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University pledges to rebuild fire damaged research facility

Published: 
31 October 2005

Professor Bill Wakeham, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Southampton has pledged that the internationally renowned research facilities lost in a major fire yesterday (Sunday 30 October) will be rebuilt.

The fire which partially destroyed the Mountbatten Building on the University’s Highfield Campus was brought under control yesterday afternoon. Fortunately, no one was injured or is missing as a consequence of the fire. However, several research laboratories, including the University’s fibre and microfabrication facilities, have been destroyed. No other University buildings have been affected by the fire apart from minor smoke damage.

Professor Wakeham said: "This is a huge blow to the individuals who have lost work in this fire, and to the University and the country. This research facility and the researchers who use it are recognised as among the best in the world. We are committed to rebuilding and out of these tragic events will emerge something bigger and better.

"Although we’ve lost a facility we’ve still got the staff who are the powerhouse behind the research. We are committed to ensuring as best we can that the impact on current research and teaching will be minimal. We have had many offers of support and facilities from other institutions and companies so that research can continue.

"We expect that the effect on undergraduate teaching will be very limited and short-term. For postgraduate students the situation is more complicated and we’ll be talking to them individually about the way forward."

The Mountbatten Building, which opened in 1991, houses research laboratories and offices for the Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC), the School of Electronics and Computer Science (ECS), and the microelectronics fabrication facility operated by University spin-out company Innos. It is estimated that replacing both the building and the specialist equipment within it will cost in the region of £50m.

Most of the University is back to work as usual today, although lectures and tutorials for students in Electronics and Computer Science and for those in adjacent buildings have had to be postponed. It is expected that these will be resumed in the next day or so.

The University’s Secretary and Registrar John Lauwerys commented: "Our concern now is to make sure that staff and research students are given every help to re-establish their academic work as soon as possible so that their research can continue. The University, ECS and the ORC are doing everything possible to support all those staff and the research students affected.

"The University is very appreciative of the professionalism and skill of all the emergency services, who responded so quickly and effectively, preventing the fire spreading to adjacent buildings."

Professor David Payne, Director of the ORC said: "It is a great relief that nobody was injured by the fire. We are now putting in place our contingency plans, and thanks to the generosity of several local companies in offering facilities, we can look forward to quickly resuming the research projects that have been affected.

"This is of course a blow to us, but it is also an opportunity to rebuild for the future. The research carried out here has changed the world, through advances in communications technology. We are working with our friends and partner organisations locally and around the world to make sure this research carries on unabated."

Professor Wendy Hall, Head of the School of Electronics and Computer Science, commented: "We will be doing everything we can to support our students and staff. These are extremely difficult circumstances for us all and it may be some time before we know the complete picture. In the meantime we are asking people to be patient and to bear with us, despite the difficulties.

"Today we have been inundated with offers of practical help and support from around the country and for that we are extremely grateful. Our staff are working flat out to maintain our services and links with the outside world in the form of web and email."

Staff and research students usually based in the Mountbatten Building and those in the adjacent Zepler Building attended a meeting this morning for a briefing on the latest situation and to hear about the University’s contingency plans.

Andrew Monk, CEO of Innos, commented: "I would like to reassure all associated with Innos that we have procedures in place to ensure that, despite the severity of the incident, Innos remains fully operational. We have been quick to implement emergency procedures and are working closely with cleanrooms across Europe to transfer existing and new projects to these facilities, whilst the full situation is assessed."

Hampshire Fire and Rescue have now left the scene of the fire and handed the site over to the University. It will not be safe to enter the Mountbatten Building for some days, so the full damage and the extent of the loss in terms of research material is not yet known. The cause of the fire is not yet known.

Notes for editors

The emergency services were alerted to the fire when the alarms were activated at 6.30am on Sunday, and the fire was under control by mid-afternoon that day. Based on available information there was nothing in the smoke plume that would pose a significant risk to health beyond that of the normal constituents of any other building fire.

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