News + Ideas

Behind the Build: University of Birmingham, Molecular Sciences, Phase One


MGAC was founded on a simple promise: to take the most interesting, ambitious project ideas and make them a reality. Getting there is a matter of countless small steps, conversations, and carefully-calibrated decisions, taking place between day one and that long-awaited delivery day. These are the moments that make a project. With our Behind the Build series, we take a closer look at the roads that lead to a final product, delving into the ways our talented, passionate team makes a project possible. Today, we revisit our work with the University of Birmingham’s Molecular Sciences, Phase One.

Scientific breakthroughs that advance medicine, curb environmental impacts, and shape the world as we know it all begin in buildings. Buildings designed for game-changing collaboration, fitted with state-of-the-art technology, and optimised for one sole purpose: to equip esteemed researchers with everything they need to get right to work solving some of the biggest scientific challenges of our time. MGAC recently had the honour of delivering precisely such a space to the University of Birmingham. The groundbreaking Molecular Sciences, Phase One building opened its doors late last year. Today, the 11,230m² research hub is the base for some 500 scientists working across chemical, environmental, and biomedical sciences.

The £80M project—MGAC’s latest cost management collaboration with the University of Birmingham—was defined by a keen sense of ambition: to build an incredible hub for innovation under a stringent budget while achieving impressive sustainability goals. Joining us on the project team and integral to the successful outcome were Associated Architects, Morgan Sindall as contractor, CPW leading electrical and mechanical engineering services, and Ramboll Group providing structural services. Let’s take a look at how it all came together.


The bedrock of a successful project is the planning that takes place starting on day one. That’s perhaps never been more true than for the Molecular Sciences, Phase One building, the site of sensitive experiments and research activities that are hyper-susceptible to external vibration. Even a small tremor could disrupt a lifetime’s worth of work. With the busy local hospital and train station just a stone’s throw away, we recognised that mitigating the impacts of external vibration in the planning stage would be key. The building’s frame and sub-structures were fundamental to the design for the role they played. Additionally, the most vibration-sensitive facilities were placed on the lower ground floor, which sat atop a ground-bearing slab that created low-vibration spaces, while positioning less vibration-sensitive labs on upper floors. This approach also enabled scientists to get to work inside the building, even as later-phase construction was still underway.

Another early challenge was navigating the project site itself. It was previously occupied by a sports centre that the University had demolished 10 years prior. But the foundation remained, and our project team was unsure of what obstructions had been left below ground. To avoid a surprise—even one we could create a risk budget for—we recommended de-risking the project right away through an enabling works contract, which involved works and ground investigation surveys, breaking out all obstructions, putting drainage in, and readying the main access road.

Even as work got underway, we remained keenly aware of our surroundings, as the project site was in the middle of a live campus—one that would host the Commonwealth Games hockey and squash matches while we were on site. We avoided disruption to the televised games through careful logistics planning with Morgan Sindall, including coordinating deliveries to arrive exclusively in early morning hours.


Innovation was at the heart of this build, and bringing the ambitious vision to life required great amounts of specialised equipment. At the same time, the budget was strict and could not be exceeded. Simply put, cost planning was vital.

The process was a feat of firsts at every turn. Massive air-source heat pumps were just the second of their size in the country at the time. A separate energy centre houses the ASHP’s and associated plant for the LEV system. A secure compound adjacent to the main building was needed to house the many gases used in the labs, which were directed into the building through a maze of pump lines.

To provide precise cost forecasts for this highly specialised scope, we led a rigorous financial analysis that informed the budget and identified cost-saving opportunities. Aiding in this process was our ability to reference hyper-accurate market rates for many internal elements of the building, from lab furniture to curtain walling and cladding systems, flooring to fume cupboards, from a similar project our team had completed six months prior. We also market-tested key packages during initial phases, evaluating a number of suppliers and contractors to ensure best financial, quality, and sustainability value. This step was integral in making informed decisions and establishing a strong foundation for success—essential in a cutting-edge project bound by budget.


Recognising the specialised nature of this job, our team committed early to attending nearly every technical meeting held with specialists. While this went above and beyond the norm, we knew it would be a difference-maker in navigating the building’s highly complex systems and facilitating conversations with the many stakeholders jointly making it a reality.

To keep everyone fully informed and ensure any potential issues were proactively identified and resolved, we led a comprehensive stakeholder engagement process anchored in the presentation of meticulous monthly project dashboards to the project board. And, given the delicate experiments and research due to be conducted in the building, it was important to engage the very scientists and researchers who would be using it. Building Information Modelling was used to create a virtual model for the entire space, allowing academics to explore their future worksite every step of the way through a set of virtual reality goggles.


For the University of Birmingham, the Molecular Sciences Building, Phase One was not only an opportunity to strengthen its research capabilities, but to further advance its commitments to creating a sustainable campus for the future. As a research facility, creating a low-carbon building presented its own unique challenges, given the nature of the site’s core research activities. But through close collaboration among the project team, we secured a BREEAM Excellent rating and an EPC A [14] rating.

The building’s structural design was carefully crafted to minimise concrete use and embodied carbon—even while ensuring compliance with strict vibration performance standards. The rooftop boasts 475m² of photovoltaic panels that generate approximately 84,000kWh of sustainable energy annually, while LED lighting throughout and an absence detection-controlled system with daylight harvesting element reduces energy consumption by about 75 percent. Office spaces feature dedicated air handling units with efficient thermal wheel heat recovery, which optimises heat reuse.

Additionally, the air source heat pump technology used significantly decarbonises the building’s energy supply, contributing to a staggering 70 percent reduction in carbon emissions. Our modelling even considered the effects of global warming, placing attention on how the building, namely office spaces, would perform in warmer conditions in the future.


Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and war in Ukraine straining the supply chain and prompting a 12-month project pause, the extensive new facility was delivered within budget. The Molecular Sciences Building, Phase One is a beacon of innovation unrivalled in the UK outside of London and Oxbridge. Across its labs, meeting rooms, and collaboration spaces, scientists are making plastics recyclable, researching materials for energy applications, and studying the environmental effects of drugs in the ecosystem. The future is bright at the University of Birmingham, and we are eager to witness the ways the Molecular Sciences Facility carries us there as it fosters big ideas, cultivates cutting-edge innovations, and sparks bold new breakthroughs.

Contact Us

Want to learn more about how we can help bring your project to life, or get in touch with one of our many experts? Send us an email with how we can help, and we will be in touch.

Contact Us