The science behind laboratory and research facility projects

Engineers need to consider many factors for a lab or research facility so it can perform as needed. Engineers with experience on such facilities offer advice on how to pass the test.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer December 28, 2017


  • Steven Graff, PE, Senior Mechanical Engineer, Kupper Engineering Inc., Ambler, Pa. 
  • Mike Lawless, PE, FPE, LEED AP, Client Executive, IMEG Corp., St. Louis
  • Gerry Williams, PE, LEED AP, CxA , Senior Mechanical Engineer, CRB, St. Louis
  • Robert Zamudio, PE, LEED AP, Senior Design Engineer, Southland Engineering, Union City, Calif.

CSE: What’s the No. 1 trend you see today in the design of lab and research facilities?

Steven Graff: The No. 1 trend we see in the design of lab and research facilities is the flexible use of space and the sharing of resources. New and renovated facilities are being organized by function rather than discipline to allow sharing of expensive equipment and increase collaboration. Laboratories are being designed as modules with moveable casework, plug-and-play overhead utilities, and even moveable walls in some cases, so they can be easily changed and reconfigured to support each research team.

Mike Lawless: We have seen a focus on separating wet (chemistry) labs from dry (computational) labs. Wet lab spaces are required to be fully exhausted; therefore, they carry the burden of additional energy cost and first cost for infrastructure. We have seen clients question their users more thoughtfully to help understand what spaces really need to be wet labs. This separation of wet and dry labs and minimizing wet lab spaces is the biggest opportunity to save first cost and energy. It is cheaper to build office-type space than a laboratory—and office spaces cost less to operate—so separating dry functions like write-up and computational space from the wet laboratory spaces should be a primary goal in lab design and programming.

Robert Zamudio: The strongest push we’re seeing is a focus on energy efficiency, primarily through reduction of fan energy by implementing variable air volume (VAV) control of exhaust.

CSE: What other trends should engineers consider regarding these projects in the near future (1 to 3 years)?

Zamudio: Over the next few years, we’re likely to see increased demand for flexibility and modularity that will continue to impact all trades. Ceiling service panels and mobile casework, for example, allow easy alteration of spaces as compared with traditional fixed casework. Another trend is water reduction and reuse, especially in drought-prone regions. This is easiest to implement for restrooms and landscaping, as lab spaces are typically process-driven.

Graff: Two trends I have seen lately are the desire to design and build net zero energy buildings and the use of virtual reality to aid in the design process and help clients visualize and make decisions about their future facility.

CSE: Please describe a recent project you’ve worked on—share details about the project including location, systems engineered, team involved, etc.

Lawless: We recently completed an addition to the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, designing all the mechanical, engineering, plumbing, fire protection, (MEP/FP) systems for the project. The team included Christner Inc., Flad Architects, McCarthy Building Companies Inc., and Landmark Management Services Inc. The goal of the MEP design for the project was to support not only the plant science of today, but also the research of the future. With this in mind, the ceiling of each floor provides a grid of outlets for electrical service, data, and gases. This provides the flexibility to easily move benches and cabinets as needed. The flexible design also allows the space to support robotic equipment in the Bellwether Plant Phenotyping facility, wet lab, or other equipment as the important research of the center evolves. The new addition also features separate equipment rooms where energy-intensive equipment—and the heat and noise it generates—is isolated from the research (as opposed to being placed within the labs themselves). The new wing is supported by reverse osmosis (RO) and deionized (DI) water systems, vacuum systems, and a standby diesel generator and redundant chilled-water system to ensure continuity of experiments. Other features of the MEP design include larger air handling units (AHUs) and efficient duct layout to reduce fan horsepower; heat recovery on the exhaust airstream to preheat/cool outside air; unoccupied controls to reduce the ventilation rate during unoccupied periods; staged fume exhaust fan control with the velocity determined by a wind study to reduce energy use; and separate lab/office spaces to reduce outside-air requirements.

CSE: Have you designed any such projects using the integrated project delivery (IPD) method? If so, describe one.

Lawless: We have designed projects contracted as IPD, but more commonly we have completed projects using the “design-assist” method. One example is the Washington University School of Medicine Couch Biomedical Research Building. The contractors were selected at the end of the schematic design phase based on qualification and price. We then worked as a team with the contractors to maintain the budget as the project design was completed. Through this collaboration, we found efficient solutions to user requests and other challenges that arose as the design progressed. We did remain the engineer of record.

CSE: What are the challenges you face when designing such facilities that you don’t normally face for other projects?

Zamudio: Understanding diversities for right-sizing equipment is a challenge. Accurate sizing of lab gas, air, and vacuum systems require an understanding of usage. Diversities of sash closures can have a big impact on fan sizing. This information can be difficult to confirm, thus early discussions with stakeholders are important.

Lawless: The challenges are what make designing these buildings fun. Each facility is conducting unique research in an effort to be the first to make a scientific discovery and change the world. This means each lab has unique requirements and needs. Collaborating with researchers to find the right solution while also staying within budget is a great challenge.

CSE: What are some unique elements/considerations when retrofitting or renovating such facilities?

Lawless: Our Bryan Hall renovation at Washington University in St. Louis highlights one challenge in retrofitting an older building: low floor-to-floor heights. The bottom of the structure was an approximately 11-ft waffle slab, to which we were adding laser labs, synthetic chemistry, and mass spectrometry. The key to fitting all the necessary utilities into the existing envelope was early engagement with the architect to plan for distributed shafts to minimize the horizontal distribution of utilities.

Zamudio: One challenge we often see is integrating VAV into an existing constant air volume (CAV) system. Another challenge is tying into an existing deionized (DI) water loop while maintaining velocities and staying below rated pressures.

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

Graff: Sometimes, but not always. We have never turned over a BIM model to the owner for long-term operations and maintenance purposes.

CSE: With budget concerns, how are engineers designing buildings to reduce initial costs while being code-compliant and maximizing client needs?

Zamudio: Again, understanding diversities for right-sizing equipment. This requires coordination with stakeholders early in the design process.

CSE: There’s an increased demand for modular labs and facilities that offer the flexibility to be readily transformed from one type of facility to another. What unique obstacles do such facilities present?

Graff: Sizing of HVAC equipment is one of the biggest challenges. You must design something that not only will operate efficiently under its current criteria, but will also operate just as well under new criteria in the future. In addition, with added flexibility comes added cost. Justifying some of those costs for future needs is difficult.

Lawless: There is a balance to strike between budget and first cost. How many and what utilities do you provide now that may never be used if a lab isn’t remodeled for some time? Infinite flexibility can be provided for an infinite price. A balance needs to be struck between what main utilities are provided—for example, providing ample future electrical capacity in panels distributed throughout the floor but only providing the circuits necessary for the first occupant. This approach can apply to many of the utilities. Another strategy is to focus the flexibility in certain areas or rooms. On a recent project, we had “platform technology rooms” that provided a wide variety of utilities and space flexibility. These proved to be very effective, as the researchers have been able to implement a wide variety of experiments in these space with the utilities provided.

CSE: Increasingly, owners of lab and research facilities want high-tech everything (wireless, kiosks offering data readouts, etc.). What considerations do such facilities require that others wouldn’t necessarily call for?

Graff: You need to design for the future. The high-tech everything is constantly evolving and is being incorporated into all building systems—mechanical, electrical, plumbing, lighting, etc. Not only do you need to understand what is available today, but you also must understand and plan for how the building will operate 5 to 10 years from now as the technology evolves. You must design with flexibility.

CSE: When working in buildings with specialized water, gas, chemical, or other unique piping needs, what challenges have you overcome? Describe a recent project.

Graff: I recently worked on a multifloor renovation project in an existing building where the new anticipated chemical quantities used within the labs on the first and second floors exceeded the maximum allowable quantities on each floor. This was predominately due to the used chemical waste being collected and stored within each individual lab for removal and disposal on a predetermined schedule. We ended up designing a centralized solvent-waste-collection system, which collected the waste on the ground floor where it did not exceed the maximum quantities allowed per code.