The design of a laboratory is an exercise in technical virtuosity married to an understanding of the social dynamics of a community of undergraduates and researchers. Architect Sheppard Robson, QS Turner & Townsend and contractor Geoffrey Osborne tackled one such demanding brief at Queen Mary University in London – here’s how they did it

Key points

Chemistry building for postgraduate research and undergraduate teaching

Queen Mary University of London, Mile End campus

Laboratory design

  • Extensive glazing to bring daylight into the heart of the research space
  • Services zones along rear elevation and roof allow easy access without causing disruption

Procurement features
Two-stage partnering approach with rewards for efficient contractors’ and consultants’ specification and high density of fume cupboards.
Architectural design features


  • Rational layout reconciles the technical requirements of laboratory with site constraints
  • Three interaction spaces to bring staff, students and researchers together

Cost features
Unit cost of £2649/m2 falls within lowest quartile of the benchmark cost range, despite central London location and high quality Contract period
18 months (including additional fit-out) Client’s brief
Queen Mary University of London decided to develop a chemistry building after the existing facility was deemed to have reached the end of its economic life. After a feasibility study was carried out and costed, a brief was drawn up by the college estates department for a laboratory block to be used for undergraduate teaching and postgraduate research. The researchers consisted groups concerned with organic, inorganic and physical chemistry; the last group had diverse requirements for the housing of specific equipment. The required accommodation for researchers and support staff, together with the teaching laboratories – which had to house as many as possible of the university’s 180 first-year students – amounted to a gross building area of 5400 m2.
It was considered that a well-designed building would offer stakeholders an invigorating environment that would provide new ways of working, promote interaction among staff, students and researchers, forge a stronger link between research and teaching and attract high-quality staff and students.
A design competition was set up, to which Sheppard Robson and three other practices were invited. A detailed brief demanded the highest quality design and laid down an absolute maximum budget. A site close to the Mile End Road in east London was selected but not confirmed, and competition entrants were asked to draw up a mini masterplan for this area of the campus.
Architectural and services design
In appraising the site, architect Sheppard Robson noted that it overlooked an ancient burial ground that had a curiously relaxing and contemplative atmosphere, partly because it was not overlooked by any other buildings. At the same time, the campus was criss-crossed by walkways that allowed the students to circulate without using roads.
The largest area specified in the building brief was for undergraduate teaching, and Sheppard Robson was keen to maintain all of this at ground level to avoid large numbers of people moving up and down between floors. By a careful disposition of the other departments, a three-storey building was achieved. All of the offices and write-up areas were then placed along the east elevation to lessen problems of solar gain and glare. The main research space and all the vertical services were located on the west side, which faced the graveyard and effectively shielded it from the noise and bustle of students and staff (you can see this in the photograph on the opening spread). Finally, the entrance was placed in the north-east corner, furthest from the Mile End Road but close to internal circulation, and it was expressed as a triple-height volume to link all the research activities together.
Laboratory design
With a quarter of a century’s experience behind it, Sheppard Robson believes that the key to the design of a research building lies in reconciling the regulatory and engineering requirements of the laboratories with the constraints of the site. At the same time, the movement and interaction of the researchers outside their laboratories, together with their enjoyment of the whole building, is essential to their success. In the case of the Queen Mary chemistry building, four key drivers were identified as:

  • Individual research bench. The research bench is the space where the researcher conducts the bulk of their work. In the name of cost efficiency, it is often standardised across research groups. In the chemistry building, this bench module is dominated by the fume cupboard, which is a sophisticated piece of kit that contains the experiments that take place within it.
  • Research group module. This often forms the basic building block of a laboratory building. For the chemistry building, the standard group comprised eight researchers with one or two principal investigators.
  • This led to a group module of eight research bench modules with their fume cupboards linked to a write-up area. Modern convention has the write-up area as an office environment, preferably with natural daylighting, but this often has the effect of pushing the laboratory benches deep inside the building. The situation is usually ameliorated by extensive use of glazing in both external walls and internal partitions, and the resulting vision into and out of the laboratory brings the added benefit of increased safety.
  • Undergraduate teaching space. Working with undergraduate researchers in a chemistry laboratory places an onus on safety and supervision. The experiments tend to be relatively simple and generally require bench-top space, together with access to a limited number of fume cupboards. The work is often carried out in groups of two and four with some tutorial work. However, the space also has to accommodate the full class of 45 undergraduates.
  • Interaction space. The chemistry building contains three primary interaction spaces, which help bring together staff, students and researchers and generally raise the dynamics of how the building is used. First, the main entrance hall with its triple-height space provides a clear and logical entrance and visually links all the departments. Second, the lobby space serves as a foyer for the teaching laboratories and links directly into the entrance. Third, a lightwell set in the researchers’ write-up space channels daylight in the heart of the building and offers long sightlines.
  • Servicing strategy
  • The building was designed to contain a total of 114 fume cupboards, which, if all run at full power, would raise ventilation rates to a level of 28 air changes per hour. To achieve a logical and efficient organisation of such a high level of services, the building’s entire rear elevation was designed with a service zone between the structural frame and the internal envelope. This zone was then connected to the rooftop plant room, which covers most of the footprint of the three-storey building. With this vertical service zone easily accessible from outside, the building, maintenance, alteration and replacement can be carried out without disturbing the rest of the building, which is in use 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year.
  • Agile construction
  • Geoffrey Osborne, which was awarded the main contract to build Queen Mary’s chemistry building, is a participant in the Agile Construction Initiative, which was set up by Bath University in 1997 and is sponsored by the Treasury. Its aim is to get construction to adopt innovations developed by the automotive and aerospace industries.
  • The agile initiative involves analysing work taking place on a project, and identifying all the areas where quality failures might occur. Armed with this information, team members can anticipate failures. The procedure creates an culture of honesty, in which failures by a team member are considered by all parties in a rational, co-operative way.
  • At Queen Mary, the process started with a meeting of the whole project team, from client through to subcontractors, to explain the principles and identify the goals that everyone wanted to achieve on the project, including profit, quality, programme, work environment, defects, and so on. A white board was set up at the front of the site offices for client, design consultants, contractor and subcontractors to note the failures they came across. The participants were wary of this to begin with, but as they saw that problems were opened up for all to see, they gained enthusiasm. By the end, 164 failures were noted.
  • Once recorded, the failures were collated in a database, which helped the identification of underlying problems and to spot emerging trends. General areas that were identified included:
  • Poor continuity of work as a result of fragmentation of responsibilities
  • Discontinuities caused by personnel changes
  • Lack of commitment in one-off contacts between client and suppliers
  • An overemphasis on lowest cost.

The analysis of the specific causes of failures revealed the following culprits: lack of checking (47%), working to incorrect information (20%), product quality failure (13%), lack of protection (7%), lack of training (5%), late information (4%) and poor design co-ordination (4%).
At Queen Mary, the analytical process brought the site team together in a cohesive unit with common goals. This teamwork overcome many of the problems traditionally hidden until too late, and allowed quick and often simple and inexpensive solutions to be developed. Another benefit was that project meetings rarely lasted more than a few minutes, despite the project changing significantly during the construction phase.
Procurement and cost
A two-stage traditional procurement strategy was adopted. This route is often favoured by education sector clients for complex laboratory projects, as it lets the contractor assess buildability and programming issues at an early stage, and so provides a reasonable level of cost certainty prior to starting work.
One of the problems with two-stage tendering is the risk of cost escalation during the second stage, when the chosen contractor is in a monopoly situation. Accordingly, a reward strategy was developed to motivate it to ensure that the design was developed in line with the cost plan. This focused on gain-sharing and included no penalties. The design team (excluding the quantity surveyor) and the contractor had the opportunity to receiving a share of any savings achieved against an agreed total target sum. A contingency sum was ringfenced for client variations, and these were excluded from the reward strategy.
This mechanism delivered savings. By simplifying detailing, buildability was improved, and by overlapping design and construction, the overall programme was cut by three months. The project was delivered under budget, and a limited reward was shared among the project team.
Typical construction costs for new-build laboratories in the education sector range from £2400/m2 to £3400/m2 (at present costs, including preliminaries and contingency but excluding VAT and fees), with about 65% of projects falling within the £2800-3400/m2 band. In the case of Queen Mary, costs were pushed up by its location, quality specification and the high density of fume cupboards. In spite of this, the building was delivered for £2649/m2, which falls within the lowest quartile of the benchmark cost range.