by Michael Palleschi
The engineering of building systems in life sciences facilities isn’t siloed in the MEP systems themselves, but needs to be closely integrated with the underlying research. Central facility infrastructure systems such as HVAC, automation controls, process plumbing, electrical, and technology are crucial parts to accommodating and supporting key laboratory systems and processes that are vital to furthering research goals and new discoveries.
As engineers, we are expected to design high-performance environments requiring specially designed spaces to support state-of-the-art processes where fundamental research and teaching can be supported. Designing robust systems and services that allow research to continue — without delay or interruption — is essential to the advancement of the research. One client asked us to expand their existing standby power system because a somewhat short-term power outage caused a loss of over $25,000 in refrigerated laboratory product. In hindsight, it was clear that a better understanding of this in advance of the outage would have not only saved the client money, but would have eliminated the inconvenience to the scientists.
The key to a successful design and, ultimately, its implementation, is developing an extensive understanding of the researcher’s needs and expectations from the beginning of the design effort. This requires involvement and contribution from the entire design team and researchers. Even so, it’s not uncommon for the building design engineers to not even be invited to laboratory planning meetings, and this seldom yields the best results. The building’s design engineers are generally the best source of information related to the building itself and what it’s capable of supporting. For example, the engineer will have the best knowledge of the available ceiling cavity and what would be required for the systems that are being discussed. Although the ceiling cavity isn’t directly related to laboratory programming, the engineer’s ears will perk up when topics involving fume hood density are mentioned, and their insights about ductwork can be valuable given their understanding of the building’s floor-to-floor and required ceiling heights.
One key aspect of system integration is properly accounting for the service requirements of laboratory equipment and the environmental parameters for each space. On a current project, a researcher’s need for a particularly low relative humidity required us to design a specialized desiccant dehumidification system. This specialized system required mechanical space that wasn’t considered in the space planning, and determining this early allowed the plans to be adjusted. On another project, a conventional fume hood would have required costly HVAC system upgrades, but the researcher was able to determine that a recirculating filtered hood would be appropriate, significantly reducing first costs.
Generally, a laboratory planner will take the lead on developing equipment data sheets, but getting the engineer involved will improve the outcome. In a recent instance, preliminary equipment data sheets indicated a steam autoclave, but because we knew that steam wasn’t available, a more cost-effective electric autoclave was specified instead. In the case of existing equipment being reused, it’s best for the engineer to review the actual equipment requirements. On a different project, a piece of existing equipment required nonstandard power. After consideration, the owner decided to purchase new equipment that could use standard power, resulting in comparable first costs and more state-of-the-art equipment.
Through well-organized planning and collaborative efforts between the researchers and the designers, a better, more comprehensive understanding of the specific research applications is achieved. Understanding the relationship between the users and how they utilize and apply the various instruments and equipment in their research is paramount to providing a seamless integration between the infrastructure systems and the specific needs of the scientists.
Michael Palleschi is a mechanical engineer and project manager at BVH Integrated Services, P.C, in Newton, Mass., an active member of the Construction Institute.