Building better lab space

Published: 11-Dec-2012

Laboratories are increasingly expensive to build and run. The S-Lab Conference and Awards held earlier this year showed how better power use and environmental performance are being achieved

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Labs are expensive to build and operate, and usually have a large environmental footprint. A new report has been compiled that examines how better use can be made of labs and how costs and environmental impacts can be reduced. Its author Professor Peter James, director of the Safe, Sustainable, Successful Laboratories (S-Lab) initiative, says: “There are growing financial and regulatory pressures on all lab owners to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of staff, space, equipment and resources. Best practice was recognised in the 2012 S-Lab Awards, and presented at the inaugural S-Lab Conference, held at York’s National Science Learning Centre in June.”

At the conference, a presentation by Peter Jackson, estates and facilities manager, Health Protection Agency, covered the importance of design consultation in new and refurbished facilities. He said the best designs are those that put people first, including those peripheral to the design process, such as technical support or maintenance staff, and that take time to understand their views and working practices, and continue to involve them through design, construction and commissioning. An example is UCLAN’s JB Firth Building, which undertook detailed analysis of lab work patterns to optimise layouts and reduce travel distances.

Another presentation by Neil Crossan, a project manager at AstraZeneca, on its new Macclesfield building highlighted how an approach of this kind helped to reduce the capital cost associated with each scientist from £314,000 to £255,000. A ‘before and after’ survey conducted by S-Lab also found higher productivity and staff satisfaction.

An important design aim for many new and refurbished labs is to improve staff creativity and productivity

An important design aim for many new and refurbished labs is to improve staff creativity and productivity. The predominant model for achieving this is separation of write-up areas from the labs, a wider range of meeting and social areas (supported by wi-fi), and open layouts that make activities visible to a wider range of occupants. The idea is to encourage greater interaction.

Another key design feature for high performance is good use of natural lighting and ventilation. Such features can improve morale and health, as well as reducing environmental impacts and cost. Ergonomic layouts and provisioning can also improve health and safety (H&S) and create time efficiencies. Airiness, visual impact and other design features can create the ‘wow factor’, which helps to retain people.

Colin Gilmore-Merchant, vp and Head of Science and Technology at architects HOK talked in his keynote about multi-billion rouble plans for a ‘Silicon Valley’ outside Moscow, being developed by the Skolkovo Foundation, and highlighted the increase in global competition. Russia, he said, has the lowest lab construction and fit-out costs of any developed country, at 79% and 84% of the UK level. He also highlighted the importance of mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) costs in capital spend – typically 30-50% – and therefore the value of giving this great attention at the project start.

A key Skolkovo design aim is adaptability, something that was also highlighted by presenters Mike Dockery and Christian Schnitzer with examples from GSK, Siemens and the Universities of Loughborough and Newcastle. This can be achieved through measures such as ‘service ceilings’ that allow mobile casework and other lab furniture to be easily repositioned; central service cores or spines to service all lab activities; and gridded floorplates to allow easy recombination and division of space.

Adaptability can achieve another common objective: more intensive use of (expensive) floor space and equipment. Lilly, for example, now has centralised equipment zones to reduce overall provision and space needs without too much inconvenience as scientists can choose a unit with the shortest queue. The University of Manchester has gone further still with a variety of Core Central Services (CCS) in its Life Sciences Faculty. And Loughborough University’s Award-winning Kit-Catalogue scheme provides an online database of equipment to encourage reuse and sharing.

Reducing consumption of energy, chemicals, materials and water is a key design objective

Reducing consumption of energy, chemicals, materials and water is a key design objective. As Sarah McCarrick noted, this can be minimised through application of the BREEAM Building Assessment scheme, which includes special lab credits (whose development was project managed by S-Lab).

The S-Lab laboratory assessment template and accompanying best practice guide have also highlighted many operational changes that can be made to reduce impacts. It is being rolled out within universities and other sectors through incorporation into Green Impact, a pre-existing environmental assessment scheme developed by student body, NUS Services.

S-Lab audits have shown that ventilation usually accounts for 40–60% of lab energy bills. Airflow rates have increased in recent decades due to tightening H&S requirements. However, application of the risk assessment approach (versus traditional rules of thumb) of the relatively new standard on containment, often shows that airflows can be safely reduced from the conventional design norm of 0.5m/sec face velocity as achieved at the University of Newcastle’s Baddiley-Clarke Building.

Other measures highlighted include: reducing peak air movements e.g. through smaller or sectioned sash apertures; provision of ventilated storage so that fume cupboards are not used for this purpose; minimising volumes to be ventilated by area zoning or isolators, such as individually ventilated cages for animals (reducing the need to ventilate complete rooms); making ventilation more appropriate to requirements e.g. by modifying, on an experimental basis, the temperature and humidity requirements of either entire buildings, or parts of them; installing variable air volume (VAV) fume cupboards; reducing flows at night; automatic closure of sashes; reducing air flows when sensors indicate that cupboards are not in use; and independently of air flows, making ventilation systems more efficient by creating aerodynamically smooth and obstacle-free air flow paths, variable speed drives on fans, and heat recovery.

Imperial College’s Award-winning Con Com programme has shown the benefits of investing in a systematic approach to ventilation improvement. Changing user attitudes and behaviour can also make a big difference by, for example, encouraging sash closure on VAV fume cupboards

But none of these actions can be taken without the commitment and energy of people within labs

Other speakers discussed cost and other benefits from better chemical and sample management; and replacing older freezers with energy efficient models – which saved the University of Newcastle £13,000 and 70 tonnes a year of CO2 emissions – and freeing up space with use of upright models.

But none of these actions can be taken without the commitment and energy of people within labs. This was recognised in the ‘Making a Difference’ awards category.

Next year’s event is at the University of Liverpool on 18–19 June and the 2013 S-Lab Awards are now open for applications. For more details and a copy of the report visit

Winner – best new lab build

The 7,860m2 Central Teaching Laboratory (CTL) in Liverpool consolidates much of the undergraduate teaching within the Faculty of Science and Engineering. The cost of construction was £23m and a further £5.6m for teaching equipment.

The building is constructed from a steel frame, with deep precast concrete beams, providing thermal mass to help achieve a BREEAM “Excellent” rating. Floor plates and an atrium that are designed to maximise daylight, the use of the University’s district heating system and solar collectors also contribute to a highly energy efficient building.

Winner – environmental improvement

Many of Imperial’s labs have 10–14 air changes an hour (ACH), which is double the CIBSE guidance of 6 and far from the Labs 21 aspiration of 3–4. A Continuous Commissioning (ConCom) programme systematically identifies opportunities for safe improvement. Kevin Cope, Building Ops Manager, summarises this as ‘identifying the original design specific-ations and comparing them with current performance; working closely with users to analyse the current occupation strategy and area use; identifying the service strategies that can best meet this; and developing proposals for safe, cost-effective, operational changes.’

For example, a ConCom analysis of the Flowers Building found the main air handling services to be operating 24/7 at higher than original design levels. User discussions revealed that many areas were not used at night, creating an opportunity for setback. The four AHUs were fitted with motorised dampers and controls, allowing the ACH rate between, initially, 22.00–07.00 and, subsequently, 18.00–07.00, to be reduced from 13 to 6. The daytime air supply pressure was also reduced from 400 to 300 pascals.

The changes have cut the building’s annual energy costs by £48,159, and carbon emissions by 315 tonnes, with a payback within 12 months. They also made further savings following trials to evaluate filter improvement options.

Inverters controlling new Plenum Extract fans saving 320 tonnes of CO<sub>2</sub> a year

Inverters controlling new Plenum Extract fans saving 320 tonnes of CO2 a year

Winner – refurbished lab

Sheffield Hallam has converted office and storage space into a mammalian cell culture teaching lab to accommodate growing student numbers. The spec was for a facility with similar or better quality than commercial research environments.

The result is a single teaching area housing six laminar flow hoods, eight CO2 incubators, bench space for microscopes and centrifuges etc., cupboards for plastic consumables and a mobile low level desk unit. The room layout allows staff to easily refer to information on a whiteboard and the demonstration hood allows student groups to observe manipulations of cells.

Flexibility is enhanced through high level data points and plug sockets for easy repositioning of equipment and furniture. An entrance lobby area provides storage for personal items and lab coats (blue ones to signal that students are entering a tissue culture clean area with different operating requirements from the main lab), hand wash sinks, and a sluice sink (with valves to prevent back siphoning and any risk of contaminating the main water supply). This raises awareness of waste and limits any transportation (and possible contamination risk) to other disposal facilities. Solid waste is segregated into general (black and grey bins) and clinical (yellow bins) waste streams with students briefed to minimise the latter. The facility is designed for use by those in wheelchairs.

Other features include high efficiency DC motors in the biological safety cabinets; low energy incubators with a CO2 detection system to monitor for any accidental releases; slim line, energy efficient fridges and freezers; and flexible ventilation equipment that can be modulated through the BMS depending on lab use.

View of demonstrator fume cupboard and colour-coded waste bins

View of demonstrator fume cupboard and colour-coded waste bins

S-Lab award winners
Laboratory Environmental Improvement
Imperial College, LondonContinuous Optimisation of Plant and Services (Winner)
Manchester Metropolitan UniversityShut that Sash and Save Cash!
University of ManchesterA Green Geochemistry Lab
University of WarwickEnergy Efficient Refurbishment of Chemistry Teaching Labs
Laboratory Equipment and Services
Loughborough UniversityKit-Catalogue Enables Better Equipment Use (Winner)
Plymouth UniversityEquipment Sharing in the Systems Biology Centre
University of ManchesterCore Support Services and Research Facilities
(Individuals) Making a Difference
Dr Mike Foulkes (Plymouth University)Quality Management (Winner)
Professor Andrea Sella (UCL)Water Saving in Chemistry (Highly Commended)
Dr Arthur Nicholas (University of Manchester)Sustainable Labs Initiative
John Smith (University of St Andrews)Lab Environmental Innovation
New Laboratory Building
University of LiverpoolCentral Teaching Lab (Winner)
Newcastle UniversityBaddiley-Clarke Building
Queen’s University of BelfastHealth Sciences Building
Royal Veterinary CollegeNew Teaching and Research Centre
University of Central LancashireJ.B. Firth Building
University of St AndrewsBiomedical Science Research Complex
Refurbished Laboratory
Sheffield Hallam UniversityCell Culture Teaching Lab (Winner)
Aston UniversityChemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry Lab
Leeds Metropolitan UniversityBiomedical Sciences Lab
University of KentSchool of Physical Sciences
Schools And Colleges
Oldham Sixth Form CollegeRegional Science Centre (Winner)
Canterbury CollegeA New Veterinary Nursing Lab
Halesowen CollegeNew, Flexible and Smart Science Labs
Kendrick SchoolFlexibility in the New Faraday Labs
Truro and Penwith CollegeA New, Flexible and Green Science Lab (Highly Commended)
Teaching and Learning Innovation
University of SouthamptonVirtual Experiments in Undergraduate Labs
University of St AndrewsInnovative Chemistry Teaching (Winner)

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