Three essential strategies for a successful lab design

Feb. 17, 2013

Designers of medical laboratories, such as medical diagnostic or in vitro fertilization labs, face a fundamental, and sometimes daunting, challenge: to make sure the lab will work properly when completed. Outside of hospitals and dedicated research facilities, many new medical labs are in existing buildings that have not previously housed laboratories. Facility managers must examine these buildings carefully and often modify them to suit laboratory needs.

Every lab presents its own design challenges based on the processes that will be performed within, but three potential problems and pitfalls common to all labs can make the difference between successful or unsuccessful operation: HVAC and air flow, compliance with local codes, and attention to long lead-time items.

Strategy #1: Plan HVAC and air flow carefully

Probably the most important infrastructure issue for a lab is having sufficient HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) capacity to get air flow into all the places where it is needed, in large part because the frequency and volume of air changes needed in a lab greatly exceed what is needed in an office. Despite the need for increased air changes and greater air flow, the lab must also be a comfortable place in which to work. No one in the lab should be working in a draft or other situation causing discomfort. The selection of a lab’s HVAC units and associated electrical transformers and air flow infrastructure is very important.

Often, a lab must be placed in a location unaffected by fumes and outside air conditions which could taint the lab environment. Moreover, if lab functions are particularly sensitive, the manager may need to specify HVAC with HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) standard air filtration and choose a site upwind of highways, factories, or any other potential contaminant sources.

To meet the critical requirement for HVAC, lab planners should assure sufficient electrical capacity to power the type and size of HVAC units that will be used. Can the utility supply enough electrical power to operate lab-specific HVAC and other equipment? If there is an issue with the power supply, can the utility increase the power it provides to meet the need?

In planning, allow sufficient space, dollars, and time to incorporate any new transformer capacity that will be required. If the HVAC unit or units, and the electrical capacity to run them, are inadequate, or the unit does not run properly for any reason, equipment overheating, excessive humidity, unacceptable fumes, lost production, and a general failure to meet the laboratory’s operational needs may result.

When selecting a site for a lab, be aware that slab-to-slab height must be sufficient to allow ducts for HVAC and general air circulation. Often, this will limit the choice of sites available for a new lab, and may require compensations in design, or “work-arounds,” if it’s necessary to select a site with less than ideal conditions. Focus on this early in the process, not later when it may disturb existing installations, prompt change orders, and cause a delay in completion.

Preventing environmental contamination and properly exhausting workspaces are also major concerns for lab designers. If not done, environmental contaminants can lead to an OSHA violation and personnel problems.

Strategy #2: Comply with local codes

Local regulatory bodies across the nation have their own requirements for labs, just as they do for other elements of building construction. Some local regulators see labs as suspect because they may contain dangerous or volatile chemicals and fumes. The variety of local regulations means that lab designers must always be prepared for surprises on the job site. However, there are many things that can be done to assure optimum compliance cost-effectively and without undue delays.

To make sure that building inspectors are comfortable with your lab construction project, meet with local inspectors early to review plans and specifications. Be prepared to discuss, in general terms, the types of activities which will be conducted in the lab. It may also be important to point out to local inspectors that you’ve done your homework and that labs of the type you propose are permitted by code and law in the area selected (make sure you have indeed done your homework!). This can help defuse concerns about “unusual” lab activities. In appropriate circumstances, show that volatile chemicals will be stored in combustion-proof rooms, that back-flow prevention has been installed in waste lines, and that special protections required for safety have been incorporated into the design. An early, candid meeting can go a long way toward defusing concerns local building inspectors may have about perceived risks of lab projects.

Strategy #3: Beware of long lead-time items

Identify long lead-time items early, and order them well in advance of the time they must be on site and operating. These may include HVAC, which is critical for opening a lab on time. Many lab facility managers purchase specially made units available only through a limited production run.

Allow enough time for other long lead items such as special counter tops, exhaust hoods for fumes, and special seamless flooring. These items are, in many cases, manufactured to order or in limited supply. Such details are very important in labs’ design requirements, as opposed to those of other kinds of facilities.

Designing a lab that is on time, on budget, and successful in its operations requires careful planning and attention to detail. But it is well worth the time and effort it takes to enable the lab to smoothly and efficiently perform its essential functions.

Marisa Manley is president of Healthcare Real Estate Advisors, a nationwide real estate consulting and advisory firm. Contact her at [email protected].

This column addresses compliance, regulatory, legal, certification, and additional concerns in the lab. Readers can submit questions to [email protected]