Germantown Friends School

The Germantown Friends School's LEED Gold Science Building (Philadelphia) features a flat screen display of realtime energy and water saving. The display can also be accessed online at Giving users information about consumption can encourage conservation. Design: SMP Architects/HERA. Photo: Halkin Photography

Laboratory buildings present a unique challenge to architects, engineers and owners, due to their inherent complexity and performance criteria. In addition to their functional requirements, modern laboratories are often mandated to incorporate sustainable design strategies or achieve LEED certification. Energy usage is of primary concern for laboratory buildings seeking certification, as laboratories can consume up to 50% more energy than an office building of comparable size.

The traditional design methodology suggests applying LEED strategies, as well as recommendations of the informal LEED Application Guide for Laboratory Facilities (LEED-AGL) and/or Labs21 Environmental Performance Criteria (EPC). Although this approach has proved to produce desirable results, it fails to recognize the pre-design phase as an opportunity to influence sustainability.

Pre-design is simply the process of determining the spatial, functional and performance requirements of a building, or in other words, the process of defining the design problem. The pre-design phase typically involves programming the building, developing functional and performance adjacencies through blocking and stacking, and specifying room environmental criteria. The decisions made during these activities make up the design problem, for which architects and engineers then craft a solution, in the form of a building. As a result of this linear progression, the details of the design problem directly influence the built design solution, and can facilitate the eventual sustainable design of a laboratory.

Early decisions affect credits
Unfortunately, the LEED rating system, while indispensable, does not award specific credit for environmentally responsible pre-design; therefore, the need for it it is often overlooked. Regardless, the decisions made during this phase do result in LEED credits, and can make of break the efforts of architects and engineers down the road.

Pre-designing for sustainability requires a fundamental change in the way all parties think about the laboratory design process. By definition, sustainable architectural design seeks to minimize the impact of buildings on the natural environment. Following simple logic, we can conclude that the most effective way to reduce the impact buildings have on the natural environment would be to reduce the size of buildings.

Though fundamentally sound, this notion is somewhat misleading, and to say laboratory planners should seek to reduce square footage or minimize performance as a sustainable design initiative would be a misstep. Rather, in the pre-design phase, lab planners have the opportunity to evaluate needs and develop a design problem to emphasize efficiency and safety, with a focus on sustainability.

Planners have several key tools in this effort: lean programming and utilization studies (both of which influence zoning), and use of room design criteria.

Lean programming
Programming is the first opportunity to define the scale of a project, and serves as the foundation of a sustainable design problem. Laboratory planners and architects are challenged with developing a menu of spaces that meet the functional requirements of the end users without "over building."

Germantown Friends School Image 2

The teaching labs programmed for Cheyney (Pa.) University's new Science Center were reduced by 25% based on an in-depth utilization analysis. Plan courtesy of HERA Laboratory Planners

To further complicate the process, programming is inherently an emotional exercise for both owners and users. In almost all cases, owners and users believe in the longevity of their professional mission, which can be an impediment when sizing program elements. Additionally, managing needs vs. wants, and the occasional "if I don’t get it now, then I never will" mindset, takes diplomacy backed with evidence. Therefore, just like any good scientist, the programmer must make an objective analysis of needs and growth to develop an appropriately sized program that emphasizes efficiency without sacrificing performance.

First, a thorough knowledge of the specific sciences being practiced and a working knowledge of industry trends are core skills that allow lab planners to develop an efficient building program. Integral to a sustainable approach is the ability to gather relevant data for the specific laboratory building type, which might include class sizes, test volumes, throughput, and other metrics that objectively define current requirements. Using this data in conjunction with owner input, the team can begin to extrapolate anticipated growth and make educated assumptions about required sizes and quantities of programmatic elements.

Utilization analysis
Utilization studies are another effective tool planners use to identify user needs. These studies analyze current usage patterns and help illustrate how well existing facilities are exploited. The results of a utilization study will reveal where current facilities are inadequate and where they are, in fact, sufficient.

In some cases, a utilization study may reveal that an organization's current facilities are appropriate, but are simply being used inefficiently. In this scenario, based on utilization, new construction would not be required, resulting in tremendous financial savings for the owner, and obvious environmental benefits. In situations where the decision to build is certain, the utilization study can serve to justify an increase, or decrease, of square footage for various spaces in a new facility.

Additionally, identifying opportunities for shared spaces can significantly optimize a program. With utilization studies as evidence, shared spaces can often be justified to increase efficiency. Many researches, technicians, teachers and other users are responsive to shared spaces, such as laboratory support and prep areas, as well as shared laboratories or classrooms. They understand the benefits derived from shared spaces, such as interpersonal and interdisciplinary collaboration, but architects and engineers equally understand the energy and material savings.

Cheyney (Pa.) Univ.'s new Science Center (Health Education + Research Associates, Philadelphia, and Cueto KEARNEY Design, Swarthmore, Pa.) was able to reduce the required number of teaching labs by 25% after performing an in-depth utilization analysis based on current and future scheduling. The analysis revealed that teaching laboratories were currently used for both lecture and laboratory activities, and additionally were assigned to individual professors, which greatly reduced efficiency based on class length and university scheduling times.

By incorporating shared lecture spaces, laboratories could be utilized by multiple professors. The reduction in square footage eventually translated into a design that reduced mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems. In addition, cost saving from the reduced quantity of laboratories could be redirected to upgrade the laboratories and laboratory support spaces.

Once a program is solidified, laboratory planners and architects begin to analyze the program and develop a conceptual model for the building’s spatial volumes. This is achieved by working with the owner and users to establish functional adjacencies based on work flow and relationships between programs.

Zoning for performance adjacencies
After programming, the design team works with the owner and users to establish functional adjacencies based on work flow and relationships between programs. In addition to the functional adjacencies required for the users to work better, there are performance adjacencies that allow the building to work more efficiently. Taking advantage of this opportunity in the pre-design process, lab planners can reduce the "effort" required to service the laboratory.

For single-story buildings, grouping mechanically similar programs horizontally allows for the zoning of systems and is usually a good start to an efficient mechanical design. For multistory laboratory buildings, when possible, additional care should be taken to locate programs with similar mechanical requirements vertically. Further, locating exhaust-intensive blocks of program at the top of a multi-story structure reduces the amount of vertical ductwork required, which in turn frees up assignable square footage that might otherwise be taken up by vertical chases.

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Camden County College's new Science Building (Blackwood, N.J.) has a "back of house" that keeps chemicals from traveling in public spaces. Plan courtesy of HERA Laboratory Planners

Finally, spaces should be organized in a way that complements daily usage cycles. Strategically zoning the building to accommodate areas for daytime, nighttime and 24/7 occupancy can provide further energy savings. Though conceptually simple, these types of programmatic organization can be easily overlooked, resulting in a superfluous and inefficient design.

Another unique challenge for laboratory facilities is the control of hazardous chemicals. Chemical storage is easily overlooked in the conceptual design phase, leaving it to fit within the residual space of the building. It’s critical to understand users' requirements for handling and storing chemicals, and the flow of chemicals in the day-to-day operations. Addressing chemical flow and storage early can lead to a design that reduces the travel distance of chemical for both storage and distribution.

An example of a design that is sensitive to chemical flow and storage is Camden County College's New Science Building (Health Education + Research Associates and Vitetta, Philadelphia) in Blackwood, N.J., which is expected to open in 2012. The New Science Building utilizes a "back of house" design in which chemicals are handled and distributed though service elevators and secured prep corridors, virtually eliminating travel through public spaces within the building.

This type of design prioritization promotes healthy indoor air quality and greatly reduces risks associated with public exposure to hazardous chemicals, and can potentially provide an innovation in design credit for buildings pursuing LEED certification.

Room design criteria
A third opportunity for laboratory planners to develop a sustainable design problem is through careful selection of room design criteria. Room design criteria are developed as a guide for selecting architectural finishes and more importantly for the development of mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems. The goal of this exercise is to assign requirements for systems that minimize the energy required to maintain safe and appropriate working conditions.

Laboratory buildings, in particular, are subject to a variety of codes, standards, institutional standards and client preferences regarding ventilation, lighting and plumbing systems. First and foremost, codes and referenced standards must be obeyed when determining room criteria. Referenced standards, when mandated by code, often allow for wide variations based on interpretation; therefore it is up to the expertise of the laboratory planner to specify metrics. As a result, laboratory planners can define the environmental room criteria in a way that maintains safe working conditions, but recognizes opportunities for efficiency and sustainability.

Ventilation, for example, is well-documented as one of the main drivers of increased energy use in laboratory buildings. Managing the magnitude of exhaust-related energy use begins by determining air quality and exhaust requirements. In general, antiquated practices often lean toward higher ventilation rates, while purely energy-driven approaches might lean toward the minimum required rates. The laboratory planner should assign ventilation rates that balance safety and energy efficiency.

Other criteria such as lighting, electrical, and laboratory service distribution systems require the same level of scrutiny as ventilation. Lighting requirements are highly variable based on the activities performed per the science being practiced. Gathering information from the users about how they use specific rooms helps determine appropriate lighting levels as well as the applicability of task lighting.

Electrical usage from owner-furnished equipment is generally unaffected by room criteria parameters, but a thorough survey of existing and future owner-furnished equipment will yield a leaner and more appropriate electrical design. Finally, accessing the feasibility of local systems as an alternative to building systems can yield energy savings. For example, local ventilation systems, when appropriate, may provide energy savings vs. a fume hood. Similarly, local, demand-controlled vacuum systems would provide energy saving vs. a house system that runs 24/7.

The preceding examples illustrate the opportunities as well as the complexities of room criteria. A more comprehensive review of mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems for laboratories is beyond the scope of this article, but the implications of specifying appropriate room criteria are clear. The room criteria sheets define the standards to which building systems are designed; therefore, taking care to specify metrics that promote energy conservation and sustainable goals has a direct influence on the eventual built work.

In conclusion, sustainability starts long before the first line is drawn. It is no longer good practice to simply react to a design problem. Laboratory planners and architects must take advantage of opportunities in pre-design to develop a program, adjacencies and project criteria that embody sustainable goals. If our profession is to truly embrace sustainability, it must become part of our pre-design vocabulary, as sustainable programming and planning have a greater potential impact on bringing the "green" to laboratory design than we have witnessed to date.

Kevin Field, LEED AP, BD+C, is a laboratory planner with Health, Education + Research Associates (HERA), a laboratory planning consulting firm ( Field is based in the firm’s Philadelphia office.

Published in Laboratory Design newsletter: Vol. 16, No. 2, March/April, 2011.