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Fast-Track Design Plan Produces Massive COVID Test Processing Facility

The Rosalind Franklin Laboratory was able to go live in under a year

MaryBeth DiDonna

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Image of new entrance and reception area using existing openings to create a welcoming, socially distant, and secure entrance to the facility.

The Rosalind Franklin Laboratory, one of the world’s largest diagnostic facilities, has been established in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Located in Royal Leamington Spa in the UK, this facility will be able to process hundreds of thousands of COVID-19 tests a day. The 225,000 sq. ft. facility became operational on June 25, and anticipates final completion of substantial construction by late 2021. The lab design incorporated new technology and innovation for the diagnostic process in a short amount of time. 

The project team consisted of HOK (architect and lab planner), Mace (project manager), WSP (design manager and engineer), Hoare Lea (independent commissioning), and Balfour Beatty (contractor). 

Lab Manager spoke with Gary Clark, Regional Leader of Science+Technology, HOK London Studio, about this new facility and its capabilities. 

Q: What was the need for this facility? Is it replacing an outdated existing facility or accommodating new research/ a new program?

A: The project is a central part of the UK government’s ongoing response to the pandemic and part of its plan to supplement and enhance the ultra-high throughput diagnostic testing infrastructure to respond to COVID-19, and in the longer term prepare for future epidemics/pandemics.

Q: What kinds of sustainability initiatives have been included in the design plan?

A: To reduce carbon emissions during its delivery, three key strategies have been employed. Firstly, it has been created within an existing 225,000 sq. ft. warehouse building, which results in significant embodied carbon savings due to reuse foundations, superstructure, and external envelope, which typically equate to two-thirds of embodied carbon use of new buildings. Secondly, off-site modern methods of construction have been used for all lab lines, and the main new welfare pavilion. This again will result in significant embodied carbon savings. Finally, the box-in-box approach for internal pavilions helps to reduce overall heat loss from the building, and with a highly efficient thermal recovery HVAC system results in operational energy savings compared with other similar buildings.

The health and well-being of staff is the flip side of the sustainable design coin, and was a very important part of our and NHS Test and Trace’s vision for the project. The non-lab space is designed to enhance the well-being of the hundreds of staff, and to create attractive workspace compliant with the latest social distancing and PPE guidance. This includes a ‘welfare zone’ that spans the full width of the building and includes a café, food and beverage concessions, a social area, and flexible meeting space. This area has been designed to maximize natural light, creating an open and calming space for collaborative work, and neuro-diverse spaces for relaxing.

Image of open plan double height welfare space utilizing existing part of warehouse. The vision is to create a flexible, vibrant, daylit, and exciting space to welcome visitors and for lab staff to relax within.

Q: Is there anything particularly unique or groundbreaking about your facility or the design plan?

A: The size of the facility and speed of design and construction are the most notable. This is one of the largest diagnostic testing facilities in Europe, which will incorporate several separate lab lines capable of processing hundreds of thousands of tests each day.

HOK worked closely with Mace and WSP to introduce off-site construction techniques and to develop innovative design solutions to support the fast-track go-live of the Rosalind Franklin high-throughput lab from a typical 30-month program to less than a year. The team minimized the carbon footprint of the project while maximizing speed and certainty of delivery. The team continues to hand over the lab lines progressively, with construction progressing adjacent to the live and operational lab environments.

The key to successful delivery was the open and collaborative ‘team charter’ within the multidisciplinary team, enabled by technologies including building information modeling level 2 (BIM) and a remote working project delivery management system (PDMS) that worked well throughout the pandemic. Twice daily project meetings were held with NHS Test and Trace and the mantra of ‘a year becomes a month, a month a week, and a week is a day’ was embraced by all partners. Early engagement (within week two) of the supply chain supported the design process to ramp up rapidly in the initial design stages in response to critical program requirements.

The internal area is centered around a series of identical 246-foot-long lab lines for processing COVID-19 test samples using LGC’S EndPointPCR (ePCR) testing workflow for COVID-19, which has ultra-high capacity. These are arranged in airlocked, prefabricated, CL2-enhanced containment modules designed around the various stages of the sample preparation, extraction, and subsequent testing. They are serviced by linked waste and clean corridors.

The lab lines, which are separated from the rest of the internal area by a full-height fire compartment wall, are paired. At the end of each group of three lines are shared ePCR Nexar testing machines.

Image along the logistics corridor with the entrances of each lab line expressed with unique graphic and wayfinding design by HOK. This image gives an impression of the scale of the building with the logistics corridor being over 400 feet long.

Q: What sorts of challenges did you encounter during the design/build process, and how did you overcome them?

A: The compressed schedule was the key challenge, which is addressed above, by collapsing sequential and linear workstreams into stacked and parallel workstreams. NHS Test and Trace briefings were occurring while we were developing the internal planning and finalizing the construction systems to be used. We sketched out the concept at pace, and delivered first draft of a coordinated Detailed Design in a number of weeks. The contractor, Balfour Beatty, started in mid-December 2020 and it was validated to begin processing COVID-19 tests by late June 2021.

Q: If a similar facility or program were to look at your lab for inspiration, what do you think they will take away as an example of what they should also implement in their own lab?


  • Consider fast track project management techniques of briefing/design charettes where all key decision makers are in the room at the same time.
  • Consider creating a ‘collaborative working charter’ for all project members.
  • Consider adaptive reuse of existing buildings. This saves time and significant amount of carbon emissions.
  • Consider using modular off-site construction systems which again saves time and carbon.
  • Daylight and line of sight is a perquisite for the health, well-being, and efficient operation of labs.
  • Vibrant graphics and wayfinding are critical for the legibility of large facilities such as this.
  • Stimulating and best-in-class staff welfare areas with day light, range of amenities, and bio-philia is fundamental to staff attraction, retention, and well-being.
  • Creating a range of neuro-diverse spaces for all is the future of the workplace.

Q: Are there any plans for the facility once there is no longer a need for so many COVID tests?

A: We are already adapting the lab lines to new testing flows with the arrival of heat inactivation techniques of the COVID virus to reduce risk and speed up testing process by over 30 percent. The lab will roll out genotype assay testing to help scientists quickly identify known variants of concern, as well as genome sequencing to identify new mutations.