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Spring summer 2017

High containment: inside the world of virus research

Copyright: Dan Schwalm/HDR Architecture, Inc

Person-centric design and maximum level biosecurity meet in £145M facility.

Looking out of the window isn’t something most office workers would consider a luxury. But then, most people don’t work in a maximum security, biosafety level 4 high-containment research facility, working to protect the UK’s multi-billion pound agricultural industry from dangerous and highly infectious animal viruses.


For bioimaging expert Jenny Simpson, Bioimaging Research Assistant at The Pirbright Institute, UK, seeing and feeling natural light while checking email away from the microscope is a luxury she thought she’d never enjoy. Neither was a coffee at her desk, because food, drink and high containment don’t really mix.

“The new write-up space outside of the labs is considered as an extension of the canteen, so we are now allowed to eat and drink at the computers,” says Simpson. “It’s a perk that a lot of people like.”

These seemingly trivial treats are some of the many positive changes brought about by her move into the BBSRC National Virology Centre inside the institute’s new £145M Plowright Building – one of the biggest investments in the science infrastructure of the UK bioeconomy for decades which will provide a national capability for research on viruses.


The new building mixes the hard-edged reality of the type of laboratory that could handle the Ebola virus with the softer, person-centric touches designed to attract and keep the world’s top scientific talent. It’s the newest and most advanced laboratory of its kind – one of only a handful across the globe.

The new award-winning building that Simpson and her colleagues have moved into has taken some brave and bold steps in its design. High containment labs are usually buried deep inside a building to keep dangerous elements as far from the outside as possible. Using advances in construction materials and methodology, this new building has the highest levels of containment sealed, but on the outside, letting natural light in. It allows everything from meetings to meals to be almost ‘shared’ between high-containment researchers and other staff in the building, whilst not compromising the absolutely necessary principles of physical separation.

“People hear the word ‘containment’ and imagine a box-within-a-box situation which is the normal working practice,” says Simpson. “I don’t think anyone would imagine the building we have.”

Continuing the story

Read the full feature High containment: inside the world of virus research on Medium. Medium is an increasingly popular publishing website associated with good quality, often longer form writing and journalism.

Banner photo courtesy of HDR Architecture, Inc. © 2014 Dan Schwalm/HDR, Inc.