High standards for labs, research buildings

Laboratory and research facilities are high-performance buildings, often with complex systems and exacting standards for engineers to meet. New and existing laboratory and research buildings have unique mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and fire/life safety challenges.

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: Please describe a recent laboratory/research facility project you’ve worked on.

Bryan Laginess: I was recently involved in a renovation of an approximately 10,000-sq-ft clinical lab located within a Detroit area community hospital. The existing operation of this facility did not flow in an efficient way for the users. Dividing walls between work areas created difficulties with communication and foot traffic. The project was designed to be constructed in five phases to minimize disruption to the operation of the lab. The existing infrastructure was modified to accommodate the renovated areas.

Jeremy Lebowitz: RJA is currently involved with the new Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research project under construction in Cambridge, Mass. The project is located across the street from some of their current facilities near the MIT campus, and includes two new buildings encompassing 550,000 sq ft of laboratory and office space. It’s very exciting getting to work with such a talented design team on a project of this magnitude.

Brian Rener: The U.S. Dept. of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Energy Systems Integration Facility (ESIF) in Golden, Colo., is designed to enable complex systems research and development that fully integrates the most advanced simulation, data analysis, engineering, and evaluation techniques to transform the nation’s energy infrastructure. SmithGroupJJR provided architecture, lab planning, and engineering services for the 182,500-sq-ft showcase facility, which houses 200 scientists and engineers working together to transform energy infrastructures in 14 sophisticated high-bay laboratories, a high-performance computing data center, and an ultra-green workplace. The high-performance computing data center is one of the most energy-efficient data centers in the world. 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 of 74% below the national average for office buildings. ESIF has achieved U.S. Green Building Council LEED Platinum certification and was named the 2014 Laboratory of the Year by R&D Magazine’s editors. 

Affiliated Engineers Inc., Madison, Wis., was the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) engineer of the laboratory systems, including the research electrical distribution bus (REDB) and the supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system.

Joshua Yacknowitz: Columbia University Northwest Corner Building was completed in 2010, and is a 14-story interdisciplinary research facility located on Columbia’s Morningside Heights, N.Y., campus. The building is 188,000 gsf, of which approximately 100,000 gsf is dedicated to laboratory space on seven floors of the building (the remaining floors are for academic and other uses).

CSE: How have the characteristics of such projects changed in recent years, and what should engineers expect to see in the next 2 to 3 years?

Yacknowitz: One of the things I have noticed and taken some encouragement from is the greater alignment between the institutional capital project management, facilities maintenance, and environmental/health/safety departments. There is always a tension between capital cost, operations, and safety in the design of lab buildings, and now I see more productive discussions early in the design phase between these departments in identifying risks and agreeing on coordinated design approaches.

Rener: We should see increasing emphasis on energy and sustainability, flexibility for change, and lifecycle cost analysis.

Laginess: Flexibility and room for growth are of high importance. Lab equipment is constantly improving, making new equipment available. Owners are looking for their facility to adjust with minimal impact on day-to-day operations. An example of this is accommodation for future sinks. In a recent project, PBA prepared all the lab benches with sanitary and water connections even though some did not have a sink in the current scope. This allowed the owner the ability to add a sink in the future without requiring additional legwork, including saw-cutting the floor.

Lebowitz: It’s amazing how quickly life sciences research evolves. It used to be that biology users had next to no solvents and we could locate these uses anywhere in a building—whether that was the top story of a high-rise or in the basement. Now, you walk into one of their labs and they have five or six mass spectrometers, which all use flammable solvents. If the current trends continue, I would hope to see a centralization of solvent distribution and waste collection, so that users are less likely to personally handle chemicals, which can reduce personnel exposure to hazardous materials as well as spills.

CSE: Could you please explain some of the challenges you’ve faced dealing with laboratory/research facilities in mixed-use buildings?

Laginess: Maintaining proper pressure relationships between the lab and nonlab spaces is critical. Proper differential pressure monitoring and control is required to ensure air is flowing in the right direction.

Lebowitz: The biggest challenge we usually face is how to allocate chemicals within a tenant space. If a user is moving in on a higher floor, they may be restricted to smaller quantities of solvents based on the construction of the building or other tenants. Often we see users needing to construct high hazard space for chemical use and storage, which is certainly possible in most cases; it just costs a bit more than a standard laboratory would on a square-foot basis. Another obstacle is if users don’t have a great handle on their inventory—it becomes difficult to establish exactly what the building and fire codes dictate they need for protective features.

Yacknowitz: I guess that depends a great deal on whether the building is new or existing, the owner type, and the makeup of the design team. In general, though, the design of laboratory mechanical, electrical, plumbing (MEP) systems (and to some degree structural) infrastructure is much different from other program types, often requiring greater MEP and shaft space, greater floor-to-floor heights, and specialized systems. In mixed-use buildings this tends to result in the lab program being sequestered from the more standard program spaces, and you end up with a “building within a building” approach. Trying to rationalize things like vertical services becomes more challenging because each program type has a different set of preferential arrangements, and the interface between the two is sometimes awkward, leading to some odd compromises.

Rener: Often labs or research facilities will have vastly differing needs for power and cooling from other types of uses in the same building. There are challenges on how to design central utility systems such as chilled water, or generators to serve mixed-use space, or make independent components for the lab and research uses, which can have vastly different year-round profiles. For example, a high-performance computing center will need year-round cooling, but placing this in an educational building where cooling systems are not used all year long can present challenges for right-sizing chilled water plants.

CSE: Please explain some of the general differences between retrofitting an existing building and working on new construction.

Laginess: In an existing building, the infrastructure needs to be looked at to see if it can handle the renovation; otherwise, this equipment will need to be replaced and space to do this may be limited. New construction allows the design team to work together to ensure proper space is planned for the installation of mechanical and electrical systems.

Rener: Andy Vazzano, our science and technology practice leader, has noted these challenges before. The inherent limitations of existing facilities—safety, energy performance, floor plate and height constraints, and so on—can make renovation an extensive and expensive undertaking. For a contemporary laboratory building, the cost of the core and shell constitutes only 30% to 40% of the pie. MEP systems, equipment, and interior systems are where the major cost lies, at 60% to 70% of replacement value. Also, the exiting building envelope may not pass ASHRAE standards for energy, and the structure may not meet seismic codes or laboratory vibration concerns. Still, a major advantage of renovations can be the reduced time to occupy a renovated building versus construction of a new one.

Yacknowitz: In my experience, a new building is more or less a blank canvas, and the services engineer can have a significant influence over spatial planning to help the architect and owner arrive at an optimized approach to lab control zones, infrastructure routing, and so on. All sorts of interesting approaches, such as service corridors and interstitial services floors, can potentially be employed to enhance the flexibility and maintainability of the building. In an existing building, you have many more constraints, which can severely limit not only MEP services options but the very program as well. One of the classics is low floor-to-floor height, which is common in mid-20th-century lab buildings that are being upgraded to current lab standards. Other items such as building construction class, structural live load, and structural vibration response can become landmines in the planning process for repurposed buildings or aging labs being considered for renovation.

Lebowitz: Two words: shaft space. A lot of times, we will have a lot of trouble allocating enough space for supply and exhaust ductwork (especially for hazardous exhaust) in an existing building, especially one that is being converted from offices to laboratory. Many times our clients underestimate the MEP costs associated with retrofit projects before the first cost estimate comes back. Other times, they want to move into a building where construction won’t support the activities they want, so we have to recommend upgrading the building’s structural members or selecting another facility outright. New construction is much easier from that standpoint, as the architect can program in structural fireproofing or additional shaft space.

CSE: What are some challenges you have faced in coordinating structural systems with mechanical, electrical, plumbing, or fire protection systems?

Rener: Where laboratory or research spaces require significant power demands, this can lead to the use of larger indoor substations, generators, and UPS systems. This electrical equipment can create weight demands that require additional reinforcement or bracing in the structure to support it.

Yacknowitz: The classic structural versus MEP coordination challenge is clear ceiling height, where the drive to minimize overall floor-to-floor height often squeezes MEP infrastructure, particularly in labs designed to meet a specific vibration criteria. Approaches such as trusses and cellular/castellated beams are often used to control the overall ceiling height while allowing clear paths for duct, pipes, and conduit to run in either direction, but the prevalence of braces and steel webbing can complicate the secondary (branch) infrastructure and equipment layout, so these approaches come with their own set of challenges. Other thorny areas of coordination include clashes between riser duct branch-offs and shaft framing steel, co-location of lab umbilical drops and structural beams, and routing of gravity piping systems such as acid waste and steam condensate.

Laginess: Coordinating on a new construction project is easier than on an existing facility. Equipment weights and roof/floor penetrations can be planned for up-front on a new build. Existing sites need to be closely evaluated, and direct paths with sheet metal and piping may need to be offset several times and/or reduced in size to account for the building’s structure. This could lead to a noisy operation and higher energy use systems.