Space Planning for Laboratory Buildings

Diverse facilities such as warehouses, offices, and high-tech laboratories have very different energy requirements, and a successful climate action plan will set aside adequate space for different activities.

The following links go to sections that describe how space planning may fit into your climate action plans.

Laboratory buildings cost about five times as much to build and operate as office buildings. The premium for new laboratory construction is $300–$1,000/ft2. Laboratories also have very high annual energy costs: $5/–$16/ft2.

These high operating costs are due to the energy necessary for ventilation. A single fume hood, for example, can consume as much energy as two or three homes. And some laboratory buildings have hundreds of these devices operating all the time. Another reason for high costs is electricity loads from equipment, which are called "plug loads" because the equipment usually plugs into an electrical outlet,

Unlike offices, labs require "one-pass air" that cannot be recirculated. And they require 6–10 air changes per hour, compared with a normal office building that is typically ventilated at less than a single air change per hour. Of course, all this air must be heated in the winter and cooled in the summer, so the resulting energy costs can be very high.

For campuses with many labs, these energy requirements can reach such proportions that they dominate the entire carbon emissions profile. As a result, space planning that ensures laboratory functionality at a reasonable cost can become a critical component in a climate action plan.

You can read a comprehensive study about reducing energy consumption in laboratories published by Laboratories for the 21st Century titled, Energy Analysis.


Research campuses can set guidelines for space planning and require annual assessments to determine how high-energy spaces are being used.

Several space management principles can help ensure that lab space is being used as efficiently as possible:

  1. Minimize specialty spaces.

    Space may be organized according to hazard levels. For example, areas where toxic or flammable products or infectious agents will be used require specialty tissue culture rooms and clean rooms that have much higher standards of cleanliness than ordinary office space. These areas therefore require more complex architectural designs and have more stringent mechanical system requirements.

  2. Separate the office space vertically throughout the building.

    Vertical separation allows the mechanical systems for laboratories to be zoned separately from those for offices, with fewer air changes in the office areas. Locating offices and workstations in areas that are designed for laboratories greatly increases overall energy consumption and carbon emissions.

  3. Collocate power equipment.

    Several pieces of power-consuming equipment that generates significant heat or moisture can be located in a single room or service corridor to create an energy conservation strategy for the entire building. This strategy involves setting the air-handling unit serving that area with equipment to meet its special energy requirements. These equipment rooms can be conditioned with local cooling such as fan coil units rather than more energy intensive central air handling systems.

    A couple of examples illustrate this energy conservation strategy, which requires careful space planning:

    • Set aside a room for housing freezers.
    • Place heat-generating equipment near the perimeter of the building to facilitate direct ventilation to the outdoors.

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Research campuses should consider the following before undertaking an assessment of space planning.

Is space planning right for your campus?

  • Are you planning to build a new laboratory?
  • Is laboratory space fully utilized?
  • Can some laboratory functions be moved to a low-energy environment?

Move Some Functions to Low-Energy Areas

This strategy—relocating some activities to low energy-consuming areas—is the key element in space planning. A prime example is to move desk and write-up space out of a laboratory into a less energy intensive office area.

Fully Utilize Laboratory Space

Does your campus have space management guidelines and conduct periodic assessments of how laboratory space is being utilized? If not, some of these spaces are probably underutilized or could be repurposed. In the best-case scenario, conducting regular assessments might even allow the campus to avoid building new, costly laboratories.

Build a New Laboratory

If you are designing a new laboratory, you have a unique opportunity to organize it for the lowest possible energy consumption. This requires a detailed space plan listing immediate and future requirements, including code requirements for fresh air, temperature and humidity control, and power requirements.

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Leading Example: Texas Medical Center

In 2007, private-sector researchers working with the Laboratory Innovation and Implementation Council conducted observation and occupancy surveys studies at three laboratories at the Texas Medical Center in Houston. The studies evaluated the occupants' use of laboratory space and which tasks might be safely moved elsewhere.

The motivation for the studies was the high cost of lab construction and providing 10 air changes per hour in Houston's hot and humid climate. The design question to be considered: Can the cost of operating laboratories be reduced by reducing the size of the laboratories receiving this energy-intensive air exchange? The study was published June 2007 by Lab Design News and titled, "Is generic really the answer? Post-occupancy assessments reveal how users really work in labs."

The study found a surprising amount of laboratory space is used for non-research functions:

  • 11%–15% of the space, including desks and printers, was dedicated purely to office functions.
  • 40% of lab space was used to store chemicals, equipment, etc.
  • Only 43% of available bench space was used for research.

Based on their observations, the researchers proposed an ideal laboratory layout that substantially reduces the size of energy-intensive laboratory space. Offices and storage facilities were located next to the labs. Collaboration rooms where researchers could hold meetings were located next to the offices. And a thoughtful bench layout helps research staff utilize laboratory space more efficiently. The study showed that careful space planning can yield large energy savings.

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Some examples of university research campuses that have space management guidelines include:

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