High standards for labs, research buildings: Energy efficiency

Laboratory and research facilities are high-performance buildings, often with complex systems and exacting standards for engineers to meet. Energy efficiency and sustainability are often top-of-mind for consulting engineers’ clients.

By Jenni Spinner, contributing writer May 22, 2014


  • Bryan Laginess, PE, LEED AP, Senior associate, Peter Basso Associates, Troy, Mich.
  • Jeremy Lebowitz, PE, Vertical market leader, Rolf Jensen & Associates Inc., Framingham, Mass.
  • Brian Rener, PE, LEED AP, Associate, SmithGroupJJR, Chicago
  • Joshua Yacknowitz, PE, LEED AP, Associate principal, Arup, New York City

CSE: Many aspects of sustainability require building personnel to follow certain practices in order to be effective. What, if anything, can you as an engineer do to help increase chances of success in this area?

Laginess: Our specification covers training of staff for system operations. Making sure this training is done will help to ensure proper operation is continued after start-up.

Yacknowitz: Keeping designs simple and robust to minimize failures is key. Also, provide reasonable maintenance access to encourage routine maintenance. Providing remote monitoring and alarming capability is also a huge benefit in complex facilities like labs.

Lebowitz: Proper commissioning and integrated testing of the systems is a great place to start. Most people might think that’s just an acceptance test at the end of the installation, but it’s not—it’s about designing each system to perform as intended, and documenting the process so that the system behaves properly and interfaces with all the other required systems. For life safety, this process could include lab hood exhaust, smoke control, detection, alarm, suppression, and ECS. Special knowledge of how all these life safety systems are supposed to work together in various circumstances is a critical part of the life safety commissioning process by a fire protection engineer. Following NFPA 3: Recommended Practice for Commissioning and Integrated Testing of Fire Protection and Life Safety Systems is a critical part of this process. Most importantly, proper commissioning will outline what is required for sufficient maintenance and testing of systems down the road and ensuring each system reaches its useful life.

CSE: Could you please share a success story in which you were able to deliver a highly sustainable project to a laboratory/research facility client?

Rener: The NREL ESIF project incorporates the best in energy efficiency, environmental performance, and advanced controls using a “whole building” integrated design approach. The High Performance Computing Data Center (HPCDC) contains a petaFLOP scale supercomputer capable of large-scale modeling and simulation. Not only will it be the fastest computing system dedicated to renewable energy technologies in the world, it will also be one of the most energy-efficient data centers in the world. Operating at a power usage effectiveness (PUE) of 1.06 or better and using 100% evaporative-based cooling, it features warm water liquid cooling and return water heat capture for reuse in the labs and offices.

The office building boasts a highly calibrated envelope, daylighting harvesting and delivery devices, low-velocity active chilled beams, and under-floor air ventilation with operable windows and convection shafts. This results in staggeringly low energy consumption (EUI) of 23.0 kBtu/sq ft/yr, which is 74% below the national average for office buildings. In addition to HPCDC heat recovery for ventilation air, the high-bay laboratories use evaporative cooling and optimized laboratory exhaust systems. The laboratory exhaust systems are variable-volume, minimizing the amount of exhaust (and associated ventilation air) required to maintain environmental conditions. Wind tunnel testing was used to optimize exhaust stack heights and discharge velocities. These values were then calibrated to a weather station on the building, allowing for a reduction in discharge velocity and exhaust fan energy based on wind speed and direction. Extensive daylighting combined with sophisticated lighting monitoring and controls allows for additional reductions in lighting energy.

Yacknowitz: The Columbia University NWC building was a LEED Gold certified project which incorporated a number of sustainable approaches, including full variable air volume (VAV) lab air systems, supplemental local recirculation cooling in nonchemistry labs to reduce size of once-through air handlers and energy cost, an M&V system, enhanced commissioning to confirm the operation of the building according to design intent, sensible heat recovery on lab exhaust air, occupancy sensor lighting control, and active daylighting control in perimeter lab zones.