Lab, research facility design: Sustainability and energy efficiency

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

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer December 23, 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: What level of performance are you being asked to achieve, such as WELL Building Standards, U.S. Green Building Council LEED certification, net zero energy, Passive House or other guidelines?

Isherwood: We are not seeing these design guidelines being used in our laboratory projects. Once the cost to implement these ideas are discussed, we are asked to design the laboratories to code meeting minimum energy requirements.

Judge: Most of our laboratory projects required LEED Silver certification or better. This is a mandate for state university projects in Florida.

CSE: What unusual systems or features are being requested to make such projects more energy efficient?

Judge: For LEED projects, it is becoming much more important for a highly efficient envelope to be specified and design. In Florida, the glazing is one of the most important aspects of the building. No matter how efficient the lights and HVAC systems are, if the glazing is just “code minimum” performance, it will be extremely hard to achieve LEED energy efficient points. For WELL Building projects, lighting controls for circadian rhythms are required, which are not commonly provided otherwise. These systems control both dimming/brightness and color temperature to provide the ideal levels throughout the day for human comfort and productivity.

CSE: What types of sustainable features or concerns might you encounter for these buildings that you wouldn’t on other projects?

Judge: One of the concerns is air quality. In nonlaboratory projects, enthalpy wheels are very common energy recovery devices. However, in laboratory buildings, sometimes the air in the exhaust stream may have vapors or odors that should not be passed through an enthalpy wheel, where such vapors or odors could transfer to the outside air path. The qualities of the airstreams used in energy recovery systems and the correct type of energy recovery systems must be considered carefully.

Isherwood: Codes and design standards have looked at the largest energy impact on laboratory projects which is treating outdoor air. Energy recovery devices are always discussed and, in most cases, used (hazardous exhaust does not go through the energy recovery units).

CSE: What are some of the challenges or issues when designing for water use in such facilities, particularly buildings with high water needs?

Cramm: Water is a silent resource in laboratory buildings. Reducing energy consumption is always a goal, but you rarely hear discussions about water use reduction. Here are some strategies to reduce consumption of this important resource: Water aspirators should never be used to create vacuum in a laboratory. A small vacuum pump is a much better approach. The plumbing engineer should discuss this during programming. Laboratory glassware washers can be specified with a feature that recirculates water during the cycle and drastically reduces water consumption. This should always be offered as an option. It used to be common practice to use domestic water to cool laboratory equipment. This created a steady stream of wasted water. A process cooling loop should always be discussed early in the lab planning process.

CSE: How have energy recovery products evolved to better assist in designing these projects?

Judge: Fixed-plate enthalpy cores can provide energy recovery while maintaining zero cross-contamination between exhaust and outside air streams. At least one manufacturer is now designing and building a fluid run-around heat recovery system with energy savings rivaling that of enthalpy wheels.