Lab, research facility design: Building automation and controls

Learn tips on how to design labs and research facilities — some of the most high-tech buildings around

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer December 26, 2019


Kelley Cramm, PE, LEED AP BD+C

Associate/Mechanical Technical Leader

Henderson Engineers

Kansas City


Bryan Floth, LEED AP, AIA

Senior Project Manager

Burns & McDonnell

Kansas City, Mo.


George Isherwood, PE

Vice President, Health Care/Laboratory Group Leader

Peter Basso Associates Inc.

Troy, Mich.


Adam Judge, PE

Associate/Mechanical Project Engineer

TLC Engineering Solutions

Tampa, Fla.


Iain Siery, PE

Senior Mechanical Engineer




David Wilson, PE, LEED AP

Senior Engineer


Raleigh, N.C.


Kelley Cramm

Henderson Engineers

Cramm is an associate and mechanical technical leader at Henderson Engineers. She received a 2019 ASHRAE Exceptional Service Award and has more than 30 years of industry experience.


Bryan Floth

Burns & McDonnell

Floth leads architecture and integrated design-build projects across the U.S. for the company. With nearly 30 years of experience, he has partnered with clients throughout his career to design and implement complex higher education, commercial, industrial, institutional and mission critical facilities.


George Isherwood

Peter Basso Associates Inc.

Over his 35-year career, Isherwood has worked on numerous new-construction and renovation projects. His health care work includes patient towers, ambulatory care facilities, operating rooms, cardiac catheterization labs and more.


Adam Judge

TLC Engineering Solutions

As Associate/Mechanical Engineer, Judge works on a broad range of project types. He has a wealth of laboratory experience, including recent renovations at the University of South Florida College of Medicine.


Iain Siery


Siery brings 14 years of progressive experience to the science and technology sector to CRB. His areas of specialty include mechanical utilities, HVAC, industrial ventilation and plumbing design for critical environments in R&D and manufacturing.


David Wilson


As senior engineer with Dewberry, Wilson centers his work on mechanical, electrical and plumbing projects. He brings more than three decades of engineering experience to the firm.

CSE: From your experience, what systems within laboratory and research facility projects are benefiting from automation that previously might not have been?

Cramm: Laboratory airflow control systems have advanced significantly in the past five to seven years. There are many new products and systems on the market that allow for improved airflow, temperature control and speed of response. Many of these systems provide feedback information that was not previously available such as true airflow measurement and fume hood face velocity.

Likewise, the technology improvements in occupancy-based controls has provided the opportunity to reduce airflows during unoccupied hours. In the past, we didn’t use occupancy sensors in labs due to their inability to sense a researcher who may not be moving around much. Dual technology sensors have advanced such that they are viable for research laboratories.

Judge: Integration and communication between different building systems is becoming more straightforward. With the standardization of BACnet, lighting controls and occupancy sensors, laboratory temperature and airflow control systems and building-level HVAC system controls can often “talk” to each other without complicated gateways and hours of programming required to “translate” programming languages between systems.

CSE: What types of system integration and/or interoperability issues have you overcome for these projects and how did you do so?

Wilson: Providing uninterruptable utility systems to minimize loss of research due to loss of power, utility shutdowns, etc. Serving systems from an emergency power source, providing UPS systems to controls and equipment and providing redundant utility systems generating equipment to minimize any loss of research due to unexpected utility outages.

Judge: In the past, integration between the laboratory temperature and airflow control system (i.e., lab controllers and air valves) and the buildingwide automation system was frequently a challenge. The two systems rarely spoke the same language, so gateways had to be installed and programmers on both sides had to spend hours programming translations between the two systems. This often led to finger pointing between the two integrators as to who was responsible for the gray area in between. It is becoming more typical now for these systems to speak BACnet at the integration level, regardless of the communication protocol used at the device level, making integration much simpler.

Cramm: The classic problem in laboratories has long been difficulty integrating the laboratory airflow control system with the building management system. It used to be that the laboratory airflow controls could not be monitored from the BMS and if they could, there was no way to change setpoints or make adjustments. Many times, the lab airflow controls were a “black box.” The industry is now embracing BACnet in a way that allows this integration to occur more seamlessly.

The other factor that has influenced this is the increase in laboratory airflow systems on the market. Many of these systems are BACnet-based, which allows them to be seen and controlled directly from the BMS.

CSE: Is your team using building information modeling in conjunction with the architects, trades and owner to design a project? Describe an instance in which you’ve turned over the BIM to the facility maintenance team for long-term operations and maintenance or measurement and verification.

Floth: Today, approximately 50% of our clients use BIM and understand how it can be integrated into their operations specifications. For us that BIM model is maintained by us through construction, then it’s turned back over to the owners if all the correct information is plugged into it. It takes a lot of effort to maintain that BIM model once the building goes into operation but we’re seeing an increase in how many owners are doing that.

Judge: TLC has been on the forefront of 3D design and BIM for years. Today is highly uncommon for engineers and architects to not use the Autodesk Revit BIM platform as a standard. The level of development varies from project, with most projects falling in the LOD 250 to 300 range. We have had minimal requirements from owners to provide higher LODs to the point that the BIM contains O&M and/or M&V information but have very recently started seeing this. This is typically a joint effort between the design team and the contractors. We have not yet seen an owner that had leveraged this level of BIM for these uses though.

Wilson: I have used BIM modeling in conjunction with architects as that is direction our industry is going at the moment. We did a new facility project where the Revit model was turned over to the owner for use for maintenance and updated as changes have been made to the facility as space functions have changed or when shelled future space was upfitted.

CSE: Have you included virtual reality or augmented reality in the design of such a project?

Wilson: I have been involved in a VR project where the BIM model was used to create a VR model for the research space. The users found the VR was very useful in understanding how the space would look once constructed as they could visually move through the space as if a mock-up space was built.

Judge: We have used VR to give owners, facility managers and architects virtual tours of mechanical and electrical rooms. This has been especially useful at demonstrating the level of accessibility for maintenance to equipment that may not translate easily on 2D drawings. We have also used VR technology to analyze congested above-ceiling areas and clashes.

Floth: Technology continues to drive quality, safety and speed to market and we are always embracing technology to provide better tools and more mobile applications. We are better today at obtaining information from the field and immediately disseminating that information to our clients and our teams. We are bringing the field to the office by using 3D laser scanning and AR. Many of our presentations are introducing VR to many of our clients for the first time. This is not just a cool way to convey our design plans, but a valuable tool that introduces a new way for clients to understand their projects, see areas for improvement and make changes in the design stage before they get expensive.

It’s also been used with the constructability trades, with the contractors in design, to let everyone understand we’re able to walk around in the BIM model and truly see some of the clearances, the conflicts, the clashes, the systems and where things may actually be changed with the design of the facility to make it much easier to build.

CSE: In what way is the need for more smart technology and features in such buildings affecting your work on these projects?

Judge: Smart technologies and features allow us to be more creative in our designs and provide owners with highly sustainable and resilient buildings. The challenge is explaining these systems to all stakeholders in the project to get sufficient buy-in to be able to implement them in the design.

Floth: New technology and new features are not significantly making building these facilities more complicated. There’s not a lot of infrastructure, like pipe and wire that really starts to change to the way the building gets done from a design perspective. It does, however, open up opportunities for new configurations of things like lighting, systems, air, etc., because they are being controlled very easily from a basic controls system. So, it’s not actually shifting construction methods or processes as much as it is with controls.

CSE: Has the “internet of things” come up in discussion or been implemented on such projects? How has this integration impacted the project?

Judge: Integration of multiple building systems, smart system analytics and energy and maintenance dashboard allow owners to see in detail how their systems are operating in real time. This has allowed preventive maintenance to evolve into predictive maintenance. These building analytics can now predict and alert the owner when systems are trending toward problems. One of our health care clients is going to be moving to a preventive maintenance platform that will analyze how the filters load up in their air handling units. As these data are collected and trended, the system will be able to not only alter the operations staff when the filters are ready to be changed, but alert them ahead of time when it is time to order new filters.

CSE: Cybersecurity and vulnerability are increasing concerns. Are you encountering worry/resistance around wireless technology and IoT as the prevalence of such features increases? How are you responding to these concerns?

Isherwood: We have been working with the technology groups within our owners’ organizations. Some owners are limiting some functionality of the building systems to eliminate potential outside access to their networks. Part of this issue is the owners are hiring contract maintenance groups and not allowing them access to their network. Building technology needs to be on its own stand-alone platform and not linked to the sensitive technology of the owners’ network. This increases costs when the building network runs parallel to the owners’ network. The management of technology is a growing concern among the owners we work with.

Judge: Yes, especially with large institutions such as university systems, there is a great concern about cybersecurity. Typically, as long as the owner’s information technology team is made fully aware of who needs access, what the system can and cannot see and do and how exactly it needs to attach to the network, appropriate means can be taken to provide connectivity without compromising cybersecurity.

CSE: How has your technology team worked with facility managers to implement security technology (biometrics, card-scan, etc.) in such facilities?

Floth: We’re very much attuned to what’s required, for example, to provide a biometric scan entry card location, just as we are to what’s required to design and build a secure facility. Our co-team approach with mission critical work is extremely focused on bunker-type facilities related to data management and data storage in terms of servers and things like that. And those things are integrated. So, from a research facility standpoint, these things are all handled by very sophisticated systems that all they really require is some internet connectivity and fiber connections — as long as they are placed somewhat within the functional layout of the building and correctly, from an architectural perspective.