Specialist modular laboratories delivered by market leader Portakabin

Portakabin, the UK’s market leader in offsite construction, is continuing to unlock the potential of modular architecture and design with the completion of three separate buildings for the University of Oxford

Traditionally associated with temporary classrooms, Portakabin specialises not only in creating contemporary learning spaces but is also challenging the status quo of traditional building. On average, a Portakabin building takes 50% less time to build and install than its counterpart ‘traditional’ builds.

Lee Connolly, Head of Project Design & Engineering for Portakabin, explains: “Commonly held perceptions of modular or temporary buildings are quickly being eradicated by the approach to design we are taking. A 4,200m2 specialist hospital, an 8,700m2 award-winning UTC, the largest free school in the country to have been built offsite, a 7,500m2 school in nine weeks – Portakabin is leaving traditional building in its dust with head-turning design and turnaround times on a knife edge.”

With scope to deliver buildings for the Zoology, Experimental Psychology and Biochemistry departments at the University of Oxford, Portakabin designers and engineers approached the design pragmatically. The Tinbergen Building had been providing an academic learning environment for the University since the ’70s and supplied over 22,000m2 of viable space. It was important that the relocation of over 750 students and University employees could be delivered within an incredibly tight timeframe while upholding and maintaining the University’s ambition to lead the world in research and education.

The design and construction of the buildings involved elements of complexity from either an acoustic, building climate or mechanical and electrical (M&E) perspective and all ran simultaneously beside each other. The first building was completed in just under a year from the initial engagement in March 2017, at which point even the location for the buildings was unknown.

Anna Sutherland, who led the Arup M&E team assisting Portakabin, explains, “To ensure a successful project, it was essential to quickly understand the complex servicing requirements associated with the laboratory buildings. The fast turnaround for the facilities demanded that the briefing and approvals processes were streamlined. Therefore, throughout the project, clarity and transparency were of utmost importance. Arup’s wealth of experience in laboratory and higher education facilities expedited this, enabling the Portakabin team to work collaboratively with the University, ensuring their aspirations and high-quality expectations were realised.”

Adrian Yap, Principal at fjmt studio, explains their involvement in the design: “As part of the decant for the Tinbergen Building, fjmt studio were commissioned to design three modular laboratory buildings in collaboration with Portakabin. Although only intended to provide temporary accommodation for a period of up to five years, the modular laboratories still needed to provide state-of-the-art facilities for the world-leading departments. These facilities ranged from Cat 2 wet laboratories and constant temperature rooms to over 50 specialist testing booths, some electromagnetically shielded to enable EEG studies.”

Over 200 individual modules provide almost 7,000m2 of research and learning space across three buildings and include specialist zoological and biomedical laboratories, academic offices and teaching space.

The first building to be handed over was on the university’s sports field and it has over 1,550m2 of specialist teaching laboratories, used by undergraduate students. The labs are modern, open-plan learning environments replicating the learning environments that had been provided in the Tinbergen Building. Portakabin designers have well-honed experience in producing the same exacting standards for this build as it does for hospital wards and surgical theatres.

Throughout the project there was an additional requirement for a watching brief for archaeological finds due to its close proximity to previous find sites.

Lee continues: “Due to the interim nature of the building, the client requested using minimal cladding details and finishes. We suggested a warm grey colour to the exterior as it is both complementary to the existing material palette on the buildings around the site but will also recede into the background. This will ensure there are no negative effects of glare or reflections to users of the football pitch. When we make design proposals, we take a 360 view on the impact of our buildings and consider both their function and aesthetics.”

A further two buildings were added to the portfolio and included experimental psychology accommodation with specialist acoustic separation over two floors for research programmes.

In the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter, Portakabin designed and engineered a two-storey building, providing over 2,650m2 of space specifically for testing facilities and office accommodation for the Departments of Experimental Psychology. It will accommodate over 100 university employees and over 80 potential test participants.

“The footprint for this building was very specific and had to be carefully controlled. Designers had to take into account how people flow through the building in order to maintain separation between various groups of test subjects and researchers. Maintaining confidentiality for this sensitive work was key,” said Lee.

Scientifically, the rooms had to be able to uphold conditions for delicate audiometric testing facilities, which included temperature monitoring, humidity control and isolated acoustics.

The third and final building has been built over two storeys, plus a plant room on the roof covering over 3,250m2. The building is rectangular, ensuring maximum efficiency of shared spaces and facilities, thanks to consolidating requirements and reducing internal circulation. Simple techniques such as positioning rooms that benefit from natural light around the perimeter of the building, with spaces not requiring natural light located in the deep plan part of the building, helped shape the building’s functional footprint.

Lee explains: “The most challenging M&E aspect was the temperature-controlled rooms, required to provide a range of conditions between 4 and 37 degrees Celsius. Working closely with both the University and the supply chain, supported by Arup, our team could rationalise and agree the brief for these specialist spaces. Additionally, we installed specialist ventilation and gas detection systems, specifically to enable the use of liquid nitrogen within the respective laboratories. The plethora of high-quality activity at the University, including niche projects such as researching delicate spider webs, requires these specialist facilities and systems to complement the work.

“As the pioneers of off-site construction, Portakabin has the design, engineering and project management expertise to construct buildings of any size. The buildings we are currently engineering are challenging traditional builds’ flexibility and potential. It’s time to sit up and take notice. Portakabin offers the flexibility to adapt high-specification internal space to replicate traditionally built rooms without any compromise on quality.

“We have the capability to deliver accommodation ranging from a single interim classroom through to award-winning architectural schemes as well as hybrid buildings using advanced off-site technology for primary and secondary schools, colleges and universities. It’s an exciting time to be part of Portakabin.”

For further information about Portakabin, please visit portakabin.co.uk

Leave a Reply

Free live webinar & QA

Blended learning – Did we forget about the students?

Free Education Webinar with Class

Wednesday, June 15, 11AM London BST

Join our expert panel as we look at what blended learning means in 2022 and how universities can meet the needs of ever more diverse student expectations.

Send an Invite...

Would you like to share this event with your friends and colleagues?