Carbon-Neutral Energy Solutions Laboratory

New Construction; Carbon-Neutral Energy Solutions Laboratory; HDR Architecture Inc.

By HDR Architecture Inc. August 15, 2013

Engineering firm: HDR Architecture Inc.
2013 MEP Giants rank:
Carbon-Neutral Energy Solutions Laboratory
Atlanta, Ga., United States
Building type:
Project type:
New construction
Engineering services:
Automation & Controls, Code Compliance, Electrical/Power, Fire & Life Safety, HVAC, Lighting
Project timeline:
November 2008 to August 2012
Engineering services budget: $378,000
MEP budget: $11 million


The Georgia Tech Carbon-Neutral Energy Solutions (CNES) Laboratory began as a flexible, design-build, high-bay laboratory. Located across the railroad tracks from the Georgia Tech campus, on its NARA Science Park site, it would be a low-tech, shop-like laboratory—flexible enough to be usable, even without a clearly defined user. Taking advantage of the building’s low-tech qualities and the site’s lack of pretentiousness, Georgia Tech decided to shift gears and steered the team (Georgia Tech, Gilbane, and HDR) to focus on the carbon-neutral lab, with specific instruction to follow a rational design process. The project would be a model. The research would explore carbon-neutral energy solutions, hence the name. The building would highlight three types of flexible laboratory spaces: high-bay (for large-scale research), mid-bay (for lower-scale projects requiring more stringent environmental control), and computation laboratories.

HDR began with a healthy respect for the energy demands of modern laboratory environments and a sense that this low-tech lab might somehow be different—a simple structure with only necessary systems. The firm started with the idea of passive design first: pay attention to climate and orientation; maximize daylight and natural ventilation. HDR worked with EMO, its energy modeler, to establish a baseline energy model, which told the firm what to attack. Goals beyond energy efficiency were established. There would be no lights during the day and no potable water for irrigation. The firm would minimize plug loads, limit the number of materials by letting the structure be the finish, and maximize renewable energy..


Passive design: First, the team was challenged to develop a new, innovative prototype that would enable breakthrough research initiatives, educate students, and demonstrate innovative energy-saving features. The team strived to reduce energy demand by developing and testing passive-design concepts; studying contemporary carbon-neutral buildings; establishing a working definition of net-zero site-energy use; incorporating baseline energy-modeling; and challenging conventionally held environmental requirements. Energy modeling was used to evaluate energy-savings strategies and to help determine which systems would be incorporated into the design. The design team collaborated with Georgia Tech to develop design concepts, including a matrix of energy-savings options, and evaluate first costs, lifecycle costs, and carbon savings for each. A cost-benefit analysis of various design options encouraged low-cost, high-benefit solutions, such as forced natural ventilation in the high-bay and reduced night time operations. High-cost, low-benefit solutions—such as translucent panels insulated with nanogel—were discouraged.

Program: Three space typologies CNES offers include process-intensive research and industrial-scale infrastructure capability to support a varied range of project-based research. The facility has been planned to provide space that can be quickly modified both functionally and environmentally for maximum flexibility. The supply and distribution systems for liquid and gaseous materials have been planned to accommodate future exterior bulk storage areas that will tie into the building. These systems have been evaluated to ensure that future programs will function in the safest conditions possible. The building has been broken into three space types, organized to accommodate evolving research programs; minimizing the need for modifications for different research programs; and allowing projects to be easily moved in and out: 1. high-bay, 2. mid-bay, and 3. computational labs. Breaking the program into three types allows for maximum flexibility, especially between high- and mid-bay laboratories. It also gave the team a way to evaluate each space type and design each independently. The high-bay laboratory was designed with a temperature range of 68 to 80 F, anticipating that heavier work can adapt to that range. The mid-bay lab was designed with a 70 to 76 F range with the ability to more stringently control temperature and humidity for individual labs. The computational labs were also designed to a 70 to 76 F temperature range, which is an atypical adaptation of a traditional office environment.

Utility infrastructure: The mid- and high-bay spaces are separated by a shared utility zone, for easily reconfigurable utility distribution. This central spine is designed to provide the needed utilities within each space without compromising the mobility of the equipment. Within the high-bay, accessible utility trenches in the slab run north-south and along the north wall, allowing unobstructed operation of the industrial crane. In the mid-bay, all utilities are routed overhead, allowing the free configuration of lab benches below. A catwalk above the utility zone is accessible from the second level, where the computational labs and offices are located. The loading dock adjacent to the utility zone allows equipment and supplies to easily be brought into the building as well as directly into the high-bay space.