Lab, research facility design: Codes and standards

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

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer December 30, 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: Please explain some of the codes, standards and guidelines you commonly use during the project’s design process. Which codes/standards should engineers be most aware of?

Isherwood: Codes are changing and updating every day. These react to either new industries or developing concerns with the safety of laboratories. NFPA 1: Fire Code Chapter 38 is a good example of how codes are reacting to the emerging cannabis industry. Even though not all states have legalized cannabis, nor have they adopted NFPA 1, Chapter 38, the code is in place to be effective in protecting the general population from hazards associated with these laboratories.

Wilson: The codes commonly used are the building, mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire protection codes for the jurisdiction that the project is located as well as ANSI Z9.5: Laboratory Ventilation. Engineers need to be aware that ANSI Z9.5 provides guidelines on best practices to be incorporated into designs.

Cramm: As engineers, we should all be familiar with the building codes, particularly the mechanical and fire codes. In addition to those, all laboratory design engineers should be familiar with the following:

Floth: The most important codes relate to the handling of hazardous material. Because these are research facilities, there are quite a few hazardous materials that could endanger the health and safety of occupants. The risk can be mitigated by the design of the facility. We have to be aware of regulations that can most affect the layout, the exiting and the MEP systems that can be impacted by the presence or handling of hazardous materials.

Judge: First and foremost, the locally enforced building and fire prevention codes need to be known. In addition, fire codes such as NFPA 30 and NFPA 45 contain requirements for flammable chemical storage and use in laboratories. ANSI Z9.5 is the industry standard for laboratory ventilation. The ASHRAE Laboratory Design Guide is a very useful handbook as well.

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

Cramm: The engineer needs to understand the hazards present in the lab and design proper systems to help protect personnel from harmful exposure. There are very few prescriptive standards for designing these types of spaces. Designers should be familiar with applicable codes and standards and be able to understand how to apply them given the hazards identified. There should always be a hazardous materials list developed that includes quantities in storage and in use. This helps inform code requirements and application of standards. The engineers should always be present during laboratory programming to help facilitate the conversation regarding hazards and containment.

Floth: It’s important to capture the knowledge we have gained from each project to understand features that make these unique facilities both operational and compliant with the standards. Additionally, creating checks and balances along the way is key. The ultimate goal is to create a safe environment while meeting the required codes.

Judge: Get a good understanding the building program, including the intended uses of the laboratory spaces, what kinds of equipment and chemicals will be used and stored and what standard protocols are. It is extremely helpful to meet with the facility’s environmental health and safety group and the local authorities having jurisdiction — particularly the fire safety and fire marshal reviewers. Go into such meetings armed with understanding of the building code and NFPA requirements based on the use and storage of chemicals.

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

Wilson: ASHRAE Standard 90.1-2016: Energy Standard for Buildings Except Low-Rise Residential Buildings guides energy recovery systems for almost all facilities in certain climates and certainly impacts laboratory HVAC systems. International Code Council and state energy conservation codes are incorporating ASHRAE 90.1 guidelines for energy conservation to make the guidelines a code requirement.

Judge: In the past, laboratories could meet exceptions in the energy efficiency codes and be exempt from using energy recovery and other energy savings measures. Now that these technologies have evolved and adapted to a wide range of applications and building types, the list is exceptions has decreased. In is nearly impossible to design a code-compliant laboratory building without employing some forms of energy recovery, airflow turndown strategies, light controls and/or daylight harvesting or other energy cost saving measures.

Cramm: ASHRAE 90.1 continues to evolve to include content applicable to laboratories. This makes sense because laboratories consume so much energy compared to other commercial buildings. However, the lab designer always needs to weigh the lab users’ safety against what is being proposed and should always choose lab safety over reduced energy consumption.

CSE: What new or updated code or standard do you feel will change the way such projects are designed, bid out or built?

Floth: More recent changes in the code address the types and quantities of hazardous materials that are allowed for storage and specifically addressing storage in multistory buildings. There used to be quite a number of restrictions for facilities specifically built on university campuses that allowed a very minimal volume of hazardous materials on upper floors, let’s say above the third or fourth floors. This had a lot to do with control areas, from a code perspective. That now has been changed in the International Building Code and various fire protection codes (NFPA) to align more correctly, so in terms of campuses, there are now not quite the number of restrictions there used to be.

Judge: Updates to ASRHAE 90.1 continue to define mandatory and prescriptive requirements of the baseline building with more and more stringent requirements. This industry standard is the basis for most state and local energy efficiency codes. The baseline building — the code-minimal design to which the proposed design must be compared for code compliance — continues to be more energy efficient. Proposed buildings are no longer required to be compared to an energy-hog building that would likely never be design, but now a very efficient building with very efficient equipment.

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

Isherwood: Working with the International Existing Building Code and a cost-conscious owner is sometimes difficult. Some projects will fall into Alteration Level 1 or Alteration Level 2, yet the current infrastructure systems may not be modern and cannot adjust to newer energy-efficiency requirements and some complicated control sequences. The designers need to remember that an existing in-use system may not be correct for the safety of the users. They must work through the designs to correct these existing conditions.

Cramm: Understanding the quantities of flammable materials, how to determine control area boundaries and associated fire ratings and how to treat hazardous materials can be challenging in existing buildings. NFPA 30, NFPA 45, the International Building Code and the International Fire Code each have requirements and they don’t always align. Meeting these requirements can be a challenge in an existing building.

The other challenge we encounter frequently is existing laboratory buildings that are not using once-through air. They may not have the equipment capacity to correct this and many times building users and operators don’t understand the need for this. There may not be space or electrical capacity for additional equipment.

Judge: The biggest challenge when working with existing buildings is typically finding the capacity — whether ventilation, cooling, heating, water, drainage or power — within the existing building systems. When that capacity does not exist, it becomes a challenge to find a place to install new equipment, especially when vertical distribution comes into play.