A New Lab Formula

By Geoff Weisenberger, Staff Editor March 1, 2006

Dr. Frankenstein might have some trouble adapting to the modern laboratory environment. His cluttered, poorly lit, cave-like workspace—complete with crackling dynamos and vial upon vial of mysterious fluid—is a far cry from the spacious, daylit and well-ventilated facilities that researchers desire today.

But one trait of scientists that transcends generations—and the boundary between fiction and reality—is a passion for the work. Laboratory scientists want and need to get the most out of their labs, and nowadays this requires space that is comfortable and flexible, but also energy efficient.

Hang loose

So why is flexibility important when it comes to such specialized facilities? Things change. Space and building systems simply need to be able to accommodate new technologies and equipment.

Labs also need to be adaptable to changes in personnel and projects. “One of the things that we see constantly with university folks is that they have grants, they get funding to do research, a research program lasts maybe two to five years and then they need to go and use that space for something else,” explains Jeff Murray, an architect with IDC Architects, Pittsburgh, a subsidiary of Denver-based CH2M HILL, adding that some researchers like to see how a lab might work in different spaces and configurations.

Murray notes that his firm has designed some flexible lab space in two buildings at the University of Pittsburgh, where fixed equipment and benches are placed around the perimeter, while the center space features overhead service—process gases and such—and benches on wheels that can be moved around. The ratio of fixed perimeter equipment to mobile center equipment in one of the facilities is 65% to 35%, a good compromise for the money, he says.

Going further up the line in the design process, John Neilson, AIA, with the Raleigh, N.C. office of Kling, says that flexibility in planning is equally important and notes that sticking to the standard checklist isn’t the only option. “In terms of planning, people are becoming more interested in actual use, demands in power and how often fume hoods are used, and so they’re trying to design more toward actual use data as opposed to general rules of thumb about watts per sq. ft. or diversity in air systems,” he says.

Spinning the wheels

Back to the budget, one of the most important drivers in laboratory design today is energy savings. “No one these days can afford to throw away gobs of energy or have fume hoods or whatever else run 24/7, or run 100% outside air all the time without modulating,” says CSE advisor Alan Traugott, P.E., principal, CJL Engineering, Moon Township, Pa. “You don’t heat and cool what you don’t need.”

He’s right. Most laboratory owners are indeed concerned with energy, but not always to the same degree. “There are two types of clients: one that is very concerned about energy consumption and is able to make the necessary capital decisions to achieve their goals,” says William Freeman, P.E., principal with CUH2A’s Atlanta office. “The other type wants to maximize their energy budget but either cannot or will not commit the initial capital investments. The [first] client type is much more open to the newer technologies and approaches that are coming about.”

The latter, he says, will most likely still be interested in conventional methods such as premium-efficiency motors, variable-speed drives, variable-air volume and outside air control. But for those clients who put energy savings at or near the top of the list, one technology that’s seeing increased use in lab facilities is heat wheels. The obvious benefit of a heat-recovery wheel, according to Michael Dausch, director of design and construction for Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine’s Office of Facilities Management in Baltimore, is that it can pay for itself almost right away. As such, four Johns Hopkins medical research buildings—Ross Research Building, Broadway Research Building and Cancer Research Buildings 1 and 2—now utilize heat wheels for energy recovery.

A chill from above

Decentralized cooling, particularly where heat load is a major concern, is another way of bringing down electricity costs, and according to Bruce McLay, P.E., project manager with the Seattle office of Affiliated Engineers, Inc., chilled beam technology is an excellent option. The technology, which McLay says originated in Scandinavia around 30 years ago, has taken off in Europe in the last five years or so—particularly in England and Germany—but has seen little use in the U.S.; he only knows of one lab installation and estimates there are only 10 or so installations overall in this country at present. However, he has seen proposed use of the technology in labs, and AEI is currently designing it into two projects, a university biology lab in Seattle and a federal lab in Richland, Wash.

Chilled beams, which are basically ceiling-mounted cooling coils, are similar to fan coils, but work without a fan or the associated noise. There is also no fan coil unit filter. There are two types: active and passive.

Active beams have a supply of primary air that provides some of the cooling and ventilation for the space. The primary air is used to induce flow through the cooling coil. A series of nozzles is placed along the coil, and the induction effect they create pulls the room air through the coil and creates a supplemental cooling effect. The net result is that for every unit of cooling obtained from one unit of primary air, between one and two additional units of cooling is achieved via the induced flow through the coil.

Passive beams are essentially coils only, which rely on natural convection loops that must be set up in the room. In principle, warm air rises adjacent to the passive beam, cools, becomes more dense, then falls out of the beam, setting up a loop in the space.

McLay says the technology is well matched to loads in cooling-driven labs. “In a typical lab, you want to maintain around six air changes per hour of ventilation,” he explains. “If you put six air changes worth of primary air through an active beam, you get roughly the equivalent of 15 air changes worth of cooling effect.” It delivers just the ventilation air needed so you don’t have to condition 2.5 times more air than you need to ventilate the space. Another benefit of the technology is smaller ductwork, making for lower floor-to-floor heights. Additionally, latent heat removal in the summer isn’t needed, so chiller loads drop considerably. The water that chilled beams use is typically in the range of 57°F to 61°F, so there is no condensation. This eliminates a large portion of latent cooling that would otherwise be necessary in an all-air system.

As for air change rates, Freeman agrees that they can be reduced. “Air change rates have become a convention without justification,” he says. “CUH2A works with the owner’s safety staff to challenge the assumptions about air change rates, since the research shows that the incremental increases in air change rates do not improve safety.”

In one particular project—the 394,000-sq.-ft. Centers for Disease Control’s Building 18—CUH2A was able to convince the CDC Office of Health and Safety to reduce the minimum air change rate, resulting in reduction of air systems.

Johns Hopkins’ Dausch concurs, saying that in the past, labs (at JHU, anyway) were designed with constant air volumes and an average of 10—12 air changes per hour. With innovations in controls technology, air change rates can be reduced while still retaining safety levels “and make things even safer because if there’s a problem, the control system lets us know about it.”

Technology in action

New lab methodology for new buildings is a challenge in and of itself, but when you consider that many lab projects are renovations, this creates a real roadblock—nothing that’s insurmountable though. And location can certainly determine whether new or retrofit is the right path. When it comes to more densely built eastern U.S. universities, for example, IDC’s Murray notes there’s a trend toward renovation, as outright reconstruction is expensive and disruptive to occupants.

One such project is the University of Pittsburgh’s chemistry research facility, the Chevron Science Center. According to Jim Vizzini, P.E. with CJL, the project’s mechanical firm, the main laboratory building is several decades old and contained 260 fume hoods; originally there were 150, but the number grew as research expanded. In addition, a lot of the old lab space was set up as air in, air out.

While the school didn’t have the budget to overhaul everything, it did completely upgrade the air delivery and exhaust systems, taking energy reduction and sustainability into account. The Chevron Center is one of the, if not the, biggest energy user on campus, so reducing energy use was a must. CJL incorporated heat recovery into the design, set up the system for future variable volume capacity and incorporated variable-frequency drives, illustrating a significant initiative to reduce energy use and make the facility more part-load sensitive. Eventually, all of the original constant-volume hoods will be replaced with variable-volume hoods over a phased period.

The driver in the whole system is a custom-built 300,000-cfm rooftop air-handling unit. This specialized unit is making such a difference in terms of energy savings that one might think the project is shooting for LEED certification. In fact, it’s not, but Traugott says it probably should be. In the dead of winter on some of the coldest days, he explains, no steam heat at the unit itself was required; they were able to deliver enough warm air via heat recovery. Traugott thinks they’ve probably cut steam use in the facility in half, if not by two thirds, since the system was put on-line last May.

Another novel university renovation project is the Genome Research Institute at the University of Cincinnati. Completed last year, the complex contains 360,000 sq. ft. of space—about 270,000 sq. ft. of lab space—and is comprised of six buildings of various ages and conditions. What’s notable, besides the size, is a manifolded fume hood system that has nearly eliminated individual fans.

Specifically, the project’s M/E/P systems designer, ThermalTech, took approximately 100 individual fume hood fans and transformed them into four new redundant manifolded systems, eliminating the need for individual units, except for a few specialty fans. More than 20 air handlers were rebuilt in conjunction with six new ones. Many were major upgrades, sometimes just reusing the cabinet. Much of the upgrade was driven by the fact that the building was converting from recirculation to 100% outdoor air. The facility was previously a corporate lab, but needed to adhere to more strict standards from the university, hence the change. The design also called for the upgrade of all HVAC systems to new direct digital controls, which tie into the university’s enterprise building control system.

Williams explained that the fume hood exhaust systems and conversion to 100% outside air were the biggest challenges, as was reconfiguring all of the ductwork into the existing space. A phased project, much of the design had to happen on the fly due to a very aggressive construction schedule. In fact, a lot of spaces were unassigned until construction.

New horizons

Beyond growth in typical research needs and capabilities, the laboratory market in recent years has seen some other not-so-typical drivers in the form of diseases such as SARS and avian flu and potential bioterrorism threats. Traugott believes these drivers create an opportunity for the federal government and private research labs to build a laboratory network where different labs can act as different, specialized links in a chain. With federal money from the National Institute of Health and the CDC trickling down to the university level, Traugott notes that there’s a whole infrastructure being built around the U.S. For example, one lab might identify a virus, another might work on anti-viral medication and another on vaccines. Universities like Pitt, he says, are collaborating with government entities to make their labs compliant with federal rules so they can be eligible for money to conduct research.

In addition, there appears to be a push for more bio-safety level 3 (BSL-3) containment space and nanotechnology labs, both of which require more reliable and robust mechanical systems. Freeman notes that while these types of facilities are in demand right now, one needs to keep in mind that it’s a cyclical market. While there is a significant effort toward infectious disease and nanotechnology research, once the basic infrastructure is in place, the building of these facilities will slow down, and another new initiative will take up the slack in the future.

Stricter methods, in general, are the norm for more advanced research labs. Compared to traditional labs, says Ahmad Soueid, principal, senior vice president with HDR Architecture’s Alexandria, Va. office, these facilities require a higher level of accuracy in control over the environs, and not just in cleanrooms.

Concerning air and even power systems, separation is key in the advanced research environment, especially when there are two different types of labs adjacent to each other—or in the case of Purdue University’s new Birck Nanotechnology Center, one inside the other. Within the facility is a semiconductor cleanroom, and within that space is a molecular cleanroom for biological research, completely isolated from the outside cleanroom. The idea here is that a microchip, for example, can be brought from the outer room to the inner room and have bacteria introduced to it—lab on a chip, as Soueid calls it. That transition between the two is not something that has typically been done before.

While cleanrooms are a different entity from more traditional laboratory spaces, they’re worth mentioning because an emerging trend in labs as a whole is to combine not only different types of cleanrooms, but also cleanrooms and traditional labs in the same facility into interdisciplinary lab facilities (the Birck Center also includes non-cleanroom lab space).

Driven by passion

No matter the type of lab or the sophistication of the systems, labs are unique workspaces because of the vigor and enthusiasm of the people who work there and who have a vested interest in how they run. “Lab buildings are fun because scientists are so passionate,” says Murray. “Researchers are very concerned and knowledgeable about their space and have a lot of ideas of how it should work, because they realize it can make a big difference in how productive they are.”

When it comes to the level of control and efficiency of today’s labs, Dr. Frankenstein, as mad as he was, would be impressed—and probably jealous too.

Enlightened Research

At one point in time, the “experts” told schools to take the outdoor views out of the classroom to keep kids from becoming distracted. Studies since then have shown that kids learn better with natural light and views in the classroom, and the same goes for labs, says Jeff Murray, an architect with IDC Architects. “Architects have always thought that daylighting was a good thing,” he says, noting that his firm always stresses daylighting in labs and tries to avoid designing labs that don’t have windows or views unless it’s necessary to the research.

Besides daylighting, automated lighting is also becoming increasingly prevalent in lab space. Smarter control systems coupled with highly efficient lamp technologies is, of course, the ideal situation for optimal lighting and efficiency. Horton Lees Brogden Lighting Design recently completed one such endeavor in the new biology building at the Pomona (Calif.) College Science Center. There, they worked closely with the architect to validate clerestory configurations that deliver meaningful daylight to the laboratory spaces, and to design complementary electric lighting and control systems. According to Teal Brogden, senior principal with HLB’s Culver City, Calif. office, the systems use direct/indirect luminaires that balance the luminosity of the ceiling with the incoming daylight and adjust automatically to ensure the proper amount of light on the task plane below. The system is projected to cut power consumption in the lab space by approximately 40%, with a payback of eight years. Brogden noted that paybacks of more than five years are not of interest to many clients, but Pomona College found that the payback, along with the sustainability benefits of the system, met their overall goal for a green project, as the facility is expected to receive a LEED Silver rating.

Labs: The Next Generation

Where attempts at energy efficiency take place, talk of sustainability—and LEED—soon will follow. “If you look into the LEED parameters, when you get beyond the finishes, the VOCs and local purchasing, etc., it comes down to a tremendous amount of energy aspect,” says Geoffrey Bell, P.E., Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, Berkeley, Calif.

Bell is a member of Labs21, a joint association between the U.S. Dept. of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency—that is also closely associated with ASHRAE—dedicated to sustainable laboratory design and focusing mainly on energy efficiency. The organization, like the LEED movement, has grown tremendously in recent years. The organization’s first annual conference had an attendee list of 50; last year it grew to more than 500.

Besides the impressive growth, there’s even more good news for Labs21 and other organizations interested in designing sustainable labs: A LEED guideline specifically for labs is currently in the works, which Bell anticipates will be published within the year.

Labs21 is a volunteer program, and Bell notes that the process for becoming a Labs21 facility starts from the design stage, gathering as many relevant personnel as possible—those that own, run and perform research in the lab—and involving them from the first design charette. What he finds is that the discussion is very seldom code-driven or dictated by “standard” practices.

And the process pays off. According to Bell, Lawrence Berkeley is currently building an addition—the Molecular Foundry Lab—which is gunning for LEED Silver certification. As part of the process, using the Labs21 model they performed a survey of existing laboratory users that will be working at the facility and asked them how and on what schedule they use lab space, and what equipment they plan to use. When factoring this information into the design for the lab, they were able to save $2 million in HVAC design/construction costs.