Designing lighting control for the life sciences sector

Seven tips for designing lighting systems that meet specialized requirements

By Scott Garrett February 21, 2023
Courtesy: Warren Jagger Photography, Lutron Electronics


Learning Objectives

  • Understand the differences in lighting design and lighting control for life sciences projects.
  • Consider the cost differences in these highly specialized buildings.
  • Learn seven lighting control tips for vivaria and other life sciences projects.


Lighting control insights

  • By understanding the projects occurring within the life sciences building, lighting designers can ensure the lighting and lighting control systems are designed correctly.
  • System integration of lighting control systems into other building automation systems can be key for overall functionality.

Demand for life sciences space is booming, in large part because of the ongoing need for COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. According to the real estate services and investment firm CBRE, lab vacancy in top markets is 5.2% or less in the first quarter of 2022 and a record 31.3 million square feet of life sciences space was under development in the last quarter of 2021. This includes both new construction and conversions of existing commercial space into labs and research facilities, indicating continued, strong growth.

Venture capital funding of life sciences in the U.S. was at $17.8 billion in the second quarter of 2020 while government funding for research remains strong well into 2022.

Electrical specifiers, lighting designers and architects have an opportunity to add significant value to their clients by familiarizing themselves with the special lighting and control requirements in the life sciences sector, which includes pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, biomedical technology, nutraceuticals, cosmeceuticals and others.

Of particular interest with respect to lighting control is the vivarium, an enclosed space for housing live plants and animals for observation and research, under strictly controlled conditions that often simulate their natural environment. Lighting control is most critical in sensitive areas including animal holding rooms, procedure rooms and other spaces where deviation from expected environmental settings can cause animal and research disruption. In these spaces, lighting levels are embedded in the study parameters and go well beyond providing a comfortable, productive working space.

Research in the renowned Princeton Neuroscience Institute, for example, supports multiple active protocols (the required sequence of operations for a given experiment). The control system has to ensure lighting mirrors each protocol reliably and consistently. Maintaining appropriate light schedules is a critical experimental parameter. Any anomaly must be assumed to have an effect on the animal’s physiology, metabolic activity and behavioral patterns.

Figure 1: Rooms 104, 107 and 108, are highly sensitive and cannot reasonably be assumed to co-function. They should all be maintained as independently operating spaces unless explicitly directed. The cage wash areas, corridors and administrative spaces are not sensitive or critical; if the lights were stuck on at 100% it would be inconvenient but would not have any effect on the quality of the research. These areas can be grouped together, a failure in one area cascading into other areas doesn’t increase the effect to research production. Courtesy: Lutron Electronics

Effective lighting control solutions are a wise investment

Lighting requirements in a vivarium are typically more specialized and tightly regulated than in other life science spaces since vivaria rely on the right lighting and controls to successfully support research. But the advanced strategies used in a vivarium can also inform best practices for a wide range of life sciences applications.

Vivaria house the valuable assets required for conducting vital — often lifesaving — research. This makes both the space design and the chosen systems critically important. Research subjects represent a significant investment in funding and expertise and institutional standards help ensure animal welfare is carefully considered. Properly controlled vivaria must use advanced environmental control technologies to ensure standards are complied with, research goals are met and vendors provide customized and robust solutions for these mission-critical spaces.

Experiments can last several months, even years, with thousands of dollars and hours invested in individual subjects. If research is invalidated due to a lapse in environmental controls, life-saving discoveries may be compromised. It can also be extremely costly, potentially resulting in other research teams completing, publishing or producing a marketable product earlier.

What are practical tips for life sciences lighting designs?

These seven tips can help guide design teams in the intricacies of lighting and lighting control for life sciences projects in general and vivaria in specific:

1. Learn about the space. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to life sciences building or labs. Learn about the science being conducted and its unique space requirements. The amount and type of lighting varies depending on the research. In turn, the type of research will define the appropriate sequence of operations.

Work with the client to develop a written sequence of operations and automation narrative to establish the required lighting control strategies. If they are available, diagrams and illustrations can be used to prevent misunderstanding or poor interpretation. Ideally each room type should have its sequence of operations approved by the research team before system quotation.

This is even more critical for vivaria, which often demand complex time-clock control, automation overrides and integrations. To meet an advanced sequence of operations, the lighting system may require advanced conditional programming, sequenced functions and extensive use of stated variables. The earlier the designers identify these requirements, the better.

2. Get to know the researchers. As with the space, lighting designers will save time and deliver a better design if asking the right questions about the people who will be using the space. At the start of the design process, determine who and how many people use the space and what access each will have to the controls. Researchers may have individual system preferences that need to be accommodated and it is important to identify these unique requirements up front.

Relative to system control software, think about creating individual user accounts to ensure correct privileges are assigned to each system user with respect to how and where they will access the control interface. This will help determine necessary system considerations. Research may require graphical user interfaces that support configurable permissions to help restrict system-user access by space, by role or by a combination of the two. Once permissions are established, the user interface should be accessible from locations convenient to research staff.

3. Consider system integration. Integrating lighting control with other building systems, such as HVAC, building management, security, environmental monitoring and data storage is an essential component of holistic control strategies in life sciences buildings. The following key questions can help ensure vendors and systems will work together to determine and overcome feasibility, function and scope-of-work challenges if engineers are planning to integrate lighting with other building systems:

  • What information will other systems need to extract from the lighting control system?

  • Are there any points on the lighting system that are controlled by a third party?

  • How will the third-party interface with the lighting control system?

  • Are there any light-based alarms?

  • What system will raise the alarms?

  • Which system is responsible for historical data retention?

  • Would single-point reporting increase ease of use?

4. Prioritize functional independence of research areas. Vivarium spaces are often broken into distinct working groups or sets of areas (rooms) that are always working on the same group of experimental subjects. Systems should be designed such that a failure in one work group does not affect any other work group.

The number of independently serviceable systems will be determined by the number of independently functional groups. Breaking the system into smaller, logical system blocks increases reliability and robustness but can also increase cost. Consultants will want to design the lighting system such that it accommodates the appropriate number of groups and maximizes system reliability without adding unnecessary complexity and cost.

5. Prepare for the unexpected. Plan for uninterrupted critical lighting in lab settings as well as robust emergency or egress lighting. The lighting system can help ensure a regular diurnal cycle in a vivarium, even in an emergency. Luminaires and controls within critical or sensitive areas should be powered from an uninterruptable power source to keep the room working as normal and ensure uniformity of control and monitoring.

In vivaria, it is essential to maintain normal schedules and manual control so as to not disrupt animals, data collection or research procedures. Most electronic systems have a delayed start, meaning that full function is not instantly restored after power cycle. Therefore, luminaries and controls of critical or sensitive areas should be powered from an uninterruptable power source to preclude loss of function resulting from loss of utility power.

6. Minimize the opportunity for human error. Control systems should be intuitive to the research staff but must also be designed to limit user errors by decreasing the chances of unintentional activation. Sensitive areas commonly require a constant 20 to 30 footcandles during simulated “day,” and a low intensity red light during simulated “night.” Another frequent requirement is simulated dawn and dusk transitions, i.e., smooth ramping up and down of light levels between day and night light settings respectively.

Research requirements and research subjects, vary widely — the lighting system has to be easily adjustable to accommodate these differences and to support research inputs such as the need to stimulate circadian rhythms in subjects. Fixture components are the primary contributors to achieving required light levels without flicker, variation or interruption. Many fixtures that produce consistent, high-quality light in steady state still exhibit less than ideal performance during transitions. Compatibility between fixtures and controllers is essential in producing quality light output.

Beyond the intricate lighting requirements of vivaria, the lighting design must provide appropriate illumination for standard working conditions, meet code and offer convenient, accessible control to the people in the space. It is important to work with a manufacturer that understands the facility requirements and can help to ensure lighting specifications are built to handle the unique intricacies of life sciences spaces by activating required lighting scenes automatically, consistently and without interruption.

7. Choose the right lighting partner and the right system. Lighting is essential throughout the built environment and especially so in life science research and development facilities. Make it easy for end users to operate and identify the right combination of lighting control strategies across all spaces in the application including:

  • Operator control stations.

  • Space management monitoring apps and software.

  • System integration.

  • Dimming performance.

  • Automation overrides.

  • Luminaire level lighting controls.

  • Alarms

  • Shade control in nonvivarium spaces.

Ongoing service and support are especially critical in these applications. Confirm that the selected manufacturer has a proven, consistent record of accomplishment in vivaria, offers 24/7 services to support the lighting system in an emergency and has the ability to update and adjust the system over time as research needs change or the facility identifies new sequences of operation for their next research project.

Figure 2: Advanced strategies used in a vivarium can also inform best practices for a wide range of life sciences applications. Courtesy: Warren Jagger Photography, Lutron Electronics

Following best practices can help save time and protect critical research

Even the most seasoned design professionals often do not have experience with the specialized lighting design and control requirements for life-sciences spaces such as vivaria. Improper system specification can lead to a system that cannot comply with the research team or the subject’s complex needs. To avoid construction delays or complications with the research look to the lighting manufacturer to provide design guidance as well as installation and commissioning help. It is critical to work with a lighting controls manufacturer with experience in vivarium systems and the proven ability to propose and implement complementary lighting control solutions.

By following best practices, lighting designers can achieve an appropriate lighting specification, reduce the risk of callbacks and revisions and ultimately avoid lighting systems that do not adequately support scientific discovery.

Author Bio: Scott Garrett is an area systems applications engineering manager at Lutron Electronics.