World-class modular laboratories for University of St Andrews

Dozens of university staff, researchers and scientists lost valuable research following a devastating blaze in February last year. More than 30 firefighters tackled the fire in the Biomedical Sciences (BMS) building at the North Haugh

BMS housed labs conducting medically-focused research in organic and synthetic chemistry, virology, microbiology and biochemistry and has a strong reputation as a centre of scientific excellence addressing important scientific issues including infectious disease.

Solid compartmentalisation, thankfully, saved the majority of the building structure from the spread of flame but, unfortunately, two laboratories were completely destroyed, with extensive water damage throughout.

As a world-renowned research facility and a prestigious centre for education, news of the university’s plight quickly reached the national news agenda and the Portakabin team was quick to respond.

“We asked them if we could help and the university said yes – but they weren’t 100% sure what help they needed at that point,” explained Philip Dawson, project manager for Portakabin.

Having previously completed a similar sizeable task for the University of Oxford in 2017, when it replaced its Tinbergan Building with three separate and state-of-the-art scientific teaching and laboratory facilities, Portakabin was well versed to advise.

With the lived experience from this project, Phil Dawson and his team were well placed to provide a solution for St Andrews. The team was able to hit the ground running with the university, making sure the building design would deliver optimum space alongside state-of-the-art facilities.

With a site available right next to the damaged BMS building, the final challenge to overcome was planning permission.

The construction of the temporary lab facilities ensures that the ground- breaking research carried out within BMS continues and lets the world know that we are open for business, delivering results of real global significance – Professor Tom Brown

“With qualified quantity surveyors on our team, we knew erecting a three-storey building on the estate, regardless of whether it was temporary or not, was going to be a challenge. So, we had several conversations with the planning authority who appreciated the urgency and need of the project,” explains Phil. “We couldn’t have been handed a better site. Almost just in the shadow of the other building, it made transferring undamaged equipment and the final decant a much more straightforward process – and again – helped us shave even more days off the challenging programme.”

“The modules we used to create the building are our typical building blocks; however, how we modify them at the manufacture and fit-out stage is how we create buildings which look and feel permanent for the customer. This includes strengthened floors to support increased loadings due to the specialist scientific equipment and upgraded fire performance for further peace of mind. As we’d done this very specialist type of building before, we already knew the areas of design and fit-out that would really matter and how to ensure the building met with our client’s exacting requirements.”

All 44 modules were delivered to site from the Portakabin manufacturing facility in York and craned into place over five days in July.

The Willie Russell Laboratories at the University of St Andrews were officially opened at the end of 2019 by the principal, Professor Sally Mapstone. The new facility was named after molecular virologist Professor Willie Russell, who was instrumental in establishing the university’s virology unit which will continue within the new complex.

Nick Griffin, general manager for Portakabin, said: “Having already delivered exceptional laboratory facilities for the University of Oxford last year, we’re delighted to be able to share our expert knowledge and learnings with another world-class learning institution. Handed over on time for the beginning of the academic year, it’s great to see the department fully operational and proving popular with students and faculty staff.”

Professor Tom Brown, dean of science at the university, said: “The fire at the Biomedical Sciences building was devastating to not only the researchers, students and staff here in St Andrews, but was also felt across the whole scientific community.”

“The construction of the temporary lab facilities ensures that the ground-breaking research carried out within BMS continues and lets the world know that we are open for business, delivering results of real global significance.”

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