Image: Laboratory Design NewsletterTwo of the biggest issues faced in the lab design industry are arguably budgets and funding. With a slow resurgence from the recent recession, funding from the NIH and NSF has decreased for lab construction, operation and research. And with this trend, many organizations look to renovations instead of new builds for their needs. Many labs also stray from implementing costly energy-efficient equipment until a quick payback can be shown.

With these trends looming, lab planners must show their clients how they can be more efficient to save both operational costs with reduced energy consumption, as well as up-front costs, with better lab efficiency and design.

For example, in a fume hood-intensive lab, the fume hoods are obviously the biggest culprits of energy consumption. Lab planners are tasked with reducing the amount of cfm coming out of the lab and reducing the face velocity of the fume hood from 100 to 80 fpm, and, in some cases, as low as 60 fpm. In addition, lab designers are minimizing the amount of air exchanges in labs from 10 down to 4 to 6 ACH in occupied mode. In some unoccupied spaces, air change rates can even be reduced down to 2 ACH, with the ability to monitor the air so if an event or spill happens in the night, the air can ramp back up to the required 6 to 10 ACH.

In the realm of renovations in fume hood-intensive labs, success has been seen in ongoing renovations were labs move from all ducted fume hoods to a combination of ducted and filtered fume hoods. With this move, contaminants and particulates are still captured with the same efficiency; however, a filtered hood recirculates the filtered air back into the room, much like a recirculated biosafety cabinet.

“This has been tried-and-true for many years in Europe, and we are starting to see it more and more in U.S.,” says Chris Ertl, Lab Planner at CRB. “However, the problem with clients is they are still skeptical of these new hoods. So what we try to do is have one or two standard hoods that take the exhaust load for the entire space and supplement the rest of lab with the filtered hoods.”

Another issue in labs is addressing plug loads, equipment diversity and reconciling these demands with the mechanical system design. This is a trending area where lab planners can work with researchers to reduce the overall electrical demand within the lab, and possible ramifications of reduced air systems sizing. At the same time, lab planners and owners want to keep labs safe, as safety can never be compromised. “The design standards most engineers want to go by in planning their systems is 10 W/sf, and some even want to go higher,” says Ertl. “But in reality, I2SL has proven in their independent study of labs and metering that many of these labs are in the 2 to 5 W/sf in actual daily load. So why are we building and designing an air-handling system for cooling that much space when really we can ramp that down and be more efficient.”

Chilled beams are another way of providing more effective cooling than air-handling systems. Here the radiant cooling from the hydronic chilled beams serve as exhaust, which allows the exhaust to come down to keep the lab negative and safe. “However, now you are sizing the supply and exhaust systems purely for safety reasons, and not to cool the space,” says Ertl. “So, again, that makes the system more sustainable and operationally efficient.”

A brief look into chilled beams
Chilled beams work great in many climates, as they can be as effective and efficient in high humidity climates as they can in low humidity environments. Europe and Australia embraced this technology a decade ago, however the chilled beam traction has been slow to gain a foothold in labs within the U.S., mainly due to the historic ventilation load requirements the fear of the beams sweating. “The biggest issue clients have with chilled beam implementation is what will happen to the research below the beams if condensate builds up,” says Ertl. “And this fear can be quenched by making sure the chilled water goes through the beams at the right temperature and pressure, and that there are condensate drain lines connected to each panel. Essentially, it all boils down to the system being designed appropriately.”

In terms of what chilled beams can save in cost, lab planners have observed it diminishes first costs by reducing air-handling systems significantly. Chilled beams allow you to decouple the ventilation load from the cooling load. And, essentially, every cfm reduced from an air-handling system saves in upfront cost and operations. It also saves on energy since the air-handling system isn’t taking as much air through the building and it doesn’t need to pump and exhaust all the air. Duct sizing can be significantly reduced, which has a benefit of possibly reducing floor-to-floor height.

“You are just on a continual loop that’s recirculating and chilling the water a few degrees above the room air dew point temperature as it goes through the system,” says Ertl. “By doing this, you are saving operational costs, as well.”

The issue of costs
As all organizations with labs are looking for a return on investment for the equipment and utilities they implement in design, if they can see a payback most are willing to at least explore some energy-efficiency strategies. And paybacks have been seen in three to seven years on commonly implemented energy-efficient systems. Yet, what further complicates a lab planner’s job is the finite amount of construction dollars labs have to spend. This is coupled with the capital budget of a project typically being separate from the operational budget.

“It’s important to have budget and cost discussions as early as possible when planning a lab so you can really let the client know what the impact is going to be long term on their operations and cost to maintain the space,” says Ertl. “We also need to make sure they understand they are going to operate the facility into the future, and it’s important to implement strategies that they can adapt to as changes in the building occur. Our clients want buildings that they maintain and operate with minimal costs for 30+ years.”


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Lab optimization renovation. Image: CRB  


As previously noted, there has been a significant reduction of NIH and extracurricular funding sources, primarily from the federal government. Today harbors a more competitive research landscape where researchers must scramble to get grants and campuses must try to recruit those researchers who receive those grants in order to construct nice facilities. “All campuses want to have beautiful facilities that can help bring in those world-class researchers, but there is now a tempered exuberance because they are stuck with a large building that’s costing a lot to maintain and operate if researchers are struggling to bring in research grants and can’t adequately fill out the space,” says Ertl.

With this trend, renovations seem a more cost-effective alternative to universities and campuses. As many clients are moving away from new buildings, they are really looking at renovations to existing infrastructure and how that can be made more energy efficient, as well as how the existing building can be made to look nicer with minimal cost. “We will do performance cost estimates early on,” says Ertl. “And we really try to let the client know what decision is best. Sometimes we discover it makes sense to build new, but only in the cases where the building is so far gone it would take a lot more to make fully functional.”

In the end, cost analysis is key to designing a lab that meets a client’s needs and budget. And this is one focus CRB prides itself on. “At CRB we take our integrated team of builders and bring them on early in the programming stage,” says Ertl. “We utilize a scenario modeler tool that looks at and analyzes the space, the space types, the location of the lab, the efficiency of that lab, and this data is plugged into a dashboard that can be used live in front of the client so they can make and run scenarios which inform real-time decisions on impacts to the program and space at any phase in the design process.”

For example, if the team comes through and finds the client received an additional $2 million, or lost $2 million they thought they had, scenarios based on the implications could lead to decisions on the equipment installed and other features. And, in the end, continuous cost analysis allows both the design team and the owner to experience what cost decisions can be made, while still allowing science to happen. With this, the space must also be humanistic. In a humanistic space a researcher, technician, analyst or a grad student wants to come in and stay in an environment where discoveries can be made, which also plays into cost.

How can you provide high-performance labs on a lab budget?
Providing high-performance labs on an office budget isn’t easy. All lab planners would say they prefer to do this with adequate funding. However, sometimes it just isn’t there. And this is just modern day reality.

With this reality, there are compromises that must be made. And a lot of those compromises are made in regards to specialty lab space—is it really needed or can the client deal with generic lab space. “We look at flexible furniture and lab casework stations and ask ‘do you really need the lab to be 100% built-out today or, if you get that researcher with a grant, can you add that flexible casework to the infrastructure we have provided,’” says Ertl. “And those are some things if an institution doesn’t know what researchers will occupy the lab, we can provide the infrastructure (the lab utilities, the power) at the main lab station and can even take it to a panel outside the lab and wait until the researchers in the lab tell us what they need, and then we can do the final connection of just the utilities they require.”

Another common sacrifice is a change in the lab to office ratio. If a building must be designed smaller than previously thought, the client will still, most likely, want to keep the ratio.So, for example, one project that I was involved in we removed a floor,” says Ertl. “It was supposed to be a four-floor lab building. They didn’t want any offices in the building so we couldn’t say, ‘could we give you one-third offices and two-thirds labs.’”


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The Univ. of Colorado, Anschutz, Bioscience 2 Bioengineering Teaching Lab. Image: Raul Garcia  


“They wanted all labs as their offices were across the way in different building,” says Ertl. “So we really looked at it and we could build a whole new building and shell two floors, or we could fill it completely out for three floors. And they went with the three floor scheme because they didn’t want to do future renovations.”

“Counterpoint to that, on another project, they couldn’t sacrifice the cleanroom,” says Ertl. “They couldn’t sacrifice the freezer farm and couldn’t sacrifice some of those specialty labs. But what they could do was shell the third and fourth floors until they absolutely needed them. So, those are some of the big things we do.”

In the end, a client may have a 60% lab and 40% office wish, but it might need to be opposite ratio to make the numbers work, and focus more offices on computational work and other dry lab functions.

The idea of flexibility
Flexibility isn’t always a necessity for labs, but it is nice for future-proofing/planning. Flexibility can also play an important role in costing. For example, a pre-piped, pre-wired bench per linear feet costs more than a fixed bench per linear feet. However, when the cost of trades and connections of fixed benches are factored in, as well as the costs of adaptability five years down the road when a lab needs to reconfigure its space, or have a new piece of equipment implemented, those long-range costs are sometimes forgotten in this mix.

“And we need to look at them and say there’s a true cost to providing that fixed casework,” says Ertl.

The other beauty of the plug-and-play adaptable, flexible system is it doesn’t need to be purchased all at once. “So you can say we are only going to provide one mobile cabinet for every two mobile benches. Or we are only going to provide two mobile benches for every four stations,” says Ertl. “At the front you can really hone in on that sweet spot of affordability and still have the functionality that you need.”

Labs can’t always plan for the future. The future could hold a switch between chemistry, biology and even physics research. Future-proofing can’t be provided if only fixed casework and benching is implemented.

Yet, in the end, it’s knowing costs and how to maximize the buildable and functional lab space for the owner that will lead to the attraction of those world-class researchers who are receiving the all-important researcher grants.

Extra: Can sustainable design be cost effective?