Apr 20, 2018 Last Updated 12:58 PM, Apr 18, 2018

Sustainable laboratory completes in spite of serious setback

Published in Upfront
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Public Sector Build Journal catches up with Nick Hilton (MCIOB), Morgan Sindall’s Senior Projects Manager, who tells the story of how he and his team delivered the GlaxoSmithKline Carbon Neutral Laboratory for Sustainable Chemistry for The University of Nottingham.


Nick Hilton says: "The experience of delivering this building will stay with me for life. I’ve never been involved in a project quite like it.” Back in 2010, and thanks to a £12m grant from pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, the £15.8m Sustainable Chemistry Laboratory moved from being a drawing-board concept to becoming reality.

The laboratory building was to become the centrepiece of The University of Nottingham’s Jubilee Campus and Innovation Park and provide office space and other facilities for organisations needing to collaborate with academia.

Designed to be energy-neutral, the building would become a striking addition to the Innovation Park’s built environment and home to state-of-the-art laboratory space. In addition, it would serve as a hub to catalyse new collaborations between academia and industry. The building is unique in the UK not only in its design but also through its use, specifically its focus on cutting-edge research activity in the field of sustainable chemistry.


“Sustainability was at the centre of every decision which we made during the construction,” recalled Nick.

“The materials, the entire M&E system and the very design and orientation of the building itself all lead to the core focus of driving down the carbon impact of the building – as measured against both BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) and LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) parameters. Sustainability is in the very DNA of the building,” he added.

The building incorporates the latest technologies to allow it to become carbon-neutral over its lifetime.

The laboratory has been built from natural materials such as specially manufactured glulam beams and columns which have carbon locked in. The glulam columns of 500mm x 500m, weighing up to 1.5 tonnes, and 960mm deep glulam beams with maximum spans of 10.0m, trap almost 1600 tonnes of carbon extracted from the atmosphere through the process of sequestration and tree growth.

In addition, cross-laminated timber was used for all floors, walls and ceilings and also, unusually, to form the building’s lift shafts. The energy required to run the laboratory will be met by renewable sources such as solar power and sustainable biofuel.

With an on-site combined heat and power plant, a green roof and grey water collection, the building achieved both a BREEAM rating of 'Outstanding' and LEED Platinum rating. It is set to reach carbon-neutral status after 25 years of operation.

The BREEAM rating alone categorises the building in the top 1-2% of new buildings constructed in the UK and, coupled with the LEED rating, it is one of only a handful of buildings to achieve both accreditations.

“There was a fine balance at times between the two assessment methods which have a subtly different emphasis on different areas. They were never directly contradictory but we found ourselves, on occasion, having to balance the requirements of one against the needs of the other. We had to work very closely with the environmental consultants to ensure we delivered a truly sustainable building and the process wasn’t reduced to a ‘tick-box’ exercise,” said Nick.

Surplus energy created by the building will provide enough carbon credits over 25 years to pay back the carbon used in its construction and is being used in a district heating system to heat the nearby office development on campus.

Unique design

Designed by Fairhursts Design Group, the building provides a remarkable entry point to the Jubilee Campus. The most immediately noticeable features of the 22m-high timber-framed building are the four distinctive ‘horns’ which project from the roof to provide natural ventilation. The system removes the requirement for a traditional mechanical air conditioning system, reducing the building’s energy demand in the process.

Externally, the building’s sweeping, curved green roof anchors the laboratory to the ground on the north-facing elevation while on the southern elevation, glass curtain walling floods the winter garden and communal areas with daylight.

A key internal design consideration was having the services exposed. This meant less material was used as would normally be and ducting was constructed with Spiralite rather than the more energy intensive aluminium. The design makes the most of the natural resources available, removing unnecessary energy use where possible.

“The design brought its own challenges particularly with air circulation in the cathedral-esque 8m-high ceilings of the laboratories. This was overcome with the installation of a small heater which is used to kick-start the convection process to circulate the air,” explained Nick.

Other external surfaces are clad in a mixture of materials including timber and terracotta titles.

The internal arrangement of the building is over two floors and includes 4500m2 of floor space divided between a range of uses including state-of-the-art teaching and research laboratories, writing up areas, school outreach space, academic offices, seminar rooms and a communal winter garden.

Getting started

“We started on site in the autumn of 2013. The site was already cleared so we got started on building right away with piling. We started assembling the timber frame and were making excellent progress. In the summer of 2014, we had topped out the building and were working toward getting the building weathertight before the winter set in. It was around 70% complete,” explained Nick.

The building was on schedule to be handed over early in 2015 when on the evening of September 12th 2014, the building was almost entirely destroyed by fire. “I found out something was wrong when I took a call from a colleague. I raced down to site and saw the fire brigade in attendance. We were only allowed limited access to the site in the following days as investigations were carried out,” explained Nick.

Those investigations from the police, fire and rescue and the HSE found that the most likely source of the fire was from an electrical source and that the build was fully compliant with the required guidelines.

“It was devastating to have seen all our work destroyed but with the investigation over, it soon became apparent that the resolve of both the customer and the site team was as strong as ever and the building would be delivered as promised.”

Starting over

With access to the site granted and the investigations concluded, the site was cleared back to ground level. Only the piles remained from the first incarnation of the building and even they had to be removed and renewed due to damage from the fire which reached temperatures of 1000ºC.

“We had the same core team on the project as we did from day one and after the fire and the subsequent investigations were complete, they set about delivering the building to the exact same specification and design as was originally intended. This was in the spring of 2015.

“The fire was a devastating setback but we got over the shock and were more determined than ever to create this special building. “We handed the building over to the university in September 2016 and we are very pleased with the final result. It’s a remarkable building with a remarkable story. By far, it is the most striking and memorable building I’ve delivered and I’m very proud to have worked on it,” Nick concluded.

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