3D BIM modelling is at the heart of what we do whether working on multi-mega-watt data centres, award-winning residential schemes, or complex pharmaceutical facility design and refurbishments. Mechanical & Engineering Technical Director, Graham Bonnett, gives a round-up of some of the key projects our Mechanical and Electrical Engineering teams have been working on.

Complex HVAC requirements at Illumina

Illumina is a high-tech company, based in the USA but with a very large UK presence. We first met Illumina because they were building their new UK HQ – a very large laboratory building – on Quanta Park, where we were already active. We were called in to assist with the mechanical and electrical engineering aspect of the project where additional technical input was required, to sit with the client and tie the various elements together, assess why it was going wrong, and help secure its completion and commissioning.

Illumina specialise in DNA sequencing. DNA analysis is a complex and data-intensive business. Every sequence generates six terabytes of data, and Illumina’s HQ houses about 80 sequencers, running around the clock, generating significant amounts of heat. So, a key issue is to ensure there are aqequate cooling systems. But we were tasked to review all equipment specifications, for the chillers, air handling units, pumps, or anything else, essentially to protect the client and make sure they got they were paying for. And once installation was completed, we helped with witnessing commissioning, and then monitoring the functioning of the new building through its defects liability period.

Since that initial role, we have carried out a number of other MEP projects for Illumina, including extensive heat load testing, lab upgrades and the repurposing of existing offices and other facilities. One major issue for clients in this sort of field is that science moves so fast that buildings quickly become out of date. And the changing use of building spaces has been exacerbated by COVID reducing the requirement for office space even further.

In this context, we have converted offices to pilot labs with a high density of fume cupboards and clean room facilities. We have also built an incubator/accelerator project; a lab building for startups. The principal MEPchallenge here is catering for the air change requirements, which are clearly much higher in a laboratory than in an office. Doing this has been greatly helped by the 3D modelling that was carried out on the original project. 

HVAC upgrades at the Portway

Also on the Granta Park is a building called Portway. Initially built as a large office complex for one company, we have been working on dividing it up to house nine separate clients. This has complex implications for mechanical and electrical services. For obvious technical reasons, each client cannot be serviced separately, so each one has to be monitored separately for energy, airflow and water usage.

The existing plant was 20 years old, and at the end of its useful life. But you can’t simply replace an old plant with a new one – mechanical and electrical engineering machines are so much more advanced and efficient now so some take up less space, but others are larger due to the need to reduce energy (for example, air-handling units).  We have taken the opportunity to reconfigure the building to some extent. But in the case of the air handling units, the building was more or less built around them so it was difficult and financially unviable to remove them.  So we have taken a mixed replace and refurbish approach to the plant machinery. 

But the building management system is all brand new. We have completely changed the philosophy of how the building operates. It's a much more slimmed down version of what it used to be, using fan coil units for the basic cooling. We have brought it into line with current building regulations, and industry best practice, through good modern design. 

We are now in the installation stage and our role is working with the contractor to ensure the mechanical and electrical systems installed meet the client brief and design vision.  The works should be complete early 2022.


Pharmaceutical Facility Design for GSK

We've done a lot of work for GSK over four sites now, principally in Stevenage, where we built a new cryogenics building. This was a really interesting project because there are two things in it that are probably unique, certainly in the UK, if not in the world. 

This building contains hundreds of thousands of samples, stored in vats of liquid nitrogen at -278o centigrade. Cold. Currently, accessing the samples is a manual process which exposes the users to risk of asphyxiation due to their close proximity to the liquid Nitrogen. As the Nitrogen evaporates, a blanket of cold Nitrogen forms on the floor and rises upwards, thereby excluding the oxygen necessary for human life.

For the new facility, they wanted to make sure no-one had to go near the storage vessels. So they commissioned a US company called Brooks to design a robot that could collect samples and deliver them to the scientist, in a way that’s a bit like a vending machine. Our challenge was to design and build the building around the robot system which was a world first and still in development. 

Additionally, the way Bryden Wood have designed the extraction systems is a UK - and probably world first. Because these rooms are highly hazardous, the air change rate must be high in volume, but it must also be at low level physically. In every other facility I know of, extracting at low level is done with ductwork. It's inefficient because you can only put ductwork in certain areas, as people cannot be required to step over it as they move around the space. Worse, because of the way ductwork is made, the extraction actually takes place about 15cm from the floor, which would allow the cold nitrogen to completely miss the extraction and bleed out into the room. 

So we designed a trench system, covered with a grille, to surround all the critical areas, and we extract the air from the trench. Any nitrogen is pulled into the trench by the extraction (we’re extracting the air from the whole space through the trench), but also by gravity because it’s heavier than air. It seems almost obvious, but because it was a groundbreaking MEP design , we did comprehensive testing and modelling to make sure it would work, using computational fluid dynamics (a digital way of predicting how air will move through a building). GSK – quite rightly – have a very strong Health and Safety culture, so the testing threshold was incredibly high. But the system passed, we installed it and it’s working very well.

Also in Stevenage, we worked with GSK on the lab grade water system. They had a very large system, which had been put in 20 years ago. They wanted to analyse how much of its capacity was used and when, and what its overall condition was. We did a full review, which showed that because conditions had changed since it was designed, it was massively oversized, and not fit for purpose anymore. As a result, we've done a feasibility study for abandoning the existing system and putting in several smaller plants. This would have multiple benefits, not least in saving on expensive pipe work to carry water long distances, because it's such a large site. But also, the bigger the pipe loop, the more problems you have with water quality. We should be installing this new system soon.

Converting offices to labs

This is something else we’re looking at – or designing the mechanical and electrical engineering systems in new office buildings so that they are flexible enough to change usage later. Obviously, there’s a challenge in thinking about ceiling heights and so on, but mostly the complexity is around air exchange. In an office, you aim for one and a half air changes per hour, whereas with laboratories, because they've got lots of safety cabinets and other devices, we have to look at 10, 15 or even 20 changes an hour in some places. So the ductwork has to be 10 times as big, and the risers 10 times as big to carry the air up and down, and so on. Designing in flexibility presents lots of interesting challenges. 

Master planning and MEP Design for a precious metals refinery

We started working on this precious metals refinery in 2016. They refine five different types of precious metal. The precious metals are obtained in raw form from many sources, but most come from catalytic converters in car exhausts.  The metals, once purified, don’t look like much – a grey powder – but they are hugely expensive. 

They take a product like a catalytic converter, and the first process is to smelt it. They start with just 0.3% of valuable metal by volume and after smelting, it's still a very small quantity of metal, but it’s at a size that they can put it in the back of a truck to be taken to the refinery where the valuable metals are extracted.

Their present refinery was built in 1965, and is in need of replacement. Our first job was to look at all sorts of options about where they might build a new refinery, from the UK to Europe to Asia. For a number of reasons, the UK was the best option. Then of course we had to find a suitable location in the UK and masterplan the site. The conclusion we came to was to knock down a series of existing buildings close to the current facility. This would allow us to build the new refinery while keeping the old one going for as long as possible, before transferring operations to the new one.

As you can imagine, a refinery is a hugely technical building and the M&E element is the most significant part of the project. We designed the building, it went out to tender and is currently in construction. It’s due to be completed later this year, with commissioning taking until 2023. We are continuing to work on the project as Design Guardian.

A complete mechanical and electrical engineering solution

Over the years, design and build of complex facilities has become piecemeal. Contracts are split up between designers and contractors, and everyone tries to minimise or pass on risk. The trouble with this is that it destroys value for the client – it removes the big picture view, which is really important, especially on highly complex and intricate jobs like laboratories or some of the others I’ve described here. Some of the time, we find ourselves having to fix work that has been poorly conceived and carried out because of this way of working. Systems that simply don’t work. We want to take on entire contracts in order to be able to deliver the complete solution that is best for our clients. We will always be able to deliver the most value when we are engaged at the start of a project.


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