Behind the scenes: Stephen Holmes and a surprising career switch to building and managing a state-of-the-art laboratory
Stephen Holmes is a familiar face to many as the LMB’s Head of Estates and Capital Projects. He first joined the LMB as a Post-Doctoral Researcher in 2000, working with Mike Gait’s group in the PNAC Division. In 2005 he joined the MRC as a User Briefing Coordinator, and was involved in the mammoth job of overseeing design, construction and delivery of the new LMB building, which was officially opened in 2013.
Here, Stephen reflects on the past 20+ years he has spent at the LMB.
Craziest interview I’d ever had
I started at the LMB at the end of January 2000. I’d come from the University of Sheffield where I’d completed my degree and Ph.D. As I was coming to the end of the Ph.D., my manager Jane Grasby (who herself was an LMB alumna) said, “You might be interested in working with Mike Gait at the LMB in Cambridge.”
I then met Mike at a conference in Scotland. He seemed very interested in the work I was doing and before I knew it, he’d asked me to come down to the LMB for an interview. On the day, I was really panicking because I was running late; I’d missed my train connection at Ely and I couldn’t find my way into the building (the old LMB was a labyrinth). I remember one of Mike’s group, a guy called David Earnshaw, was at a window up on the third floor, shouting, “Steve! Steve!” and pointing the way to Reception. I met Mike, apologised for being late and he said, “Don’t worry about it. If you go down and meet some people, they’ll take you through your pension and your starting salary, and then you can come up and give us a talk about what you’re up to.” Craziest interview I’d ever had!
I worked with Mike from 2000 to 2005. I was in the chemistry lab, working on a mixture of ribozyme and antisense research which was going to be the future! I did a lot of work on 2’-O-methyl G-clamps, which could wrap around guanosine nucleosides to block RNA replication. Unfortunately, it didn’t lead to the successes we’d all hoped it would – possibly limited by the available technology at the time – and despite Mike’s efforts to keep me engaged, I found it disheartening. I was trying to be a scientist and find out incredible things which would change the world, but all I kept finding out was ‘that didn’t work’ and ‘you can’t actually do that.’ I needed to find something else to do.
We really need this guy – he can make sure that everything’s a success
I was walking down the corridor in the LMB and saw the notice board with job listings – they were looking for a User Brief Coordinator on the new LMB building project. I thought, ‘What is that?’ and went to speak to Megan Davis, the Head of the MRC Centre, about applying.
The interview was amazing; every question that I was asked, I knew exactly what to do. It was all about areas of laboratory operations and equipment that I was familiar with, like how NMR works, the problems with magnetic fields, and dealing with research at Containment Level 2. But I didn’t get the job as one of the people I was up against had a similar scientific background but had also worked in construction which was seen to be a big bonus. But David Julian, who was leading the project, met Richard Henderson and Hugh Pelham and basically said, “We really need this guy – he can make sure that everything’s a success.”
I got the job of Scientific and Technical Systems Coordinator. I’d been given around three months to wrap up my research. I tried very hard to finish off my research, but the new building project was heating up and at some point, Hugh came down to see me to say, “We really need you now.” And that was it. I turned up on my first day in the new role wearing a shirt and tie – I was applauded for the effort but quickly told to take the tie off.
Every day I learnt something
Between myself and my colleague Jason Embleton, we were responsible for making sure that the design information that defined what the new building was going to be, captured everything that it needed to. It was a big job. We worked on developing the design up to the point it was so well-defined, there was as little ambiguity as possible for the contractor.
At the heart of the building design was an engineering solution which would allow for continuous upgrade works to keep up with the demands of 21st century molecular biology. That’s why each floor has a full height, interstitial engineering floor above it. The net usable space in the building is around 25,000 square metres, but when you include the interstitial floors (which are officially ‘walk on ceilings’ rather than floors), the building is more like 50,000 square metres. It’s all for the engineering to keep the building adaptable – it’s seriously cool.
Working on the project, I got to interact with all sorts of people I’d never come across; architects, mechanical and electrical engineers, structural engineers, specialists in acoustics, vibration and all sorts of other areas. Every day I learnt something. Every day. I was super keen to learn it all, it was all so interesting. I just kept soaking it all in.
Once the design was completed, we had to tender for a £200 million laboratory building. Just being involved in that as a concept was really interesting – seeing all the documents that came back from different contractors, appointing project managers, dealing with cost and legal teams. A potentially once in a lifetime experience.
Last person standing
Over the next many years, all of us in the team watched the building develop. It was hugely stressful, but exciting to see each new milestone hit. Walking around when the frame of the building was up, seeing 18 metres up to the top of the roof, or going to the top of the newly constructed silver plant towers (I don’t have a head for heights so that was something I haven’t repeated).
David retired three-quarters of the way through the project and was replaced by an external project director. By that point others had also moved on, so it felt like I was the last person standing. Of course, Richard and Hugh were still around, but not quite as involved in the delivery of the building. The design had been set and it was down to the team to deliver their vision. I’d been working on this every day for seven years, and just felt a big responsibility on behalf of the LMB to make sure that we landed.
However, there was a point that I could see things were at risk and subcontracts were in delay. These things were not any individual’s fault necessarily. It was a big and complex project and things happen. One was that the building had a state-of-the-art BMS (Building Management System) being installed called a Honeywell Tridium BMS. It turned out there were too few BMS engineers in the whole of the country who were experts in Honeywell Tridium. The project got delayed and delayed, because there just weren’t enough controls engineers.
The building was finished (almost)
Ultimately, the project got extended from finishing in January 2012 to November that year. The extra time was brilliant. As we’d done the contractors a favour by letting them extend, we took the opportunity to make some changes to some elements that we’d put on hold. For instance, the computing world had fundamentally changed in the seven years since designs were started in 2005. The Scientific Computing team had introduced blade servers, which kicked out ridiculous amounts of heat. The additional time gave us an opportunity to redesign the chilled water system and add another 700kW chiller in to the scheme. The Media Prep team had changed their approach to plate pouring and now needed different vents with lots of drainage, which we were also able to add in.
During the build, all the members of staff were invited across at various times so that they could get a feel for what their labs or spaces were going to be. They’d seen the plans, but how people interpret technical drawings can be totally different to what’s there. Getting to see what the space actually is, was really important. And, of course, we did lots of training with the Estates and Lab Services teams and got them in early, so that at the point it was theirs to run, there was a level of familiarisation about the building.
And then we got to November 2012 and the building was finished. Perfect – we’re done, we can all go home! It turned out that wasn’t the case. With complex buildings such as the LMB, there are always areas that need correction or refinement that you often can’t identify until the building is actually in use. So we then spent the next 12 months working on all of the areas that weren’t working quite the way they should have. Obviously, we’d already made sure that the building was completely safe to occupy – you’re not going to take completion of a build without making sure the fire alarms and other safety provisions work. But we’d find a room that would cool down when it was trying to heat up and vice versa, often because of a simple mistake like two wires being installed the wrong way round. We had 12 months to find any issues, and we came up with a list of 1000 defects. Which then took another year to fix, which took us to 2014. All the time I was working with the Estates Team getting an improved understanding of how the building functioned, the engineering systems, controls etc and the building’s limitations! – I didn’t really have a proper job from 2012-2014. People just said, “Oh look, Steve’s still around. Get him to do it.”
I didn’t realise at the point of the building opening that actually I’d still be working in the building for the next ten years.
Pathway to net zero
The new building was purpose built to evolve with the needs and demands of the research, so we’ve done continuous works since it was opened to adapt to the science. Since we’ve moved in, we’ve doubled the amount of high-power server facilities from 200 to 400 kilowatts. Our electron microscopy facility has hugely expanded in the last decade, so we’ve had to increase the dehumidification so that cryo-electron microscopy isn’t disrupted by air-borne water molecules. Ten years on from the building being opened, we’ve managed to get it working and accommodate everybody’s needs. And there’s some fantastic science that I hope people would say has come out of this only because the building has been able to support it.
Of course, the big angle now is sustainability and trying to reduce the carbon footprint as much as possible. I’ve worked with consultants on the sustainability effort for years, particularly around getting the best out of the ground source heat pumps. At the point they were put in, they were the largest in Europe. There’s a huge amount of responsibility there to make sure that they and the rest of the engineering systems work as efficiently as possible.
We’ve come up with a pathway to net zero, and now we’re working with UKRI to establish how we can deliver it. It’s not something that you can do overnight. It’s going to take a huge amount of investment. We’re looking at removing gas fired plant to absolutely minimise (and ideally eradicate) using gas. Then, with a fully electric building with really high efficiency systems, you hope that over the next 20 years as the government has promised, the grid itself decarbonises and you’ve got a cleaner, more sustainable future.
There’s always lots to be done
I think people would be genuinely surprised to see all that is involved in managing a building. This is why I really do enjoy my job so much. It’s so varied from dealing with air, heating and cooling, to health and safety, management of contractors, and morale and management of your own workforce. There’s always lots to be done, whether that be looking at multi-million pound capital plant replacement projects, or making sure the lines get painted in the car park.
Of course, there’s absolutely no way that I could look after the building and the various support services that we deliver for the LMB without being surrounded by hugely talented managers and brilliant teams who work their hardest to make sure that the science is supported at every level. I’m very grateful to everyone who I work with, but there’s always room for improvement and we’ll strive to continue doing the best we can.
My goal is to create teams that all work together to get things done. I’ve even been known to get stuck in where needed, hanging Perspex sheeting to create safe working spaces for a phased reopening during the COVID-19 pandemic, sweeping a reflective puddle which was stopping an outer door from closing, and running around filling urns with hot water when water pressure failed in the Restaurant (LMB needs its tea and coffee!). That’s great. It’s exciting being part of a team, being part of a community, just trying to help everybody out.
I am hugely grateful for the opportunities that the LMB has given me here. I’d like to hope that I can repay the faith that was shown in me through the things I’ve done and will continue to do over the next however many years.
Stephen was interviewed for the 2023 LMB Alumni Newsletter on the 6th November