Lab, research facility design

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’s the biggest trend in laboratory and research facility projects?

Kelley Cramm: Probably the biggest trend we’re seeing is an increased move toward open, modular laboratories. Open, modular labs accommodate changing research over time and allow flexibility for new equipment, researchers and evolving technology. They also improve collaboration between researchers from multiple disciplines.

To improve flexibility, many labs are using pre-wired and piped modular casework with “plug and play” capability. The utilities are supplied to a ceiling panel or overhead service carrier and connected to the casework from there. Utilities can be distributed to every module with services not initially needed valved and capped above the ceiling or in the overhead service carrier. This allows flexibility for changing needs with minimal disruption.

Bryan Floth: The biggest trend we’re seeing within laboratory and research facility projects is designing for flexibility. Advances in scientific research are accelerating in all areas. This has created unprecedented demand for new and more sophisticated facilities that can accommodate state-of-the-art technology. The cost to remodel facilities at the same rate can be substantial. It’s forcing a lot of planning and designing to be more generic and flexible, to better react to shifts in the industry.

George Isherwood: The biggest trend we are seeing is working through the balance of energy efficiency with equipment costs for the energy performance. Most, if not all, of our clients have “green” plans until they realize the increase in equipment costs.

Adam Judge: Most new facilities we have seen in the past few years have included large, shared open lab areas that catalyze collaboration and conversations among researchers. This collaboration encouraging concept is even spreading outside the laboratory spaces and into the common area and circulation spaces, such as open stairways and atria creating visibility between different floors, areas or departments. Often the primary investigators are not all known at the time of design, so most laboratory spaces need to be designed to be flexible for adaptation to future needs.

Iain Siery: Generally, I think advanced therapeutic medicinal products research and development are on the rise. This is particularly true in Philadelphia, where several key advancements have been made that are driving significant attention to this space within life sciences. These projects have different drivers and require specific expertise to create facilities that support clients in this field.

David Wilson: Providing flexibility in the design of laboratory spaces and utilities to allow for modifications to the laboratory spaces on an individual basis as research changes or changes in researchers occur. The advancement in technology and funding availability is often driving changes in the type of research being performed at any given time and changes appear to be occurring more rapidly than in the past.

CSE: What future trends should engineers expect for such projects?

Isherwood: Integration of the controls throughout the projects are starting to gain momentum in the industry. We are starting to see multiple trades starting to work together to accomplish a more efficient system. Window shade controls are interfacing with lights that are interfacing with temperature controls. There have been several challenges with integrating these systems and allowing them to not only read into their system but adjust setpoints as well.

Siery: I am expecting continued and increasing pressure on projects due to overall cost. Today, we explore numerous approaches to managing the cost of projects. This includes saving time by integrating the design and construction process, as well as design approaches that directly manage cost such a target value design/delivery. Finding the right balance of flexibility, speed of delivery and cost has been increasingly central to the success of research laboratory projects. These aspects can be at odds in many cases. In particular within the life sciences R&D industry, speed to market is becoming more critical, so solutions to these challenges must continue to evolve.

Floth: Speed to market is critical for lab and research facility projects today and will continue to be critical in the future. There is a growing expectation for buildings to be designed and built faster. Schedule, productivity and innovation are always top of mind. Any scenario in which the research associated with a lot of these facilities is delayed can delay the ability of the research organization to meet market deadlines.

We’re incorporating lean principles and management approaches into the process to help meet expectations, delivering a high-quality, on-schedule project. The purpose of the lean management approach has two central components: a fully integrated team approach to design and delivery from the early stages of a project, and the incorporation of lean principles, processes and tools to attack the sources of waste. Together these two concepts can translate to big advantages for an owner.

While more traditional delivery methods often focus on the “what” of a project, lean management principles approach project design and delivery differently, placing greater emphasis on “how” a project will be designed, constructed and ultimately delivered for the owner.

Cramm: I think an increased demand for sustainability and reduced carbon footprint will be the overarching trend. Laboratories consume massive amounts of energy and water. This will drive changes to the way we design labs and to the way users operate in the lab. We will see an increase in the use of energy recovery, high-performance fume hoods, occupancy-based setbacks for lighting and ventilation, wind responsive exhaust fan modulation and improved ventilation effectiveness at lower air change rates. Users will be pushed to use more efficient lab equipment — especially freezers — and to shut down lab equipment when not in use.

Judge: I expect future projects to continue the trend of flexibility. This may mean flexibility to adapt the design to different floor plan layouts, different equipment or other environmental requirements as researchers are recruited during the design phase, during the construction phase or post-occupancy.

CSE: What types of challenges do you encounter for these types of projects that you might not face on other types of structures?

Cramm: Density of power is one key difference. We’re seeing an increased use of ultralow-temperature freezers and analytical instruments that come with computers and printers attached. This equipment demands more power than most other occupancies. Spare circuits to accommodate future growth and new instruments are critical. Another key difference is the hazards associated with laboratories and the resulting need for containment to protect personnel. This drives us to fully exhausted laboratories with systems that need to run 24/7. Another difference is the increased use of gases that create a flammability or asphyxiant hazard. These require specialized systems to mitigate the risk to human life and health.

Wilson: The challenge is designing utility and utility systems to be generic in nature but customized on a lab-by-lab basis to meet the current research needs of each individual space. Providing utility systems for future use in each laboratory may add additional upfront cost when initially constructing the building but allows for modifications to each laboratory on an individual basis without affecting adjacent spaces and associated research occurring in each space. Long-term research can be lost if disruptions to utility systems occurs due to shutdowns required to modify utility systems.

Floth: The biggest challenge is the complexity of these projects. Science facilities require design that integrates specialty building systems, utilities and equipment with the human element of a pleasant working environment. Each laboratory, clean room or research space has unique environmental requirements, but all have a focus on efficiency, flexibility and safety at their core. Layered on top of that, many facilities hope to attract grants and achieve other unique certifications, requiring additional guidelines beyond making the building code compliant.

Judge: Building in sufficient flexibility for changes in laboratory spaces can be much more challenging than in other types of buildings. Because laboratory equipment can often vary widely in utility requirements, much more flexibility must be built in. In addition, with the governing energy efficiency codes become more stringent, laboratory facility design often requires thinking out of the box to not only meet energy code requirements, but often beat them to meet the sustainability goals of the project.

Isherwood: Most buildings are built with the intent of keeping the occupants comfortable. People working in offices and students in classrooms are more productive when comfortable. Laboratories introduce harmful elements into that environment that can affect both the safety of occupants and the surrounding areas. The management of chemicals or other harmful elements is what makes laboratories unique.

Siery: Specific design challenges include creating inspirational environments that balance scalable infrastructure, flexible casework and utility distribution, constructability and project cost and schedule drivers.

CSE: What are engineers doing to ensure such projects meet challenges associated with emerging technologies?

Cramm: Innovation and creativity are key to successful laboratory design. The understanding that what’s happening in the lab today will not be what’s happening in the future is critical. Engineers should never design a “purpose built” laboratory. All systems and utilities need to be designed to be flexible enough to adapt to future changes in laboratory equipment and evolving research. This means planning for systems to be expandable and designing services using a modular planning approach. It also means sizing ducts and chases to allow for additional airflow and providing plenty of spare electrical circuits in panelboards to accommodate the inevitable addition of laboratory equipment.

Floth: Having an integrated team is a game changer when it comes to delivering facilities that meet challenges associated with rapidly evolving technologies. Long before design begins, our architects, engineers, planners, environmental specialists and construction professionals work with clients to establish requirements. This gets all stakeholders and involved parties on the same page from day one. By interviewing lab stakeholders — from director to technicians — our designers help shape facilities’ physical and aesthetic goals and objectives. We carefully analyze traffic flow, space needs, type and number of analyses, standard testing methods, lab safety and equipment and regulatory requirements — a crucial first step in turning the vision of a facility into steel, concrete and glass, utilities and systems.

Judge: Engineers need to get as good of an understanding as possible of potential future plans for the laboratory spaces. Considerations must be taken regarding ventilation, cooling and exhaust, power requirements — including emergency generator or uninterruptible power supply standby power — water requirements, data requirements and chemical quantity limitations of potential future equipment and processes. The design team must inform the owner of the assumptions and limitations they must live with.

Siery: I am seeing significant emphasis on integrated solutions that bring the design and construction experts together (design-build and design-assist) to improve overall project schedule. Then these teams can more effectively leverage budget management strategies such as target value delivery to ensure the project is successful.

CSE: Tell us about a recent project you’ve worked on that’s innovative, large-scale or otherwise noteworthy. Please tell us about the location, systems your team engineered, key players, interesting challenges or solutions and other significant details.

Floth: One recent project our team was selected for is the NextGen Precision Health Institute at the University of Missouri. We’re providing architectural, master planning and engineering design services for the $220.8 million research facility. The facility will aim to bring together industry partners; engineering, medicine and veterinary science students; and the federal government to pursue a collaborative approach to personalized health care, supported by advanced technology. Construction for the 275,000-square-foot facility is expected to be completed in October 2021.

Judge: Construction is nearing completion of the new 395,000-square-foot, 13-story University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine and Heart Institute in the newly designated Water Street district in downtown Tampa, Fla. TLC Engineering Solutions teamed with architects HOK and builder Skanska for this design-build project with an estimated construction cost of $173 million. The project includes four classroom floors, including a 400-seat auditorium; three research laboratory floors; two shelled floors for future laboratory space; three shelled floors for future classroom, office or clinical space; and approximately 6,200 square feet of ground floor space shelled for future tenants. To promote interactions and collaboration, there is a five-story atrium with staircase connections for all floors of the College of Medicine and a three-story atrium connecting the three College of Medicine laboratory floors. The laboratory floors feature large open wet bench spaces, lined with smaller support labs.

The project includes run-around hydronic heat recovery loops to transfer heat from incoming outside air to exhaust airstreams and reduce cooling demand, purchased from a district chilled water plant. High-efficiency, low-flow fume hoods with automatic sash closers were specified to reduce outside air requirements. High-efficiency, natural gas fired condensing boilers are used to provide heating hot water and plate and frame heat exchanger skids are used to heat domestic hot water using heating hot water as a heat source.

CSE: How are engineers designing these kinds of projects to keep costs down while offering appealing features, complying with relevant codes and meeting client needs?

Cramm: Mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire protection systems typically constitute 40% to 55% of laboratory construction costs. Involving engineers at programming can help reduce costs. Early input from mechanical, electrical and plumbing engineers helps to ensure optimum system design and integrates the MEP systems with the lab layouts. This results in more efficient MEP layouts that can reduce first costs. For example, with early input from the engineers, the MEP equipment and chases can be located optimally so duct runs can be shorter, pressure drop lower and floor to floor heights lower.

Judge: The key is determining which energy savings measures bring value to the project. This can mean an acceptable payback period to the owner or sometimes even lower first cost. Often there can be upfront savings by economizing on combining different building systems in different ways. For example, laboratory buildings typically require a significant quantity of water heating — for hydronic HVAC reheat systems, for domestic hot water at sinks and sterilization processes. By using a plate and frame heat exchanger to isolate heating hot water from domestic hot water, the HVAC boilers can be slightly upsized and the domestic water heaters can be completely eliminated. This cuts down on equipment costs, piping costs and recurring maintenance costs.

Floth: Costs can be kept down by replicating floor plans. If you are not doing custom or specific design features for individual areas of the building, there are some ways for us to repeat layouts floor to floor. The cost parameters and the codes can be met and needs can be met by making things exactly the same. Typically, this also allows us to incorporate prefabrication of components like ductwork, plumbing and other systems that that allow the building to be built faster and at lower cost.

CSE: How has your team incorporated integrated project delivery, virtual reality or virtual design and construction into a project?

Siery: IPD is becoming the norm more than an exception in my experience. Different approaches are sometimes used such as design-build versus design-assist, all with the same goal of improving overall project schedule and controlling cost as directly as possible. VR and VDC are essential tools in these cross-disciplinary teams to efficiently coordinate and communicate project requirements. Typically, owners are requiring that VDC is performed because they recognize the benefits, but they do not stipulate exactly how. I have found that owner’s-side stakeholders are more effectively brought into the design process because project model reviews are becoming more realistic. They can get a direct sense of challenges in a space and provide more useful feedback when armed with these tools. Project teams that I have been a part of use these tools whether it is an owner’s requirement or not, as it benefits the design side as much as it benefits other stakeholders.

Judge: TLC has used VR to give owners and their facilities staff virtual tours of their building during the design phase. This enables us to show the owner how the equipment fits in mechanical and electrical rooms and above ceilings while providing maintenance access. Most projects of significant size now require the builders to use VDC to prepare coordination, fabrication and shop drawings. The construction manager often uses the design team’s model as a starting point or background to develop their VDC models. We are typically a participant in some of the VDC meetings to review challenges and potential changes to routing of utilities. This collaborative forum encourages teamwork between the design and construction teams and has worked very well.

CSE: How are such buildings being designed to be more energy efficient?

Judge: Light fixture efficiencies and controls have improved drastically in the recent past. Heating, ventilation and air conditioning energy recovery systems are no longer an extra expense, but a code requirement. Careful thought must be taken when developing building automation sequences of operation to make the best use of the systems installed. Many research universities are becoming more conscious of their laboratory buildings’ energy uses and are becoming more proactive in establishing energy savings goals and methodologies. The age-old “rule of thumb” air change rates are being questioned now and a closer look is being taken at what chemicals are actually being used and in what quantities. Systems that detect chemical vapors in the laboratory space and adjust minimum airflow rates dynamically are becoming more commonplace.

Floth: Research buildings generally consume a lot of energy because they try to exchange a great deal of air in the building. For buildings to become lean, we have to be very stringent on exactly how those air changes occur. Most of the design features consider cost-effective ways to switch the air or capture and use the energy from the exhaust air Many technologies are available to specifically accomplish that. New advancements in ASHRAE energy guidelines for these buildings have become more stringent in the past 10 years, so energy use is becoming more efficient overall.

Wilson: Reducing air change rates in laboratories and research facilities and providing energy recovery systems is a common approach to lowering energy costs for facilities. Another approach to making the facility more energy efficient is to increase R values of building components such as walls, windows and roofs to reduce energy usage and increase energy efficiency.

Cramm: Energy efficiency in laboratories is critical due to the large amounts of once-through air. Variable volume laboratory exhaust systems are now the norm. High-performance fume hoods with reduced face velocity should be considered. Where appropriate, in tightly controlled circumstances, filtered fume hoods that are not exhausted might be an option. Reduced air change rates and careful attention to air distribution should be implemented. Energy recovery is also an important strategy. Demand controlled ventilation and unoccupied airflow setbacks also should be considered. We work closely with the architect and lab planner during programming to help ensure that the number and size of fume hoods and exhausted biological safety cabinets matches the users’ needs. Installing extra fume hoods that are not absolutely necessary can result in significantly higher energy consumption.

Siery: Applications in research and development laboratories pose real risk to people using them and often the engineering controls that protect against these hazards do increase the energy consumption of the facility. Most projects where there is a feasible solution to reduce energy consumption absolutely take advantage of them. Features such as energy recovery in the ventilation systems can help reduce HVAC consumption in a meaningful way.

Other approaches, like employing variable frequency drives, electronically commutated motor fans, variable speed compressors and other capacity modulation are commonplace. Another approach that we have considered is low pressure drop design of air handling systems. A lot of energy is lost in fan power to push across coils, filters and control valves in air handling systems. That loss is directly related to how those components are designed and careful attention to that can make a measurable impact.

CSE: What is the biggest challenge you come across when designing such projects?

Cramm: One of the biggest challenges we face is architects and owners who may not understand how to conduct a risk assessment and how to protect laboratory users from exposure to hazardous materials. Researchers are focused on their work in the lab and they may not understand the concept of containment. We find that working with users to identify the hazards and selecting the optimum containment strategy can be a challenge. It may be up to the engineer to initiate and guide this conversation.

Floth: Our biggest challenge is sometimes just understanding there are a lot of technologies out there that impact how these buildings operate, mostly from an MEP perspective. And some of the challenge has to do with aligning the most advanced technology with the facility operations group. It’s important for the technology and systems in place to be maintainable.

Wilson: Getting cooperation from all disciplines (architectural, electrical, etc.) that energy-efficient design encompasses all disciplines and not just mechanical systems. Increasing R values for walls, windows and roofs does have an impact on reducing overall energy usage as does using energy efficient lighting.

CSE: What is the typical project delivery method your firm uses when designing these a facility?

Cramm: We have worked on laboratory projects that use traditional design-bid-build, design-build and public-private partnership. We are currently working on a public-private partnership project that is led by a developer who is building a speculative research building for higher education. They have an anchor tenant, but there is space available in the building for additional laboratory tenants. The challenge is that we need to design the engineered systems flexibly enough to adapt to whatever tenant might lease space in the future. It’s an unusual delivery method for highly technical laboratory space.

Judge: The most common delivery method we are seeing currently for laboratory projects is construction manager onboard, but we are also seeing an increase in design-build projects. Both methods provide the benefit to the owner of ongoing estimating and typically the CM has a good understanding of the design by the time the project goes to bid or award.

The USF Morsani College of Medicine and Heart Institute project was completed as a design-build project. There was a greater degree of teamwork between the design team and the builder’s team as a result. The CM even brought on subcontractors in an unofficial design-assist arrangement, which helped keep the project design from diverging drastically from the established budget.

Siery: We deliver projects using the approach that best serves the owner in a specific situation. While we do deliver projects design-bid-build, our capabilities as an integrated firm benefit us even still. We leverage constructability reviews, cost feedback and even procurement capabilities to help our clients succeed, regardless of delivery method. That said, there are many advantages of IPD that are leading to continued growth of that model at our firm.

Floth: Design-build continues to be a growing part of our business offering, providing risk-sharing and cost and schedule certainty, to our clients. We tailor our project delivery approach to meet our clients’ needs. Every project is unique, so we believe you need a suite of models to make each customer successful. Additionally, applying lean principles as a construction delivery strategy can result in significant cost savings for clients by targeting inefficiencies and waste in project delivery. The approach relies on a culture of trust and transparency — not only between owners and suppliers but also among all key players within a project, including engineering, construction, trades and project vendors.