Designing flexible, safe labs: Building automation and controls

Safety, budget and flexibility are key factors when designing laboratory and research space

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer December 17, 2020


  • Jennifer DiMambro, CEng, MIMechE, MCIBSE, Principal/Americas Science, Industry & Technology Business Leader, Ove Arup & Partners, PC, New York City
  • Adam Fry, PE, Project Manager, Associate, Mueller Associates Inc., Linthicum, Md.
  • Paul Harry, PE, LEED AP, Senior Project Manager, Dewberry, Raleigh, N.C.
  • Jared Machala, PE, LEED AP, Vice President, WSP, Houston

Cybersecurity and vulnerability are increasing concerns. Are you encountering worry/resistance around wireless technology and “internet of things” as the prevalence of such features increases? How are you responding to these concerns?

Jennifer DiMambro: The “internet of things” and data security are an interesting challenge in the research space. On one hand, we are looking at more collaboration between companies — particularly startups — and yet on the other hand, we have the challenges that open collaboration brings in terms of intellectual property and this is a particular challenge in terms of cybersecurity. As with physical security, data security needs to have different layers, like an onion, with increasing security as you work through each layer. We need to work with our clients to understand their different systems and different levels of data and intellectual property protection and to set up systems that respond to these needs.

Paul Harry: Wireless technology is a “no-no” when designing a building automation system for a secure installation. Close coordination with the client information technology department and their standards are required.

From your experience, what systems within laboratory and research facility projects are benefiting from automation that previously might not have been?

Paul Harry: Converting older systems to modern direct digital control and building automation systems provides benefits of better control, scheduling, trending and graphical representation of systems. For flexibility and reducing schedules in renovations, wireless temperature/humidity sensors are effective.

A trend toward fault detection and diagnostics in the building automation system environment has emerged. This technology is moving from the enterprise level into the equipment controllers. These systems focus on increased reliability and reduced costs.

Have you included virtual reality or augmented reality in the design of such a project?

Jennifer DiMambro: Yes, we have used AR to help clients visualize spaces and to undertake design reviews. Being able to “see” spaces in 3D rather than looking at 2D line drawings is hugely beneficial for clients and allows us to get better feedback early in the design process. We used this technology recently on new a high-containment facility — using an app on a phone and proprietary headsets, we were able to show the scientists individual rooms from a very early stage, allowing them to get a much better understanding of room scale and functionality.

Paul Harry: Not yet. With the introduction of 5G, larger bandwidth is available to support VR and AR. Microsoft HoloLens provides an excellent example of how AR can be used to increase productivity. From the mechanical, electrical and plumbing perspective, accurate, digital, as-built documentation and a well-designed building automation system architecture will be needed to support this.

How has your technology team worked with facility managers to implement security technology (biometrics, card-scan, etc.) in such facilities?

Paul Harry: We have seen lately that laboratory owners who require security technology will already have a preferred security technology vendor identified at the onset of a project. We support facility managers in implementing security technology by closely coordinating with their vendors.

Is your team using building information modeling in conjunction with the architects, trades and owner to design a project?

Jennifer DiMambro: Yes, we use BIM as default on all of our projects and in complex facilities like laboratories it is particularly helpful to be able to coordinate across all the trades. Ideally the client has a clear strategy for BIM from the outset, which brings all of the project participants together on a common track. Driving the use of BIM throughout the life of the project is where we will see the most benefit as an industry and as clients.

Jared Machala: Yes, my team is fully using BIM on virtually every project we design. Our program of choice for BIM is Autodesk Revit. After the design is complete, it is typical for us to provide our BIM model to the contractor for them to better understand our design and to get a jump-start on their shop drawing and coordination model process. The BIM model is especially helpful on laboratory projects, which tend to be more equipment intensive and equipment access is especially critical.

Paul Harry: Yes, BIM is the standard design/documentation tool, especially for mechanical, electrical and plumbing engineers when working with architects and new building projects. It is key to have the architectural and structural models coordinated before incorporating mechanical, electrical and plumbing.

What types of system integration and/or interoperability issues have you overcome for these projects and how did you do so?

Paul Harry: We are seeing more integration of lighting, power and security systems and they are often using different platforms than building automation system. Specifications can require all systems to be BACnet-compatible or put the responsibility for the comm link to be provided by the manufacturer/subcontractor for each system.

Within the larger systems, (HVAC, lighting, power, etc.), individual manufacturers of equipment have their own onboard graphics and diagnostics. Coordinating features provided by manufacturers can reduce installation and operating costs for the end user.