Lab, research facility design: Electrical, power and lighting

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

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer December 27, 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: Are there any issues unique to designing electrical/power systems for these types of facilities?

Wilson: The sensitivity and high cost of some laboratory equipment is driving the need for uninterruptable power supply systems for equipment to prevent loss of power to the equipment upon a loss of utility electrical power and to bridge the gap of time from the loss of power and starting of the emergency generator.

Cramm: Determining laboratory plug loads is always a challenge. The equipment planned for during design will probably not be exactly what gets installed when the lab is finished. Researchers are constantly getting new equipment, particularly analytical instruments. The trick is to design for adequate plug loads without overdesigning.

We also need to keep the distribution flexible enough to accommodate changes over time. Options for distributing power in laboratories have increased and choosing the most flexible and cost-effective approach can be daunting. The electrical engineer should work closely with the lab planner to provide a distribution strategy that provides the most suitable approach for the users.

CSE: What types of unusual standby, emergency or backup power systems have you specified for such facilities?

Wilson: I designed a more than 120,000-square-foot chemistry research facility that incorporated an emergency generator for the building. The four-story facility required being built in phases with a core and shell package as the first phase. Each floor upfit occurred at different times and thus required UPS systems on a floor-by-floor basis in lieu of a building wide system, resulting in different size UPS systems on each floor according to the specific equipment provided on each floor.

CSE: What are some of the challenges when designing high-voltage power systems in laboratory and research facility projects?

Floth: The biggest challenge is fulfilling requests from researchers and others who want high-voltage power systems in their labs. It creates issues with the access and control of those facilities. It creates a danger for the local research staff and potentially other adjacent researchers. This is a significant design consideration because spaces, access, security, etc., all must be changed to make those systems safer.

CSE: What kind of maintenance guidelines are involved to ensure the project is running efficiently after the project is finished?

Cramm: We have been working with a developer on several public-private partnership laboratory projects for a federal government agency. One of our responsibilities is to develop an operations and maintenance plan for the buildings. This plan covers systems and provides placeholders for manuals, turnover documents and operating procedures. It provides background and insight into controls, equipment, chemical use, owner’s project requirements and other pertinent information to guide the building operations and maintenance staff. This document should help ensure efficient building operation over the life of the facility.

Floth: This is an important issue to address during commissioning. It’s critical that the commissioning and training for the operation of the building is done thoroughly. This includes revisiting the commissioning and actual operations sometime after startup to verify that the building is actually being operated the way it was designed. It’s a big risk when these facilities are operated completely differently than they were designed for. Operators will never achieve optimal energy performance from a design perspective if not trained properly.

CSE: What are some key differences in electrical, lighting and power systems you might incorporate in this kind of facility, compared to other projects?

Floth: It all comes down to what users really need. LED lighting and other newer technologies are quite typical in new facilities. Some restrictions may be that there are some limitations on how much power we can reduce or cut off after-hours and what those measurements are. The differences have to do with being very specific on what the watts-per-square-foot might be, in comparison with other facilities that the client might be using. So, it’s a balancing act where you can minimize watts-per-square-foot, but you don’t want to overbuild. This might be different calculation for office projects or similar facilities.

Cramm: Some facilities have a need for unusual lighting color. We have designed spaces that require yellow light due to processes that are sensitive to regular light. Animal facilities typically require diurnal lighting controls for animal housing rooms. Some animal facilities use a red lamp in the fixture to allow maintenance staff to enter the animal rooms during the night cycle without disturbing the animals. As for power systems, many laboratories have the need for standby power and/or UPS far beyond what is typical for other types of buildings. If research is being conducted, the investigators may stand to lose critical research and large sums of money if they experience a power failure.

CSE: How does your team work with the architect, owner’s rep and other project team members so the electrical/power systems are flexible and sustainable?

Cramm: We prefer to participate in MEP programming sessions with the lab planners where we talk to the lab users directly to understand their processes and how they work. This allows us to propose power distribution strategies that meet their needs. We are seeing an increase in the use of modular casework that is pre-piped and pre-wired. These systems use ceiling utility service panels that connect flexibly to the casework. If we provide ceiling service panels using a modular approach the users can move benches or change services easily. This provides significant flexibility over the life of the facility.

Floth: You do a flexible lineup of the system in a one-line during the pre-design. First, it’s important to know how the project may change in function and use in the future. We have to understand if there is additional real estate. Will there be enough room in closets, room in the runs, room in the way the building stacks? This is important, so that modifications can be made easily during other, smaller projects as needed.

CSE: When designing lighting systems for these types of structures, what design factors are being requested? Are there any particular technical advantages that are or need to be considered?

Floth: There are some interesting designs being done now with lighting that has to do with color-adjusted temperatures. In other words, you can have LED lights change colors, specifically in areas of the research facility where you don’t have a lot of windows. There are some studies about how to adjust the color temperature in windowless space — so that during the day it changes to benefit occupants who might be doing research tasks in a microscopy suite or an MRI suite that doesn’t have any windows.