to be relocated around laboratories while limiting their overall number to avoid overproviding riser space and ductwork capacity.

A Pirbright Institute scientist working inside a high-containment laboratory in the institute’s Plowright Building

A Pirbright Institute scientist working inside a high-containment laboratory in the institute’s Plowright Building

06 / Laboratories’ integration with offices

There can be conflicts between the design of laboratories and that of their associated office space and resolving this requires early consideration in design strategies. These spaces must be in reasonable proximity but their requirements differ.

Servicing requirements

Laboratories are typically serviced from deep ceiling voids – due to ventilation requirements – with power, data, water and gas distributed around the perimeter of the room or through service droppers from above.

This is in conflict with office space, which typically is served by power and data within a raised access floor.

Therefore, if laboratories and offices are on the same floor plate there can be a difference in floor and ceiling depths, which needs to be addressed at interfaces between the spaces without steps in the finished floor level.

Structural grids

The structural grid for a laboratory is ideally determined by the internal space planning module, which can typically lead to grids of 6.8m-7.2m. This is influenced by the type of research, space sharing and safety criteria, all of which are translated into the depth of benching, equipment and circulation space. Offices, however, might work to a different planning module for efficiency of design, such as 1.5m.

Thus, if the most efficient grid for both the laboratory and office components of the building is maintained this results in complexities in the design and construction of the frame and cladding.

Alternatively, a consistent structural grid can be adopted throughout the building with internal planning of the laboratories and offices being adjusted to a potentially less efficient layout.

Storey heights

Laboratory storey heights would typically be 4.5m-5m, compared with a typical office storey height of 3.5m-4m. This can result in the whole building being constructed to the greater storey height, which increases costs of frame, cladding and vertical services distribution.

Alternatively the laboratory and office components of the building may be separated and constructed to their own standards, depending upon the site and footprint opportunities.

Workspace usage

Balancing the efficiency of laboratories and space for writing up results has seen an increasing awareness of the advantages associated with moving from traditional, private spaces to shared ones. These approaches are being used to create research communities through boundary blurring between disciplines and research groups, increasing overall knowledge sharing through collision space in social and office environments, with traditional disciplinary silos yielding to more flexible project teams.

Most researchers split their time between laboratory and office to varying degrees, so determining the proportion of time that is allocated to the office is crucial should a flexible work space strategy be adopted.

Nick Benn of BMJ Architects, an experienced laboratory designer, comments: “Recent projects have seen the introduction of a derogation from the health and safety requirement for write-up to be separated from the laboratories but under strict standard operating procedures where food and drink are banned from the workplace and nearby communal refreshment facilities are provided outside the laboratory environment instead.”

07 / Minimising operating costs

Laboratories have relatively high operating expenditures due to the high services content and research often being a 24/7 operation.

Occupancy is driven by research demands, but there remain opportunities to reduce operating costs when researchers are absent, if safety permits, by incorporating intelligent building management systems that reduce the amount of ventilation.

Other approaches commonly found in new laboratory design to reduce energy usage include task-based lighting and automatic fume cupboard sash controls.


High energy usage in laboratories due to ventilation loads and equipment power consumption can lead to high renewables requirements. In addition to Building Regulations and local planning policy, many publically funded universities and private companies are applying greater demands on energy reduction within their sustainability agendas and drive for BREEAM and LEED accreditations.

Reducing the baseline energy usage through heat recovery from general room extract ventilation, variable air volume on fume cupboards and low pressure ductwork are generally standard approaches.

The appropriate renewables strategy must be aligned with the energy usage profile of the research undertaken.

This can often include photovoltaics due to the relatively low capital expenditure, good payback and high electrical consumption.

Systems with higher capital costs such as ground source heat pumps can typically be compatible with laboratories as they reduce heating and cooling loads on the air handling systems.

08 / Tax relief opportunities

The bespoke nature of laboratory premises give rise to significant and accelerated levels of tax relief for costs incurred. Aside from the positive operational impacts of the 230% or 11% “above the line” relief afforded by the R&D expenditure credit (RDEC), capital projects can benefit from 100% capital allowances for research and development allowances (RDA) where it is trade related. This enables a full (or partial, for mixed-use projects) recovery of the construction costs for taxation purposes.

RDA aside, qualifying expenditure on eligible plant and machinery assets accounts for between 50% and 60% of the cost model below. The allowances are claimed at rates of 8% and 18% on a reducing-balance basis, benefiting from the significant content for services installations, furniture, fittings and trade-related equipment. Undiscounted, this benefit is worth over £5m in cash terms to UK income or corporate taxpayers. Renewable energy solutions, such as ground source heat pumps, accelerate the relief to 100% in the year of expenditure, or a 19% payable credit for loss-making UK companies.

For brownfield sites, UK companies carrying out site remediation works may benefit from Land Remediation Relief (LRR). This provides a 150% super-deduction against corporation tax, where the taxpayer is not the polluter. Again, for loss-making UK companies, this can be surrendered for a 16% payable credit.

09 / Cost model laboratory

The cost model is based on a university-funded research laboratory. The laboratories are primarily containment level 2 and are constructed to VC-A criteria. All floors have a 4.6m storey height and the building acheives an overall BREEAM “excellent” rating. The building has a gross internal floor area of 11,000m2, of which 3,800m2 is net laboratory and associated technical space and 3,000m2 is office, write-up and teaching space.

Services are distributed vertically to the lab areas from a rooftop plant room. The offices are naturally ventilated along with under-floor displacement ventilation.

The following assumptions have been made:

  • The costs of site preparation, external works and external services are not included.
  • Loose fittings, equipment and specialist laboratory equiment are not included.
  • Professional fees, statutory fees, other client non-construction contract costs and VAT are not included.
  • The costs reflect a two-stage competitive tender with a design and build contract and include for the contractor’s pre-construction stage services.
  • Rates are current at fourth quarter 2015 and based on an outer London location.

The rates may need to be adjusted to account for specification, site conditions and constraints, procurement route and programme.

 Total (£)£/m2%
Substructure £2,759,500 £250.86 6%
CFA piles, 450mm and 600mm, including piling mat; 3,400m2 @ £280      
Excavation, including lift pits, disposal off site; 2,300m3 @ £75      
Formation of ground-floor slab, 350mm thick, including pile caps and beams; 3,400m2 @ £340      
Below slab drainage; 3,400m2 @ £60      
Incoming service trenches; water, gas, electric and data;      
1 item @ £75,000      
Allowance for sundry groundwork items; 1 item @ £200,000      
Frame and upper floors £2,700,300 £245.48 6%
Reinforced concrete core/shear walls, 250-450mm thick; 1,350m2 @ £275      
Reinforced concrete columns and beams, various sizes; 10,000m2 @ £65      
Reinforced concrete floor slabs; 275-400mm thick; 6,600m2 @ £165      
Structural steel columns and beams to roof structures, fire protection; 175 tonnes @ £2,800      
Allowance for sundry items, fire stopping; 1 item £100,000      
Roof £1,469,000 £133.55 3%
Reinforced concrete roof slab; 300mm thick; 3,400m2 @ £155      
Single-ply membrane roof including insulation, upstands, parapets and openings for services; 2,400m2 @ £180      
Proprietary metal standing seam roof covering, including insulation; 1,000m2 @ £250      
Feature glazed roof light; 1 item @ £150,000      
Allowance for rainwater goods, gutters and downpipes; 1 item @ £100,000      
Fall arrest; 1 item @ £10,000      
Stairs and ramps £518,000 £47.09 1%
Reinforced in-situ concrete stair, general circulation, including handrails; 11nr @ £13,000      
Feature atrium stairs and balustrades; 1 item @ £200,000      
Allowance for access ladders, steps and plant room walkways; 1 item @ £100,000      
Balustrades and handrails to external balcony and courtyard; 1 item @ £75,000      
External walls, windows and doors £4,968,700 £451.70 10%
Metal rainscreen cladding system, two finishes, including metsec, concealed fixings, flashings trims; 2,780m2 @ £705      
Proprietary metal cassette cladding panels, inc metsec, concealed fixings, flashings, trims; 1,320m2 @ £550      
Aluminium mesh screens to plant areas; 720m2 @ £415      
Allowance for sundry brickwork; 1 item @ £75,000      
Curtain walling, powder coated, capped system, including opening windows to offices; 2,840m2 @ £600      
Allowance for brise soleil; 140m @ £750      
External doors; powder coated aluminium glazed door sets, including ironmongery; 1 item @ £100,000      
Internal walls and partitions £1,472,000 £133.82 3%
Metal stud partitions; dB ratings 40dB-65dB; 9,600m2 @ £85      
Glazed internal partitions; 680m2 @ £450      
Allowance for forming holes for laboratory services through walls; 1 item @ £150,000      
Allowance for fire protection through penetrations;      
1 item @ £200,000      
Internal doors £745,000 £67.73 2%
Solid core doors, door frames, ironmongery, vision panels, PVC coated, to laboratories; 160nr @ £2,800      
Solid core doors, door frames, ironmongery, vision panels, veneered, to offices; 180nr @ £1,650      
Wall finishes £543,400 £49.40 1%
Painting to walls, emulsion; 22,700m2 @ £6      
Timber acoustic wall finishes to offices and atrium; 1,560m2 @ £220      
Allowance for enhanced finishes to specialist laboratories; 1 item @ £50,000      
Ceramic tiles to WCs and shower cores; 250m2 @ £80      
Floor finishes £1,013,000 £92.09 2%
Levelling screed and DPM; 4,900m2 @ £35      
Medium duty raised access floor: 3,650m2 @ £55      
Non-slip vinyl floor finish, including coved skirting; 4,900m2 @ £75      
Carpet, heavy duty carpet tiles, including timber skirting; 3,650m2 @ £55      
Ceramic floor tiles; 300m2 @ £75      
Allowance for sundry floor finishes; 1 item @ £50,000      
Ceiling finishes £1,047,500 £95.23 2%
Suspended metal plank system; 4,900m2 @ £85      
Suspended perforated plasterboard systems, including acoustic treatment and painting; 3,650m2 @ 120      
Suspended plasterboard system, including painting; 300m2 @ £60      
Allowance for painting concrete soffits; 1 item @ £25,000      
Allowance for fire protection above ceilings; 1 item @ £100,000      
Allowance for sundry ceiling finishes; 1 item @ £50,000      
Fittings, furnishing and equipment £5,368,500 £488.05 11%
Cold room fit out; 2nr @ £40,000      
Autoclaves; single sided and pass through, various sizes; 4nr @ £125,000      
Allowance for fixed laboratory benching, shelving, service spines, under bench and over bench cupboards, lab sinks, wash hand basins and eye wash stations; 3,800m2 @ £650      
Fume cupboards and safety cabinets; 90nr @ £10,400      
Allowance for fit out to specialist laboratories; 1 item @ £500,000      
WC fittings, IPS panelling, cubicles, mirrors, hand dryers etc; 30nr @ £3,000      
Allowance for miscellaneous fixtures and fittings, reception desk, kitchenettes, copy stations, whiteboards etc; 1 item @ £150,000      
Window blinds; 1,500m2 @ £115      
Lecture theatre seating, raked; 250nr @ £480      
Audio visual installation, to lecture theatre, meeting rooms, communal spaces; 1 item @ £250,000      
Allowance for signage, statutory, directional and external building signage; 1 item @ £100,000      
Sanitary installations £110,000 £10.00 0%
Allowance for sanitary appliances including WCs, urinals, wash hand basins, disabled access fittings, showers: 11,000m² @ £10      
Disposal installations £246,000 £22.36 1%
Rainwater disposal: 11,000m² @ £4      
Above ground drainage and condensate: 11,000m² @ £8      
Laboratory drainage: 3,800m² @ £30      
Water installations £986,000 £89.64 2%
Incoming mains and domestic cold water system: 11,000m² @ £24      
Domestic hot water system: 11,000m² @ £12      
Laboratory cold water installation: 3,800m² @ £25      
Purified water system to laboratory spaces: 3,800m² @ £50      
Allowance for irrigation and WC flushing system: 1 item @ £20,000      
Allowance for centralised steam installation, serving autoclaves and laboratory appliances: 3,800m² @ £75      
Heat source £793,000 £72.09 2%
Ground source heat pump installation, including boreholes, pipework and all associated plant: 1 item @ £650,000      
Gas fired boilers including flues: 11,000m² @ £13      
Space heating and air conditioning £3,686,000 £335.09 8%
Low temperature hot water heating installation: 11,000m² @ £75      
Supply and extract ventilation to laboratory spaces including air handling units, heat recovery and ductwork: 3,800m² @ £395      
Supply and extract ventilation to office / write-up spaces including air handling units, heat recovery and ductwork: 3,000m² @ £35      
Extra for supply and extract ventilation to lecture theatre; 1 item @ 50,000      
Chilled water system including air cooled chillers, plantroom installation, distribution pipework, fan coil units and chilled beams: 11,000m² @ £105      
DX cooling to IT rooms: 1 item @ £50,000      
Ventilation systems £880,000 £80.00 2%
Toilet extract system: 1 item @ £25,000      
Fume cupboard and safety cabinet extract systems: 3,800m² @ £225m²      
Electrical installations £3,220,000 £292.73 7%
HV installation including incoming main: 1 item @ £45,000      
LV panel, sub-mains installation and distribution boards: 11,000m² @ £50      
Containment generally: 11,000m² @ £45      
Lighting generally, including feature lighting and external lighting: 11,000m² @ £125      
Small power generally including power provision to laboratory benches: 11,000m² @ £45      
Standby generator and fuel supply: 1 item @ £110,000      
Photovoltaic installation including inverters: 1 item @ £150,000      
Fuel installation £86,000 £7.82 0%
Gas installation, generally, including external supply:      
1 item @ £10,000      
Extra for laboratory gas installation to laboratory spaces: 3,800m² @ £20      
Lift and conveyor installations £425,000 £38.64 1%
Goods lift: 1nr @ £175,000      
Passenger lift: 2nr @ £125,000      
Fire and lightning protection £42,000 £3.82 0%
Dry riser installation: 1 item @ £20,000      
Lightning protection: 11,000m² @ £2      
Communication, security and control systems £1,953,000 £177.55 4%
Fire alarm and detection system: 11,000m² @ £20      
Data installation, category 6 wiring: 11,000m² @ £30      
Allowance for disabled induction loops, disabled refuge and alarm system: 1 item @ £15,000      
Security system, access control: 1 item @ £125,000      
Security system, intruder alarm system: 11,000m² @ £3      
Security system, CCTV system; 1 item @ £20,000      
Building management system: 11,000m² @ £110      
Specialist installations £1,102,000 £100.18 2%
Compressed air system including packaged plantroom: 3,800m² @ £85      
Allowance for laboratory gases, including four reticulated, four directly fed to various rooms and gas detection system: 3,800m² @ £190m²      
Allowance for process chilled water system, complete with distribution pipework: 3,800m² @ £15      
Builders works in connection with services £406,000 £36.91 1%
Forming holes, chases, access floors in risers and sundry items @ 3%      
Subtotal £36,539,900 £3,321.81 75%
Preliminaries and design reserve £12,320,000 £1,120.00 25%
Mechanical and electrical services contractor preliminaries and commissioning management @ 15%; 1 item @ £2,029,000      
Main contractor’s preliminaries, overheads and profit @ 20%; 1 item @ £7,714,000      
Main contractor’s pre-construction stage services; 25 weeks @ £10,000      
Design reserve @ 5%; 1 item @ £2,327,000      
Total £48,859,900 £4,441.81 100%