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Better Times, Better Labs?

Tue, 10/18/2011 - 10:10am
R&D Magazine Editors

As R&D laboratories put tough economic times behind, more flexible, energy-efficient labs may be on the horizon.

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A scientist works in the Novartis QA/QC Testing & Administration Facility, Holly Springs, N.C. Image: FLAD Architects

Despite a stagnant economy, laboratory owners are moving forward with new facility designs and renovations. More than half of the respondents to a recent R&D Magazine survey are planning some type of laboratory renovation or improvement in the next two years. However, some decisions for layout, design, and mechanical systems have been altered due to budget constraints and a move toward greener laboratories.

While speed was a primary factor in new laboratory design projects in previous years, laboratory planners say that the emphasis now is on value. For some facility owners, "value" includes flexibility, energy efficiency, and sustainable systems and technologies.

"Clients, owners, and facility users are self-evaluating need over want," explains Clay Stafford, principal, Health Education + Research Associates, a St. Louis-based laboratory planning consulting firm. "We are seeing more willingness to share space, as well as a shift away from the entitlement cultures that are deeply rooted in institutions and corporations.

"Clients are asking smart questions, such as: 'What do I really need? How do I maximize success now and into the future? How much does the facility really need to support?'" he says.

Although 41% of the surveyed readers said their laboratories are less than 5 years old, only 14.4% rated their facilities as state-of-the-art, indicating a shortfall in previous facility investment, or steep expectations by laboratory users. More than half (57%) said their facilities need updating. In addition, 19% identified a need for energy-efficiency improvements; 7% said their facility did not meet safety standards.

While energy efficiency is a top priority for laboratory designers, owners and users focus first on work space, safety, and functionality. Computer/communication networks and storage space rounded out the top five priorities of the managers and researchers responding to the survey.

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R&D Magazine Reader Survey, August 2011. (Multiple answers allowed.)

"Flexibility and adaptability within the laboratory is a strong point," reports Charlie Garnett, a senior laboratory planner at FLAD Architects, Madison, Wis."We have seen building managers paying the extra cost because down the road they can make renovations and adjustments easier when you build in that flexibility to begin with."

Joe Jouvenal, project director at McCarthy Building Co. Inc., Atlanta, also sees a change in laboratory design requirements. "We see a movement away from the conventional lab—such as lab benches in a room (or in several rooms)—and moving towards a high-bay lab, which is more open with flex space, that can be easily repurposed," Jouvenal notes. "It's moving away from the typical lab-bench set up."

Designing a lab
Designing a new laboratory takes time and effort and requires the expertise of an experienced design team. Laboratory owners and researchers surveyed indicated that they depend on the expertise of designers, but also want their own ideas incorporated into the design concept. Almost 90% of those surveyed said that architects/laboratory designers should take the vision of users and create a working plan. Less than 7% said designers should take full charge of the facility design and tell clients what is needed.

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R&D Magazine Reader Survey, August 2011.

Garnett says he works with clients from the start, explaining unfamiliar processes and making any necessary suggestions for emerging problems. "I get involved with the users from very early on. If they are moving from one building to another and trying to resize their labs, I help them figure out their current head count and spacing requirements. Then based on industry metrics, I try to size them correctly for the number of people they see planned for 5 to 6 years down the road."

Garnett's design process involves studying the adjacencies between departments, and adjacencies between individual rooms between those departments. "That sets the floor plan for the building. Then we work with the architect and the designers to set what we think the form of the building is and what the designers are trying to accomplish," he says.

The expertise of architects and laboratory planners is vital, especially in coordinating the components of the laboratory envelope and mechanical systems. "Most lab blocks are about 10,000 square feet. We test fit the puzzle pieces of the lab to make sure all the rooms can be accessed and the functional codes of the building are met. Once that is all set, we can work on each individual room," Garnett continues. "We look at how many fume hoods, followed by how many biological safety cabinets, and any other large piece of equipment, and how they are going to fit into the room."

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R&D Magazine Reader Survey, August 2011. (Multiple answers allowed.)

Designers offer other services beyond the laboratory. "We are very active in research strategic plans and research master plans," says Josh Meyer, Jacobs Consultancy, a laboratory planning consulting firm based in Tarrytown, N.Y. The firm helps clients review research programs and determine which should be expanded, reduced, or maintained. They also examine the space and cost implications of adding programs. "In master plans, we assist the client in determining projected space needs over a 5-, 10-, and 20-year horizon, and how to achieve them through a combination of renovation, demolition, and new space," Meyers explains.

Overall, laboratory owners and users surveyed were pleased with architectural, engineering, and lab planning services. More than 90% expressed satisfaction with architectural services; 83% were happy with lab planning services.

The sustainability question
Survey respondents said energy efficiency was important; about 70% endorsed sustainable features. However, only one-third expressed interest in alternative building materials or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)/other sustainability certification. If the user had no budget constraints, the interest level was slightly higher. The question of seeking sustainability certification may be tied to where the respondent fits in the decision-making process. Responses were split evenly between those who were seeking certification, those who were not, and those that did not know if sustainability certification was part of the plan.

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R&D Magazine Reader Survey, August 2011. (Multiple answers allowed.)

Laboratory designers see a clearer picture. "Almost all labs are going for some sort of LEED certification, whether it is Gold, Silver, or Platinum," Garnett counters.

"Sustainability is now challenging projects in appropriateness, payback, and ongoing viability," says Stafford. "It is refreshing to hear clients ask how new physical facilities can facilitate growth, truly improve competitive footing, and pay for their own ongoing maintenance and operations."

Todd See, senior vice president, WSP FLACK + KURTZ, San Francisco, says laboratory owners are more aware of energy use and are invested in improving energy efficiency. "There is a much better understanding of ventilation requirements in labs, allowing for engineered solutions instead of a huge ventilation rate based on outdated standards," he says.

For budget-conscious facilities, LEED certification may not be possible, but incorporating some green building concepts could result in operational efficiencies. In the survey, 59% of the respondents placed a high priority on energy-efficient HVAC systems; 41% cited high-efficiency lighting as a high priority.

The outlook is …
Only 7% of surveyed R&D readers reported that laboratory construction projects were postponed due to adverse economic conditions. More than 20% plan major renovations, facility expansions, or replacement in the next two years. Another 30% report plans for minor renovations.

For architects and laboratory planners, the economic downturn was more painful than these numbers suggest. "Labs are still being planned and constructed in the USA but not at the pace or quantity before the Great Recession," says Meyer. "Clients are much more focused on value, providing the correct amount of space, and seriously looking at renovations when appropriate."

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R&D Magazine Reader Survey, August 2011. (Multiple answers allowed.)

"Because funding is so limited, one of the design trends we are seeing is that there is not a lot of willingness to go in an unproven direction, for the chance of: What if this doesn't work?" says Jouvenal.

Most sectors of R&D may have a different look and employ different practices as business improves. Some of those changes may result in better, more efficient laboratories.

"As a mechanical engineer, I'd love to work with a client that wanted to use a displacement ventilation system in a lab," says See. "Beyond that, I'm looking forward to the day when labs are net zero energy, and eventually, zero carbon."

New technologies can improve laboratory efficiency and functionality, if owners are willing to take the risk. "There are some people who are not familiar with the new technology so they are a little hesitant to use it; if something happens when using a new technology, we could become liable for it," Garnett explains.

Garnett says he is more than ready for the process that a new product requires. "When something new comes out, it's big and clunky. Every new piece of lab equipment that comes out requires a process to fine tune it. Then 3 to 4 years down the road, it gets smaller and more refined," he notes. "We always have to work on how to make materials softer and more utilitarian, more visible to the user."

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