Designing flexible, safe labs

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

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer December 21, 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

What is the biggest challenge for college/university laboratory projects?

Jared Machala: The biggest challenge for college/university laboratory projects is designing the facility to budget while meeting the program of requirements and subsequent input from faculty and researchers during the design process. It is common to see project budgets not be indicative of current construction costs, which can put a project over budget before design even begins. An initial budget overage, coupled with the inevitable scope creep that can occur as the design progresses, can lead to painful cuts in program to bring the project back in budget.

Paul Harry: In teaching labs, one of the biggest challenges is the wide range of operation diversity in hood and equipment use, from no use during lectures, to 100% use during class experiments. In larger research facilities, there is usually a more predictable average level of diversity.

Equally challenging, as with most lab clients, is the need for flexibility, efficiency and sustainability and balancing these with budgets, which are often more limited in public university projects. Graduate research programs have changing needs and many universities are mandating minimum target levels for sustainability goals, such as U.S. Green Building Council LEED Silver, for all campus buildings. This may compete for project costs with the need for more building square footage, lab equipment and staff.

Adam Fry: Safety is always the No. 1 concern with laboratory projects, however, the challenge is to be safe without using a lot of energy with the HVAC systems. Makeup air for lab exhaust is a huge energy burden; it’s always a challenge to safely lower the required exhaust or recover energy from the exhaust streams. We generally achieve this with active air quality monitoring, sensible or total enthalpy energy recovery equipment or even using an evaporative cooling system in conjunction with sensible energy recovery to boost system efficiency while maintaining safe energy transfer.

What future trends regarding pandemic response should engineers expect for such projects?

Jennifer DiMambro: Many of the recommendations that we are seeing published in response to the pandemic are actually similar in nature to many of the biosafety requirements used in lab design. Work physically in lab spaces typically already follows the COVID-19 best proactive guidance — personal protective equipment, high air change rates, handwashing on entry/exit, etc. The challenges will be around the nonlab spaces — getting people safely into the buildings, management of lobbies and elevators, break out spaces, canteens etc.

Paul Harry: Probably little effect, other than this same need for flexibility and renovations, such as support of vaccine and N95 mask production. Demand for lab space will likely return with a return of the workforce.

Sustainability and particularly energy savings are becoming a more standard part of project goals.

How are engineers designing these kinds of projects to keep costs down while offering appealing features, complying with relevant codes and meeting client needs?

Paul Harry: For complex lab renovations, it is important to match the HVAC equipment to the loads and segregate the equipment components according to the phasing plans. This must be evaluated at the start, with phasing plans influencing decisions for how to retrofit all the mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems. Fume hood retrofits to high performance, reduce flow, can save money over the purchase of new fume hoods. Also keeping areas operational during renovations can save significant operating/production costs for the owner.

Tell us about a recent project you’ve worked on that’s innovative, large-scale or otherwise noteworthy.

Jennifer DiMambro: Skolkovo Institute of Science & Technology (Skoltech) is located in District D3 of the Skolkovo Innovation Centre (Skolkovo IC) on the outskirts of Moscow, in the Russian Federation. The aim of the Innovation Centre is to foster science and technology business within the Russian economy. Skoltech is a postgraduate university and houses research programs for energy science, information science, biomedical science, space science and nuclear science, as well as the Centre for Entrepreneurship. The Skolkovo client worked closely with MIT to brief the design. MIT set the aspiration in terms of collaboration by stating “a university for the 21st century does not create academic departments but rather space for them to collaborate.”

Arup is the general designer, taking responsibility for the entire delivery of the project, as well as providing all engineering, executive architect and specialist engineering services — including logistics, ICT, audiovisual, geotechnical, acoustics, lighting, security and computational fluid dynamics analysis. Arup worked Herzog de Meuron and Payette Associates the project architects, plus numerous specialists required to produce documentation for the Russian building approvals process.

Skoltech consists of three primary buildings — three primary rings — that house mostly public and administrative spaces. Two of the primary rings — the East Ring, West Ring and Agora — encompass a staggering system of laboratory bars and courtyards, plus a secondary set of inner rings that accommodate public circulation, offices, classrooms and recreational spaces.

The central ring — the Agora — is the central administration space for the university. At the present time, only the East Ring is developed.

The total building area for the East Ring is 134,000 square meters, with 90,500 square meters above ground and the remaining 43,500 square meters within a single-story basement housing plant and specialist laboratory and support areas. In 2018, Skoltech inaugurated its brand-new Eastern Ring campus. The scale of Skoltech means that access and servicing are key considerations and the logistics of materials management is fundamental to the successful operation of the facility.

Laboratory design: Each laboratory bar consists of two or three laboratory floors of up to 2000 square meters per floor. Each bar is independently serviced from the basement by dedicated air handling units providing N+1 redundancy, with fume extract fans located at high level within the roof space. One of the laboratory bars is configured as a clean room, classification ISO 4-6 and another is configured as a high bay warehouse for work on large items such as aero engines.

A key part of the brief is that the five different science clusters can be located anywhere within the laboratory bars of the East Ring, with a mixture of different sciences being located in any one bar. The design therefore has to allow for each type of science throughout the building, but without oversizing plant and infrastructure. This approach has been termed “targeted flexibility,” i.e., providing infrastructure that meets the general needs of all science types, with the capability to provide additional capacity in some targeted areas. The same servicing strategy is applied to every bar, except the specialist bars, although every core is different due to the servicing requirements to the basement laboratories and support functions. The roof top extract fans are configured to provide combined general and fume exhaust, but the arrangement of the fans can be altered to provide multiple separate exhaust streams if required.

Sustainable design: Skolkovo IC has a dedicated “Green Code” for sustainability and Skoltech is also aiming for LEED Silver certification. The Green Code bans combustion on-site and as such all vehicles will be parked at the site boundary and on-site transportation will be via electric vehicles. There is a central district heating plant that supplies medium temperature hot water to Skoltech and a dedicated cooling plant, designed by others. The energy consumption was estimated using the ASHRAE 90.1-2007 method, as required under  LEED. Design Builder incorporating Energy Plus was used as the modeling software.

The large surface area to volume ratio of the building, combined with the highly glazed façade was a major challenge for the design team. The pre-requisite energy credit for LEED required a 10% improvement over the notional building result and Arup worked hard with HdM and EPPAG (façade engineers) to achieve a façade performance that met the ASHRAE requirements. A curtain walling system with an overall U-value of 0.85 watts/square meters K was specified, which is at the cutting edge of curtain walling performance.

Sensitivity analysis was carried out using Design Builder to find the optimal solar shading coefficient (g-value). Based on this Arup’s specialist lighting team then carried out numerous daylight and solar analyses of the external façade fins to look at optimization of the fin geometry to achieve the theoretical optimal g-value.

Jared Machala: A recent project that I have worked on that is noteworthy is the Global Health Research Complex (GHRC) on the Texas A&M University campus in College Station, Texas. GHRC is a biological research facility that focuses on animal health and diseases. It houses BSL-2 laboratories, large animal BSL-2 holding spaces, BSL-3 laboratories and BSL-3 Ag spaces. The presence of BSL-3 Ag spaces mark this as a “high containment” laboratory facility with air pressure resistant doors to prevent any possible pathogen escape from the facility.

My team engineered the HVAC, electrical and piping systems for the facility. The HVAC system features HEPA filtration on the supply air and double HEPA filtration (two filters in series) on the exhaust air from the BSL-3 Ag spaces. Virtually all of the components in the HVAC system are provided with N+1 redundancy to ensure a stable 24/7 operation of the facility. The building is fully backed up by generator power and all of the electrical penetrations in the BSL-3 Ag space are sealed to be fully airtight. The piping systems feature a thermal effluent decontamination system to heat treat the liquid waste from the laboratory before it being discharged to the campus sewer system.

Since GHRC has both BSL-3 and BSL-3 Ag spaces both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and U.S. Department of Agriculture will both have a hand in licensing the facility for use. The design team engaged users and bio-safety officials from the university during the design process to ensure all applicable guidelines were met based on space type.

Paul Harry: We were recently involved in a major, multiphase infrastructure replacement project for a local diagnostic testing laboratory complex in Burlington, N.C., where significant improvements to performance, reliability and energy efficiency were achieved. It included consolidating two separate chiller/boiler plants into one new chiller/boiler plant with variable primary/variable secondary controls on both the chilled water and hot water systems and N+1 redundancy; replacing 20 custom air handling units with new fan array units with N+1 redundancy; providing all new direct digital controls (direct digital control) throughout the facility; consolidating two electrical services into one new fully redundant service; and the complete replacement of all electrical distribution.

Due to the critical nature of the facility of the client’s operations, the entire project was completed while the lab was fully occupied with no downtime to the 24/7 operations of the facility. To mitigate the risk of a critical failure of the aging infrastructure, various construction strategies were implemented concurrently to minimize the construction schedule length. This project also included a building expansion comprised of both occupiable laboratory and office space. Several large, fully automated process equipment assemblies with complex technical requirements were installed as well.

Adam Fry: The new College of Health Professions building at the Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va., has united all of the top-ranked program’s schools along with the Virginia Center on Aging in one location. The academic units, previously scattered among several buildings on two campuses, are now able to collaborate in a premier setting that allows for interdisciplinary research and scholarship, integrated health care studies and hands-on training and program growth. The $87.3 million, U.S. Green Building Council LEED Silver facility features classrooms, laboratories, offices, simulation and diagnostic technology suites, an auditorium and informal student gathering spaces. The diverse academic programs, which include Gerontology, Health Administration, Physical Therapy and Radiation Sciences, share teaching amenities and technologies, such as synchronous distance-learning classrooms, simulation suites and observation areas. Therapy departments share a state-of-the-art Smart Home Apartment. Simulated hospital environments include operating rooms, acute care patient rooms, recovery rooms and a range of imaging spaces including a high-tech virtual linear accelerator. Simulation suites for nurse Anesthesia and allied health disciplines are provided, as well as a double-height biomechanics research lab and several maker labs. Sustainable mechanical, electrical and plumbing solutions include:

  • Heating and cooling provided by a combination of variable air volume supply air and perimeter finned tube radiation.
  • Custom-designed, roof-mounted air handling units.
  • Laboratory exhaust air discharged vertically via high-plume dilution fans.
  • Two water-cooled centrifugal chillers to deliver chilled water.
  • An exterior pad-mounted transformer with one 3,000 A, 480Y/277 volt switchboard for electrical service.
  • Stair pressurization fans for use during a fire event, with a smoke purge fan for smoke removal.
  • Dedicated panelboards for large laboratories and clusters of small laboratories.
  • One 300 kilowatt diesel engine generator set at grade.
  • Energy-efficient LED sources for all lighting fixtures.
  • Extensive metering to provide feedback for efficient equipment use.

What are engineers doing to ensure such projects (both new and existing structures) meet challenges associated with emerging technologies?

Jennifer DiMambro: One of the key considerations in laboratory projects is adaptability — designing a facility that can respond to changes in research focus, researchers and technology. To do this, designers need to work closely with the client to understand their processes and research focus and to also bring their own experience in the sector. With an in-depth understanding of the science needs we can develop a “targeted flexibility” approach, which provides a robust infrastructure with the facility to add or subtract locally to suit specific needs — effectively a plug-and-play approach. Oversizing systems to account for all scenarios is expensive, inefficient and wasteful.

Paul Harry: Mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems are provided with more flexibility both within the space and with central equipment. This may be achieved through overhead flexible connections, a modular approach to physical layouts and services and smaller, multiple equipment components to provide better reliability and operation at part loads, including fans, chillers, boilers and pumps. Smaller components may also ease construction, renovation, maintenance and future replacements.

For new building design, incorporating a walkable interstitial space between occupied floors is a good way to allow maintenance access and modifications without disrupting the occupied space below. It provides maximum flexibility for changes to mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems to accommodate changing lab functions or researchers.

What is the typical project delivery method your firm uses when designing these a facility?

Jared Machala: The typical project delivery method that our firm uses when designing laboratory and research facilities is construction manager at risk. This type of delivery method lends itself to more complicated and involved facilities by bringing the construction manager on early to better understand the project and construction requirements. Construction manager at risk also provides for real-time project budget feedback, which is essential to ensure that budget requirements are met at various design milestones. If the project is over budget, then value engineering can occur earlier in the design process to better understand how the project design will be impacted.

Paul Harry: Low-bid plans and specs are unfortunately required for some public projects, but a better method gaining popularity is construction manager at risk, using a guaranteed maximum price or good manufacturing practice approach. This allows the construction manager to select their team based on those who best fit the project, to work with the design team and owner on early planning, constructability and cost estimating and can provide a more comprehensive, better quality approach (of course no method is perfect and relies on the quality and skills of the team members).

For smaller renovations, a design-build approach can be very effective in reducing schedule, costs and providing a single point of contact and responsibility. And provides some of the same teamwork benefits noted above.

What types of challenges do you encounter for these types of projects that you might not face on other types of structures?

Jennifer DiMambro: The real challenge to me is in bringing together all the complex mechanical, electrical and plumbing and process requirements with the overall architectural vision and quality of space for researchers. The world of laboratory design is littered with buildings that are either highly functional but fail to meet any broader occupant needs or have high architectural aspirations but fail to provide a fully functional, adaptable building.

The real challenge and for me interest, in this sector is how we bring together functionality, aesthetic, sustainability and wider user experience in a holistic manner. Functionality and health and safety must always be prioritized in this type of facility but this increasingly needs to be wrapped into an occupant building that attracts top talent that provides a better user experience and that responds to researchers’ changing expectations around how and where they work.

What’s the biggest trend in laboratory and research facility projects?

Jennifer DiMambro: I am not sure that there is one overarching trend. Digitalization has had a huge impact — both in terms of how research is carried out and the tools available to scientists. Use of cloud computing is allowing scientists to process huge datasets quickly and robust data infrastructure allows research to be carried out anywhere — kitchen table, coffee shop, etc. — which has become even more relevant in the pandemic. Increasing use of robotics has reduced the burden of repetitive and dangerous tasks on scientists. But in addition, we shouldn’t underestimate the impact of the changing nature of work — what researchers expect from a work environment and the impact of urbanization.

Jared Machala: The biggest trend in laboratory and research facility projects is and has been for some time, flexibility. The need for flexibility is highlighted by the current pandemic response as swift, large scale research is required to rapidly gain data in a short timeframe. Modern laboratory and research facilities need to be able to accommodate a wide variety of research and be able to adjust to rapidly changing needs of the researcher. This can be in the form of swift decontamination methodologies that allow different pathogens to be rapidly tested in the same laboratory space or changing the type and quantity of animal research models to accommodate new research.

Paul Harry: With the shortage of lab space in our region, one of the trends is extensive renovations that add fume hoods and internal cooling loads, leading to significant retrofits and additions to mechanical and electrical systems. This also leads to a greater need for flexibility within the infrastructure, with a goal of balancing this flexibility and higher first costs that this may require.

A second significant trend is to incorporate more sustainability features, either for energy savings, corporate image/mandates or both.