Addressing a Common Challenge: Renovating Aging Life Sciences Laboratories

| June 25, 2018

Yale University, Sterling Chemistry Laboratory, New Haven Conn. / photo by Cannon Design

by John Jennings

Higher education facilities around the U.S. are facing the challenge of aging laboratories in existing buildings — some with historical value and importance to the campus fabric. One such building that faced this challenge was the Sterling Chemistry Lab (SCL) located in the largest Gothic-style building on Yale University’s Science Hill. With an increased emphasis on improving STEM teaching at Yale, this building underwent a major interior transformation while still preserving the historic exterior architecture.

In a bold approach to sustainability and preservation, the design carved out the building interior, inserted state-of-the-art chemistry and biology labs, and married the new STEM environment with the existing building shell. Science is at the forefront of the design and is on display throughout, showing the student body and prospective students Yale’s commitment to STEM education. Ultimately, this renovation helps the university enhance STEM teaching principles through collaborative learning spaces and hands-on approaches to science education.

The Yale SCL renovation is an example other higher education institutions can look toward as they seek to update their own lab facilities in historic buildings. Following are three challenges and corresponding solutions developed for the Yale SCL renovation project that could inspire others.

Yale University, Sterling Chemistry Laboratory, New Haven, Conn. / photo by Cannon Design

Challenge: existing floor heights. One of the greatest challenges presented by the SCL renovation was the existing low floor-to-floor height of 11’x6” at the second floor, which was limiting for modern lab planning. Typically, contemporary lab buildings need larger floor-to-floor heights to accommodate ductwork and piping that is required for fume hoods and utilities. A lower floor-to-floor height can place limitations on the types of labs that can be accommodated.

Solution. The design team explored a floor-to-floor height of 14’x6” for the infill construction. While commensurate with contemporary lab planning and a source of future planning flexibility, the 14’x6” height would have raised the infill construction in the center of the building up 3’ above the perimeter rooms, which would require a system of ramps and stairs on the third floor chemistry level and an overall loss of program space. The design team recommended, and Yale University agreed, to maintain the low floor-to-floor height and open the ceilings for the second-floor biology level.

The use of cellular beams allowed piping and electrical conduits to be located in the same zone as the building structure on the second floor. Locating the biology labs on the second floor minimized the need for large ducts, as are required for chemistry labs. The biology labs, support labs, and MEP infrastructure were designed to fit within the existing low floor-to-floor height of 11’x6” by strategically locating the ductwork, conduit, plumbing, and lighting systems in limited areas. The third, top floor with chemistry labs is designed with a taller floor-to-floor height to accommodate large ductwork needed to exhaust the large number of fume hoods.

Yale University, Sterling Chemistry Laboratory, New Haven, Conn. / photo by Cannon Design

Challenge: project phasing. Another significant challenge presented by the Yale SCL renovation was the phasing of the work to be completed in an occupied facility.

Solution. Phasing of utilities, development of temporary swing space, maintaining life safety requirements, and consideration of noise, dust, and vibration during construction were critical to the success of the project. Multiple design packages were developed and issued, corresponding to the academic schedule of the university, so that critical preparatory work, such as structural enhancements, could be completed during summer breaks.

Challenge: intertwining old and new. Inserting a state-of-the-art laboratory facility within a historical building on a historical campus required a delicate process of respecting the history while bringing it into the 21st century.

Solution. In the renovated areas, the design team was careful to select finishes and lighting that would reflect the building and campus vernacular. Complementary finishes included the use of wood in the stair connecting the second and third floors, bronze-colored mullions in the windows, and coffered ceilings.

By navigating these challenges, Yale University has delivered a leading-edge lab facility that bolsters its chemistry teaching and research for generations. They’ve also delivered a model other institutions can follow when it comes to renovating modern lab facilities in historic buildings.

John Jennings


John Jennings, AIA, LEED AP, is vice president at CannonDesign.

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Category: All, Education

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