Designing safe laboratories and research facilities: Codes and standards

Engineers working on laboratory and research projects are tasked with balancing state-of-the-art systems, budgetary concerns, occupant safety, sustainable performance, and other factors including being compliant with codes and standards.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer December 19, 2018


Scott A. Bilan, PE, Principal, Peter Basso Associates, Troy, Mich.

Matt Edwards, PE, LEED AP BD+C, Mechanical Associate, ME Engineers, Golden, Colo.

Gordon Handziuk, PE, Peng, Vice President, WSP, Atlanta

Rick Hombsch, PE, LEED AP, Principal, Energy and Infrastructure Group, HGA Architects and Engineers, Milwaukee

Kent Locke, PE, NCEES, Associate Principal, Bailey Edward, Fox River Grove, Ill.

Christian Matthews, PE, PMP, CEM, LEED AP, Associate; Client Manager, Dewberry, Raleigh, N.C.

John C. Palasz, PE, HFDP, Mechanical Engineer, Primera Engineers Ltd., Chicago

Aaron Saggars, PE, LEED AP, Core Team Leader, CRB USA, Kansas City, Mo.

Jim Sharpe, PE, LEED AP, Principal, Affiliated Engineers Inc., San Francisco

CSE: Please explain some of the codes, standards, and guidelines you commonly use during the project’s design process for laboratory and research facilities. Which codes/standards should engineers be most aware of? 

Hombsch: The International Code Council series, particularly the International Building Code (IBC), International Mechanical Code (IMC), and International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), are the primary drivers of building design. The IBC’s “business occupancy with control areas” approach is the predominant strategy for general-purpose laboratory design. Laboratories classified as “Hazardous (H2 or H5)” occupancies are rare. The IECC governs energy use. For complex facilities including laboratories, compliance with IECC usually means energy modeling using ASHRAE 90.1: Energy Standard for Buildings Except Low-Rise Residential Buildings methodology. Recently, states have increased their rate of adopting IECC, requiring even more strict energy efficiency. The NFPA codes—particularly NFPA 30: Flammable and Combustible Liquids Code and NFPA 45: Standard on Fire Protection for Laboratories Using Chemicals in jurisdictions that have adopted it—are key drivers for laboratories using chemicals. In jurisdictions that enforce both IBC and NFPA, complex design is required for the “most restrictive of either code.” American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP)/American International Health Alliance (AIHA) Z9.5-2012: Laboratory Ventilation has introduced a change for laboratory-safety ventilation, calling into question many common lab-ventilation practices. Increased work in this area is likely to result in a dramatic reduction in lab ventilation, thus energy use, as the approaches outlined in the 2012 document are adopted by industrial hygienists/EHS officers involved with lab projects. In addition, some laboratories will need to follow applicable U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and National Institutes of Health (NIH) guidelines.

Bilan: Several codes/standards exist, such as AIHA/ASSE, NIH, CDC, NFPA, and ASHRAE standards.

Palasz: The local codes may vary by region, but typically it is the IMC. Some of the common codes and standards specific to labs are ANSI/AIHA/ASSE Z9.5, IECC or ASHRAE 90.1, ASHRAE Laboratory Design Guide, NIH Design Policy and Guidelines, NFPA 30, NFPA 45, NFPA 90A: Standard for the Installation of Air-Conditioning and Ventilating Systems, and NFPA 101: Life Safety Code, to name a few.

Handziuk: Codes and standards that are currently of most interest are IECC 2018, ASHRAE 90.1-2016, and EU Directive 1253. Many U.S. states will be adopting IECC 2018 and by extension ASHRAE 90.1-2016 in 2020. EU 1253 provides some insight into a similar regulation adopted Jan. 1, 2018, and how engineers and product suppliers are meeting more stringent design criteria to reduce energy consumption.

CSE: What are some best practices to ensure that such buildings meet and exceed codes and standards?

Hombsch: There are several best practices including:

  • Use space planning to segregate lab areas from non-lab areas if possible, assigning different mechanical systems by space type (recirculation system for office space, once-through for lab).
  • Conduct a laboratory-ventilation risk assessment of the intended laboratory uses for the project (optimize air-change rates to the specific hazards).
  • Use the correct primary containment device; pick the right fume hood or use a special-purpose device if a fume hood is overkill.
  • Implement demand control (i.e., use occupancy setback and/or aircuity).
  • Decouple ventilation from temperature control (i.e., use chilled beams).
  • Use the most advanced energy recovery possible (heat pipe, Konvekta, etc.).
  • Optimize exhaust-stack discharge energy using a wind-wake analysis.
  • Explore recovery of other waste heat (i.e., heat-shift chillers).
  • Add renewable energy sources.

CSE: How are codes, standards, or guidelines for energy efficiency impacting the design of such buildings?

Palasz: The short answer is that energy codes are becoming stricter, and this often drives up the first costs for a project (lab or other). Often, the energy code will require energy recovery and other efficiencies that result in a payback, so the lifecycle cost is improved.

Locke: Building remodeling is difficult when the base building was designed under old codes, especially an energy code, if there was one present when the building was originally built. It’s always difficult to figure out where existing and remodeling starts/stops from a system standpoint and a visual standpoint. The expectation needs to be clearly defined and understood throughout the process.

Edwards: Energy codes and standards continually push the boundary of system performance, and in laboratory buildings this push can be in conflict with the safety and performance required for the HVAC systems. Creativity is needed to deliver a system that meets the requirements of a laboratory while aspiring to higher levels of energy efficiency. As an example, energy-recovery systems are generally required for most laboratory projects, but the energy-recovery system must be carefully chosen so that contaminants in exhaust airstreams do not become re-entrained into the building. The resulting solution often includes fully divided airstreams with pumped glycol coils or refrigerant-based heat recovery rather than conventional energy-recovery wheel solutions.

Sharpe: The energy codes, ASHRAE standards, and the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) LEED certification program are raising the bar to achieve greater energy reduction. The bar continues to raise almost annually. This has had a very positive impact on the industry. Previously “exotic” systems are now commonplace. LED lighting and sophisticated lighting controls are standard design. Dedicated outside air for laboratory and office spaces are common while taking advantage of cooling at the room level with chilled beams. Variable frequency drives are required on all but the smallest motors. Prices are coming down for low-energy systems as more are designed and built.

CSE: What are some of the biggest challenges when considering code compliance and designing or working with existing medical facilities? 

Hombsch: Many older existing facilities lack sufficient system capacity to meet modern lab-safety ventilation codes and standards. Existing facilities also often have poor air controls, are operating significantly out of balance, or are otherwise way out of spec. Many have also suffered from inadequate maintenance over the years. It is rare to work on an older facility that does not require a complete MEP systems overhaul (or replacement). Some facilities also face structural insufficiency, inadequate fire resistance, leaky building envelopes, or other major infrastructure challenges. These facilities are the greatest opportunity for retrofits, providing an immediate and significant increase in safety and a big return on investment.

Palasz: This depends on how old the existing lab equipment is, the energy code (IECC or ASHRAE 90.1), and the extent of the work. There is an exception in ASHRAE 90.1-2013, Section, indicating exhaust-air energy recovery is not required for lab systems meeting Section or systems exhausting toxic, flammable, paint, or corrosive fumes or dust. Also, renovation projects have other exceptions that may apply.

Sharpe: One common challenge in existing buildings is limited floor-to-floor heights. Many existing facilities did not anticipate the number and size of MEP and telecom systems required in a modern laboratory. Airflows are typically higher with larger ductwork needs. Architects and clients are also expecting higher ceilings than in the past. We find that, to accommodate the limited ceiling space, additional shafts need to be added. Another challenge is the high volume of flammable fluids and gases used in modern laboratories. Codes limit the quantities per building control zone, so more shafts are needed to minimize fire-rated walls where fume-exhaust ductwork is not allowed to have fire/smoke dampers.

Bilan: One of the biggest challenges is antiquated HVAC systems and the existing building’s space constraints. Oftentimes, existing labs may not be up to date with the latest code-required ventilation or increased heat load from modernized lab equipment. The increase in ventilation and heat-load rates generally translate into more airflow and larger ductwork. In addition, the need for additional capacity generally surpasses an already taxed HVAC system. The larger ductwork can be challenging to fit into limited above-ceiling spaces.

CSE: What are some of the challenges that exist between what the building owner wants, how the building needs to accommodate occupants, and complying with particular codes and standards?

Bilan: A building owner wants to spend their money wisely. Discussing the advantages and disadvantages of the building design will add to the project’s success. Codes and standards should be the baseline for a start of a new design. Building on that, a balance between complexity and costs should be considered. Safety should be at the forefront. However, a building system that is too complex may fall into disarray and not function as intended, or at all.

Palasz: My experience is that the owners want to fully comply with codes and standards, the challenge most often is with the budget and how to keep costs low.

Hombsch: A key challenge is how to provide the most open and flexible laboratory possible while still compartmentalizing the labs for fire resistance and optimal control. Providing flexibility without a dramatic increase in first cost is also a challenge. There are many clever strategies to organize space and optimize MEP systems to provide a good balance of both, without breaking the bank. The key is deep knowledge of lab requirements coupled with an integrated systems approach.

Edwards: Initial cost is often the driver for the viability of a project, and generally codes and standards are changing in a way that increases construction costs. With most situations, there are multiple solutions to solve the building needs, but the costs can vary wildly along with other pros and cons. It’s often necessary to have a frank discussion about the benefits and drawbacks beyond initial cost so the owner is aware of the impacts of the choices they are making.

CSE: When designing such facilities, are life safety codes typically exceeded to ensure the building is always running properly to accommodate occupants’ needs? How so? 

Hombsch: The building codes are the minimum standards of life safety and human health. A good design considers a best-practice approach, not just the bare minimum required by law. We draw inspiration from the many excellent above-code rating systems (LEED), resilience planning guidelines (RELi), and challenges (the International Living Future Institute’s Living Building Challenge, Passive House Institute), finding ways to incorporate these high-performance design ideas into our projects. This is just good common sense and good craftsmanship.

Handziuk: I wouldn’t say life safety codes are exceeded so much as more stringently reviewed, tested, and enhanced. Within a high-containment lab, proper decontamination and timely egress are required. The notification system is typically enhanced with video monitors to outline in brief event information as well as communication systems. Personnel are trained to follow protocols, and systems are designed to ensure that adequate reservoirs of breathing air and shower-out decontamination fluid operate even with loss of power. Egress paths are sized and routed to accommodate a safe exit within a prescribed time frame for all users. And all exit paths are designed to allow for exiting through airlocks and to remain secure on exit.

Palasz: Exceeding safety codes may be recommended by the engineer; however, this is often the owner’s choice. Usually, there are discussions on which lab equipment and other MEP equipment may be on emergency power or have redundancies to ensure safety or protect the lab experiments/investment.

Bilan: This largely depends on the project budget and conversations with the building owner. When the project budget permits, a typical feature that exceeds code is redundancy. This adds a benefit for life safety and limits downtime for a facility.