Designing labs, research buildings

Labs and research facilities house sensitive equipment and must maintain very rigid standards. Key areas include air quality, security, and flexibility. This provides a general overview.


Nedzib Biberic, PE, LEED BD+C, Mechanical Engineer, PAE Consulting Engineers, Portland, Ore. Courtesy: PAE Consulting EngineersMichael Chow, PE, CxA, LEED AP BD+C, Member/Owner, Metro CD Engineering LLC, Powell, Ohio. Courtesy: Metro CD EngineeringDavid S. Crutchfield, PE, LEED AP, Division Manager, RMF Engineering, Baltimore. Courtesy: RMF EngineeringDave Linamen, PE, LEED AP, CEM, Vice President, Stantec, Edmonton, Alberta. Courtesy: StantecJay Ramirez, Senior Vice President, ESD Global, Chicago. Courtesy: ESD Global


Nedzib Biberic, PE, LEED BD+C, Mechanical Engineer, PAE Consulting Engineers, Portland, Ore. 

Michael Chow, PE, CxA, LEED AP BD+C, Member/Owner, Metro CD Engineering LLC, Powell, Ohio 

David S. Crutchfield, PE, LEED AP, Division Manager, RMF Engineering, Baltimore

Dave Linamen, PE, LEED AP, CEM, Vice President, Stantec, Edmonton, Alberta

Jay Ramirez, Senior Vice President, ESD Global, Chicago   

CSE: Please describe a recent lab project you’ve worked on—share problems you’ve encountered, how you’ve solved them, and aspects of the project you’re especially proud of.

Work by RMF Engineering teams on a lab building required flexibility and close communication with facility owners when funding for the project constricted after work was underway. Courtesy: RMF EngineeringDavid S. Crutchfield: We recently completed a new lab building that included a vivarium on the ground level, one level of offices, and three levels of labs. During the late stages of the design, the funding source dried up and the five-story building was completed with floor No. 1 being a completely built but unoccupied vivarium, floor No. 2 being an occupied office component, and the top three floors shelled for future wet labs. The air handling equipment was all purchased and installed with the initial construction. After the construction was completed, funding for the shelled floors was released. Unfortunately, during the lull in the construction, the program for the lab and vivarium changed. Our task became one in which we worked with the planners to determine how best to fit the changed program components into the core/shell design to ensure that the HVAC equipment bought in the initial construction would work with the new program. A lot of test fitting and re-test fitting was necessary and ultimately we were able to match the new program up with the capacity of the installed equipment.

Dave Linamen: We designed a new physical sciences building for a major university in New York, approximately 190,000 gross sq ft. The building houses research and teaching for chemistry and physics. There were four major chemistry labs, each with 11 6-ft fume hoods. There were also state-of-the-art physics labs with demanding vibration limitations. The building was bounded on three sides by existing buildings. There was one central shaft for all mechanical and electrical services that extended vertically in the building. Immediately beneath the penthouse, there were executive offices, so sound and vibration were of serious concern. The university monitors and manages energy closely for all buildings, so we knew our predictions for energy use would be compared to actual energy use.

First we developed a very sophisticated energy model that accurately represented all of the components of the building that contribute to energy use. We then completed a sensitivity analysis to determine which systems and components had the greatest influence on energy use, and how those systems and components actually affected the building energy use. The model confirmed what we already knew, that variable air volume (VAV) was the single strategy that resulted in the greatest energy savings from a cost/benefit perspective. The second most effective strategy was using a single system to serve labs, offices, and conference/lecture hall spaces. The next most effective strategy based on cost/benefit from energy savings was using occupancy sensors to expand the temperature control deadband when labs were unoccupied, which in a university environment was significant percentage of the time. The next most effective strategy was consciously designing the entire air handling system to minimize air pressure drop and, consequently, fan horsepower. We designed the single HVAC air system with one fully redundant air handling unit, but under normal (non-failure) conditions, all air handlers operate at reduced air volume, and hence, reduced velocity and pressure drop through filters and coils. Through the duct system, air velocities systematically step down from 1700 fpm in the risers to 1400 fpm in the horizontal mains to 1000 fpm in the branches to 500 fpm in diffuser necks. The horizontal mains are designed as extended plenums that reduce total air pressure drop and provide flexibility to accommodate high air demand anywhere in the duct system. Heat recovery was also provided to result in the lowest possible energy use.

The building was proven to be the most energy-efficient lab building among several that were recently built on the campus. Energy use is less than 200,000 Btu/sq ft/year, which is excellent performance for such an intense lab building, and the budget for the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) systems was within the typical range for similar science buildings. The actual first year energy use recorded by the university was within 2% of the predicted energy use.

Jay Ramirez: ESD is completing/closing a confidential project with a budget of $270 million including site development, central utility plant, manufacturing, short-term storage, administrative offices, quality assurance/control product test laboratory, and owner provided equipment. The goal was a facility that meets market demand at competitive international market prices as well as a one-year project schedule and budget-mission accomplished. The lesson in this project was not so much the technical solution, but the conveyance of information and willingness to exchange and share design ideas, make timely decisions, and respect the opinions and intellectual experience of the entire design team (owner/designer/contractor). We changed the way we thought about project delivery. This project was a success because of the proactive and flexible exchange of ideas and communication. 

CSE: What unique enclosures, cleanrooms, or other types of rooms have you worked on recently?

Ramirez: We recently completed a project that required a hydrogen peroxide emergency purge system. This was achieved by using oxygen sensors to measure levels and placing the HVAC system in full purge mode at predefined oxygen levels. Auxiliary exhaust fans, variable frequency drives, automated dampers, and sequence of operation purge modes were programmed into the system.

Linamen: Probably the most unique was a room for specialty physics where the criteria were extremely demanding. The room was in the lowest level of the building, and the floor was a thick concrete mat that was completely isolated from the surrounding floor. Only minimal ventilation air supply was permitted in the room to maintain air quality. Cooling and heating were from a radiant source. 

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