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Three Case Studies: Laboratory Expansion

Here we explore three case studies on laboration expansion at an emerging metro-Boston biotech company, a small biophotonics R&D lab, and laboratories at the University of California, Irvine; showing how they dealt with the challenges they faced.

Angelo DePalma, PhD

Angelo DePalma is a freelance writer living in Newton, New Jersey. You can reach him at

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Laboratory design requirements run the gamut, depending upon a research facility’s situation, budget and goals. Here are three lab expansion case studies that include working with a team, going it alone, and an ambitious energy-saving retrofit.

Case Study: Hire advisors early

Mark Clark, a principal consultant at Clark Consulting Services (Wilmington, MA), specializes in lab facility design and construction. Given his geographic location, it is not surprising that approximately half of his business involves biotechnology labs: 35 percent pharmaceuticals and 15 percent nanotechnology.

One client, an emerging metro-Boston biotech company, needed to expand from its original 3,000-square-foot lab and office space to support rapid growth in business and staffing. After several months of searching for available space, the company decided to acquire 15,000 square feet of shell space to build out to its needs.

Four members of the company’s staff (CEO, VP, production manager, and facility manager) teamed up with the property owner, an architect, and a construction manager to design the layout and initiate construction. This team met on a weekly basis for 10 weeks, until substantial completion was reached.

For this project, acquiring shell space provided the owner with significant time and cost savings. “Since the building was previously approved for laboratory occupancy,” Clark says, “the architect and the construction manager had many lessons learned under their belts regarding local codes for lab design and environmental compliance.”

The demolition phase was eliminated from the critical path, design work began immediately, and the trades ordered materials as the building permit was being processed.

“The biggest advantage this project had was that the construction manager and all the building trades were already mobilized on another lab project in an adjacent tenant space,” Clark explains. “As such, the handful of long-lead-time equipment (rooftop HVAC units, pH neutralization system components, lab equipment) were identified and ordered in the first few weeks after signing the lease.” These items were delivered without affecting the project’s scheduled completion date. Energy conservation goals were achieved in compliance with Commonwealth of Massachusetts energy codes for lighting, motors, pumps, and variable frequency drives.

The occupancy permit was issued, and move-in commenced within four months of lease execution. Clark estimates that a greenfield project would have taken “well over a year,” and the time to install utilities alone for a retrofit would have exceeded six months.

“As we learned from this project, companies thinking of expanding their lab facilities should hire their advisors early in the process,” Clark advises. “The reason is to identify any municipal, state, and federal environmental compliance items. Some of the permits and licenses take as long to submit and receive approval as the time it takes to perform the actual construction.”

Case Study: Do it yourself!

While with his former employer, Richard Guilfoyle, PhD, a Nevada-based engineering consultant, took on a project that was not for the faint-hearted. OptiComp (Zephyr Cove, NV), a small biophotonics R&D lab, needed a 250-square-foot laboratory that could accommodate both molecular biology and photonics. With a doctorate in microbiology from the University of Pennsylvania and extensive experience in genomics, Guilfoyle was hardly the typical construction tradesman. Yet drawing from experience in lab design and build at the University of Wisconsin and at Pan-Data Systems—and with a bit of help—he served admirably as designer, engineer, and contractor for the new lab.

“I designed layout for the benches, sink, tables, and cabinets,” he reveals, “allowing ample room for up to four personnel and facile interface with the building’s electrical, water—both tap and deionized—and compressed air supply.”

By his own account, Guilfoyle saved approximately 60 percent over more traditional design/build by overseeing the project from start to finish. He contracted his designs to a firm that specializes in the manufacture of prefabricated benches, cabinets, and tables according to specification, and that shipped the pieces for on-site assembly. While directing plumbing and electrical work by in-house mechanics and overseeing construction of an enclosure wall, Guilfoyle and his team assembled the “furniture.”

All stakeholders were pleased with the results, particularly the cost savings and timelines. “Everything fit perfectly, even the optical tables, and functioned well,” says Guilfoyle. From start to finish, the entire project took about six weeks. During lulls, Guilfoyle saved his company even more money by ordering most of the biology instrumentation from a company that sold used, refurbished, and warranteed equipment, saving about 50 percent compared with new instrumentation.

Guilfoyle offers the following advice to potential do-ityourselfers: “If cost and time is an issue, shop around for bargains, but don’t sacrifice quality. Ask vendors and trades a lot of questions up front, until they satisfactorily address your budget and technical needs. With appropriate due diligence, I was extremely happy with the quality of the materials and design recommendations from the lab bench company, as well as with the used instrument reseller. Yes, this can be done!”

Case Study: Raising the bar for green labs

As campus energy manager for the University of California, Irvine, Matt Gudorf oversees both teaching and research laboratory energy use. Gudorf collaborates with engineers, industrial hygienists, and project managers to scope, budget, and implement projects known as “smart” labs. “Research universities have large carbon footprints because laboratories are energyintensive, typically constituting two-thirds of the utilities consumed by their institutions,” Gudorf observes.

Reducing laboratory energy consumption is therefore the main strategy for shrinking a university’s energy consumption. Until recently, most attempts to improve laboratory energy efficiency had plateaued at 20 to 25 percent better than code. UC Irvine set the savings goal at 50 percent without compromising safety, thus challenging best practices and, if successful, raising the performance bar for all laboratories.

To achieve this goal, UC Irvine engineers recognized that recently constructed laboratories had the unexploited potential to be far more efficient without sacrificing occupant safety, if the laboratory’s variable air volume features and digital controls could integrate with advanced air quality and occupancy sensors driving smarter control logic. The end goal was to reduce ACH when conditions permit, a concept that was pilot-tested through UC Irvine’s Smart Labs Project, an integrated set of laboratory design criteria and performance standards that included the following:

• Real-time air quality sensing
• Reduced fan, filtration, and duct airspeeds below current best-practice standards
• 50 to 70 percent lower exhaust fan energy consumption by reducing stack discharge airspeeds
• Reduced internal heat load to enable lower airchange feasibility via low-illumination power density and daylighting, as well as occupancy sensors, Energy Star equipment, and point-source exhaust grilles directly above heat-discharging equipment
• Reduced thermal inputs during setback periods

The combined effects of all these features, integrated holistically into a smart lab, can cut energy consumption in half.

Projects of this level of complexity that reach energy savings of 50 percent or more require substantial engineering and construction. UC Irvine completed several retrofits that achieved these goals through design/build and design/bid/build contracting methods. But the key is to state clearly the intended energy reduction goals in the initial scope of the project. “We conduct ‘town hall’ meetings with the research staff and get up-front feedback on when service interruptions can and cannot occur,” notes Gudorf. Irvine’s project management engineers determined a work sequence that created the fewest disruptions, while other staff incorporated the work sequence into the contract documents. “This way, the winning contractor knows up front the shutdown time frames, schedules, and procedures expected of them,” Gudorf explains.

UC Irvine has retrofitted ten lab buildings through its Smart Labs Project. Gudorf measures success by three achievements: maintenance of safety, adherence to budgets, and clearing out “a sizable backlog” of deferred maintenance issues. “Intensive retrofits uncover issues throughout the building systems that can be corrected,” he says. “Examples include failed reheat valves, leaking pneumatic thermostats, broken dampers, worn out system components requiring maintenance or replacement, simultaneous heating and cooling, and thermostats that are too close to heat-generating equipment.”

The university’s environmental health and safety staff also identified work practices that could use more appropriate containment or source control— for example, moving certain operations to a fume hood. This new information layer helped identify fugitive emissions and provided indoor air quality reporting that was previously unavailable. “Think of the lab as an airplane,” Gudorf says. “Before the retrofit, your only instrument was an air speed indicator; post-retrofit, you have an entire cockpit full of gauges providing real-time feedback.”

Timeliness and minimal disruptions to lab activities are the big tradeoffs in retrofits. Irvine allots five to ten business days to take a lab down, retrofit it, and make it functional again. The sequence is more time consuming, Gudorf says, than allowing the contractor to complete a demo phase, a construction phase, and a commissioning phase. “This often means that multiple trades will be on site longer and require more coordination,” he concedes. “But the incrementally higher cost is acceptable when it reduces the disruption to lab operations.” Gudorf provides the following advice for managers considering a retrofit:

• Obtain early buy-in from management, research staff, environmental health and safety experts, and building operations staff.
• Select design professionals who understand the project’s goal and are familiar with the latest lab energy-saving strategies.
• Write the work sequence and scheduling requirements into the contract, and make sure contractors know the requirements at the time of bid.
• Have a “town hall” meeting with building occupants to explain the what, why, when, and how before construction begins, and use their feedback.
• Provide access to the new information layer to everyone—building engineers, EH&S, and researchers.
• Set the goal for savings high.