BIOSAFETY INSTALLATIONS FOR ARCHITECTURE: Interview with José María Cristóbal González

We would like to focus on the team behind our projects at ENERO Arquitectura and show you their personal approach on the issues that most concern us as designers and also share our specialised knowledge.


We inaugurate this series of interviews with our Head of Projects, José María Cristóbal González, who participated in the round table ‘Environmental Security and Biocontainment Projects and Regulations’ held during the 40th Hospital Engineering Seminar, a national conference in Spain. José María has specialised knowledge in biocontainment (he has completed Advanced Biosafety Training courses and specialisation modules) and the most important features associated with it for subsequent use in biosafety architecture projects.


We asked him about the creative and technical challenges of designing projects with biosafety facilities such as the new BSL3 Biocontainment Animal Facility for the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.



Question: What are biocontainment spaces and how do they differ from the other projects you design in the studio? Why is a specific architecture for biocontainment necessary?


Biocontainment spaces are buildings specifically designed to work with and safely contain hazardous pathogens. They are different from the other projects we carry out at ENERO Arquitectura because of the specialisation and precision required throughout the process, and the demanding coordination of the multidisciplinary work teams. These teams are made up of architects, installation and structural engineers, biosafety experts, risk assessment technicians, environmental impact assessors, and professionals from specialist equipment companies, as well as the very active role of the end user/owner.



The requirements, which are always geared towards the safety of the installation, require a specific, highly precise, and detailed architecture. Some of them include location, materials, spaces and the relationship between them, circulation flows, redundant facilities, etc. They help to define the buildings that house laboratories, animal facilities and/or plant nurseries.


Biosafety facilities are currently experiencing a boom, largely driven by Covid and climate change, which has led to increased investment in such facilities both at the European and international levels.



Question: What aspects do you consider a priority when designing a biocontainment building?


To use the Vitruvian definition, architecture is a balance between Utilitas, Firmitas, and Venustas (Usefulness, Strength, and Beauty), which is equally applicable to this type of building. Utilitas takes on even greater importance here and becomes the backbone of the project. Firmitas combines the load-bearing structure with that of being a primary containment barrier. Venustas helps optimise daily work life, enhances the stay of people and animals, integrates into, and improves the environment of the city.


When designing this type of building, safety is the priority. It is a fundamental aspect throughout the whole process to guarantee the correct functioning of the installation and to protect the staff, environment, and the surrounding community.


The right location of the building, the proper arrangement of the different uses, an optimal relationship between uses, and ensuring a good operational flow or circulation of people, materials, samples, animals, and waste are also crucial.



Question: The name of the project itself mentions the biocontainment level of the building, in this case, Level 3. What implications does this categorisation have for the design and operation of the building?


The design of a biosafety installation becomes a key element, the result of coordinated and multidisciplinary work. It should ensure activity-biosafety coordination; safe exchange of people, materials, samples, and waste; control of fluids leaving the facility; security of biological material and sensitive data; and protection of the environment and third parties.


Biocontainment levels are classified from 1 to 4, depending on the pathogens and practices to be performed. Classification levels 3 and 4 are substantially the most demanding from a safety and design point of view, with many stringent elements to consider.


All this implies precise design, specific materials and solutions, specialised equipment, and consequently, more investment needed for its development.


For proper operation, staff working protocols are also very important in this type of facility, along with complex and detailed procedures to be strictly and continuously followed.



Question: Functionally, the building is very different from other healthcare architecture projects. How is the functional programme of the building designed? What have been the biggest challenges in combining design and functionality?


As indicated above, safety and functionality are the ever-present, priority objective, and design is put into the service of this. The architectural typology of these projects has a fixed and not very variable scheme.


A ‘sandwich’ typology with tiered organisation. The middle floor is where the building’s primary activities take place, with the lower floor used for effluent inactivation and spaces for utilities and equipment. The upper floor is used for electrical service networks and filtration systems. The others include a sanitary chamber at the bottom floor, to separate the building from the ground and to control biological leaks, and the top floor, where air supply and extraction equipment, air intakes and discharges, other installations, and photovoltaic panels are located.



At the base level, to provide an optimal degree of biosafety, the box-in-box system is used, so that the “dirtiest” areas are separated from the outside by a corridor buffer or less critical areas.




The ultimate goal is to ensure biosafety, and to ensure that the design of the building meets the most rigorous standards possible from various points of view.


Question: From a technical point of view, what are the particularities of the project in terms of the facilities needed to ensure biocontainment? What are the materials used and their implications?


The basic requirements for a level 3, very similar to those of level 4, are:

  • must be a self-sufficient building in terms of resources, instruments, and facilities
  • must have a complex physical containment barrier made of concrete and calculated with zero-cracking criteria; double-fixed and airtight windows; interlocking, fire-resistant, and hermetically sealed doors; access locks; changing rooms with transfer showers; single-entry equipment rooms, etc.
  • barrier equipment for the passage of personnel, materials, animals, and samples, such as airlocks, safety access system (SAS), autoclaves, pass-through boxes, and class 3 biosafety cabinets
  • ‘sandwich typology in an isolated building with reinforced security, biosecurity measures, and complex access control
  • air treatment ensuring pressure gradient, bag-in/bag-out HEPA filtration, independent ducting, hermetic ducts and filtration boxes. The pressure gradient becomes a key element that will prevent the passage of air from dirty to clean rooms.
  • redundancy in installations, effluent treatment and inactivation system, and reinforced fire protection
  • watertight materials that are pressure-resistant, smooth, durable, mechanically and chemically resistant, that can be decontaminated, etc.



Robert Koch Institute, Berlín, Alemania. Imagen de catálogo de HT Group.


Instalación de bioseguridad. Imagen de catálogo de HT Group.


Question: At ENERO Arquitectura, multidisciplinary and coordinated work is a constant in every project. On the team you have architects, BIM managers, health and safety experts; you also collaborate with specialised engineering companies. How has biosafety fit into this collaborative ecosystem?


Extensive experience in healthcare projects, some of them highly complex, has allowed for a simple and natural fit. Biosafety has been easily integrated into ENERO Arquitectura, a step further in our development through careful coordination and multidisciplinary collaboration. The owners are key because in this type of project it takes a more active role throughout all phases. Other key players are biosafety and risk assessment experts. This has allowed us to have a more comprehensive and specialised view of biocontainment projects.


Having good architects on the team who very well understand the singularities and precision of these projects has made the process and the work fast, easy, and gratifying.


The same with BIM managers, who have become even more important in the process. Each element of the building must be perfectly modelled and controlled to ensure efficient information management and proper coordination between all project components.



Question: Normally, projects are limited by rules and different regulatory frameworks, especially in this type of building. Have they ended up affecting the project conception process and the final design of the project?


As with all architectural projects, the regulations precondition the design, usually limiting it, but in some cases, they lead you in the right direction.


In biosafety projects, these regulations are expanded and made more complex by the various directives and regulatory frameworks that govern this type of building. For example, European, state, or local regulations, and guidance or recommendation guidelines and standards (WHO, CDC, Canadian Biosafety Standards, ABSA, EBSA, AENOR, AeBios, etc.), are important reference points to be considered throughout the design process. The UNE 171400 standard, which deals with the design of level 3 biocontainment facilities, also defines the limits in our projects.



Question: What challenges does ENERO Arquitectura face in designing the biosafety buildings of the future?


ENERO Arquitectura faces several significant challenges in this regard. First, when carrying out new biosafety projects, we will need to use the experience we have from other facilities, which is so necessary now because of climate change, migrations, etc., along with greater study and identification of this type of complex, specialised and exacting project. Then, executing ongoing projects and work with optimal results to satisify our clients and users. For the design of level 4 facilities, nationally or internationally, we will need to develop buildings with the highest standards of biosafety and adapt to new technologies and scientific advances. In short, the challenge of continuing to improve and help society as best we know how, by making the best buildings possible