Designing labs, research buildings


CSE: What tools or knowledge do engineering schools need to provide young engineers in order to successfully specify systems in labs?

Linamen: This is editorializing, but engineering schools need to teach students how to think. They don’t need to teach more content. They need to teach students how to solve problems in a comprehensive way, utilizing all of the tools in their knowledge toolbox. When they get engaged in designing specific building types, the senior design team members can teach them about the critical aspects of lab design. It is not realistic to believe students can graduate from engineering school knowing how to design every building type. In their early years after graduation, they should look for the opportunities to design different types of buildings, and from those experiences, decide on which types of buildings they wish to specialize. 

CSE: When designing a lab that is part of a multi-use building (such as in a hospital or university building), what unique challenges do you have?

Ramirez: In a fee-competitive environment the decision making process and end users requirement definition can cause design agencies financial harm and schedule impact. Being well prepared and offering solutions/options during early concept design and schematic design will help your clients “help you.” As healthcare and institutional design professionals, we know our business and can provide sound engineered solutions. We need to take a proactive role in the early stages of the project to help stay on schedule and on budget and assure the client is making sounds choices for its facility.

Crutchfield: We have found that independent zoning, the access control, and security levels increase in multi-use labs. With many research labs operating beyond the typical 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. office hours, designing the systems such that the labs can stay operational while the non-lab areas are set back allows for flexibility in the operation of the building, which often leads to energy efficiencies. The labs are designed for continuous operation and the multi-use areas for noncontinuous operation. A second issue that we deal with on many higher education labs is the need to hide the fact that the lab is there to reduce the potential for vandalism or protests. Nothing broadcasts “lab” like a set of Strobic fans on top of a building. Integrating the exhaust systems into the building architecture so that they are hidden can alleviate some of those concerns.

Linamen: Something else we have learned from university labs is that they are very frequently unoccupied. Our studies have shown they are unoccupied as much as 60% of the normal daytime hours. We use occupancy sensors to not only reduce lighting levels where it does not cause safety issues, but we also use the occupancy sensors to expand the thermostat deadband when the spaces are unoccupied. We let it expand +/-3 F during daytime hours and +/- 6 F during nighttime hours. This saves reheat energy in labs that are dominated by exhaust airflow and saves cooling and fan energy in labs that are dominated by internal heat gain. We have found this energy savings to be significant over an entire year, and the cost of the occupancy sensors is very low in the overall scheme of things. Because of the typical high airflow rates for labs, recovery from the setback is usually very quick if the lab suddenly becomes occupied.

Another mistake designers make is designing the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) infrastructure strictly to serve the initial intended use of the building. We should be thinking in terms of 40- to 50-year life when designing the building infrastructure, and research and science done in lab buildings will evolve significantly over that time period. Lab building MEP infrastructure should be designed with this in mind.

CSE: Describe your involvement in a recent integrated project delivery (IPD) lab or research facility.

Linamen: We have a very large lab project that is currently being completed utilizing an IPD process. It has been a true learning experience. I honestly believe IPD is the future, but it will take some time for owners, designers, and builders to perfect the process. The biggest challenge is in understanding how the other team members function and then determining how our industry can be a valuable partner in the collective process. Communication is key. Our design team had to work collaboratively with the construction team at the project site for several months to really get the barriers to communication completely eliminated. Some team members just couldn’t adjust to the new way of doing business, and they had to be replaced. This all took time. If we could do the same project with the same people again, we could probably cut the time in half. Because the relationships are so important in IPD, it may become advantageous to form key alliances between designers and builders in order to pursue work.

Crutchfield: We’ve found that IPD has lessened the owner’s exposure to costly changes on complex lab renovation projects. Being able to share our design concepts with the folks who are responsible for phasing and scheduling lets us design systems that function, while allowing the contractor team the level of comfort with us to be able to suggest alternatives without the specter of a change order. We’ve also found that when the contractor can procure, and we can coordinate with, the actual lab equipment being provided early in the design, we avoid over-designing systems to accommodate a range of potential equipment.

CSE: In specialty facilities, like vivariums, what issues have you come across?

Linamen: Security requirements for vivariums are more critical than for most labs or other building types. Often, animal holding rooms house animals from several researchers. They each want to make sure access to the spaces is limited to only those people who are authorized, and they like to know how often and by whom the rooms are being accessed.

Crutchfield: The requirement to keep the animals within the owner- or Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal International designated temperature/humidity/lighting levels is always a primary concern with vivariums and is animal specific. Providing an appropriate and cost-effective level of redundancy and reliability for these spaces while maintaining an appropriate first cost can be a challenge. We often seek cost-effective ways to gain reliability and redundancy for the vivarium by connecting the vivarium HVAC systems to adjacent lab HVAC systems for emergency backup. In the event of a loss of primary vivarium HVAC equipment, the backup is not a dedicated standby system, but rather a backup that relies on the excess capacity in the lab systems. We strive to find novel opportunities to keep costs down while maintaining proper levels of redundancy and reliability, and not simply relying on adding standby systems.

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