Turning containment inside-
out, HDR Architecture created
a high containment facility
that puts people at the center.
Can a high containment lab have windows? Can the traditional model of a high containment lab be turned
inside out? Can a high containment facility
offer better life quality?
The answer to all these questions is yes.
Home to three international reference
labs for 10 exotic viral diseases of
livestock, The Pirbright Institute focuses
on virology and, specifically, animal
health, including zoonotic diseases. The
impact of the science is global—affecting
animal health and economic prosperity
worldwide. The Plowright Building,
housing the Biotechnology and Biological
Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)
National Virology Centre, is a Category 4
containment facility (equivalent to BSL- 3
enhanced in the U.S.) designed to assure
no virus can get out, and to prevent cross-contamination within the facility itself.
“Achieving the vision began with a
detailed risk assessment, which included
ranking potential risks and the severity of
those risks,” says Brian Kowalchuk, Design
Director, HDR Architecture. Rather than
treating the entire facility for the worst-case scenario, The Plowright Building was
designed to address risk with progressively
more stringent controls—in the built
environment, engineering, technologies and
protocols—to mirror actual risk.
Delivering this first-of-its-kind facility
required the team, consisting of HDR
Architecture, AECOM and Shepard
Construction, put egos aside and base all
decisions on what was best for the project
and the science. What this led to is a game-changing Category 4 containment facility
that puts people at the center, not the virus.
And it’s for thinking outside-the-box that
the Plowright Building has earned a Special
Mention Award in R&D Magazine’s 2015
Laboratory of the Year competition.
People at the center
The clients’ wishes were rather simple for
the Plowright Building: Create a state-of-the-
art facility that was on time, on budget and
would meet all the practical and functional
needs of the spaces needed. “Initially, they
didn’t want to change the world,” says
Kowalchuk, “but then we started asking,
‘what about windows?’”
Upon coming to the drawing board, HDR
took the conventional box-inside-a-box
design for containment and pulled it inside-
out. Instead of the virus—or the labs—
buried in the center, the team put people at
“It’s a real pain in the neck to constantly
go through shower in and out routines every
time you want to leave a containment lab to
eat, collaborate or even go to the bathroom;
and you probably get about a 20% efficiency
on the time spent,” says Kowalchuk. “So we
decided on a design that would put science on
display, allowing researchers to do more and
better science, while also allowing researchers
to escape from their silos and converse with
their neighbors and have a better quality of
life when in a containment facility.”
In conventional containment facilities
with the virus or labs consolidated at the
center and people spaces pulled outside of
containment, researchers are isolated either
inside or outside containment. With people
at the center, with lab wings radiating off the
central space, interaction and collaboration
is naturally fostered.
In conventional containment facilities
researchers have to leave containment—
Also in conventional containment
facilities, natural light is limited to people
spaces. With the game-changing model,
exterior windows provide light into the labs
and lab corridors. A curtain wall along the
exterior and interior perimeter of the atrium
floods the entire facility with light.
“We wanted to go unconventional in our
approach. We wanted to locate the rooms to
facilitate collaboration, bring light into the
building and connect the researchers,” says
The new model includes a central light-filled three-story atrium, with containment
zones surrounding it. The curtain wall of
the atrium defines a containment boundary
that’s sealed. The radial plan draws
researchers out of their individual lab wings
and “into the light,” according to Kowalchuk.
It also allows for the generous use of glass
in and around the atrium, with views of the
campus to the north and of the forest—the
Green Belt—to the south.
“The idea of the atrium is obviously to
open up to the south, and as a sustainable
approach it opens out to the view and brings
in a lot of natural light,” says Kowalchuk.
“Anyone inside or outside of containment is
connected at some point through the atrium.
And that’s why we incorporated it, it pulls
Shared, unassigned write-up space
is located on the first floor, within the
containment barrier, and offers views
through the atrium of other floors.
Computers and monitors are permanently
fixed to the “touch-down” spaces to avoid
The south elevation identifies the labs—clad in timber—the “people” spaces—clad in
glass—and the mechanical systems in a metal penthouse. The unexpected choice of
wood cladding, and the colorful window surrounds, humanize the image of the facility.
Image: Dan Schwalm/HDR Inc.
of the Year A Window To