Breathing New Life Into Antiquated Buildings: A Sustainable Approach to Lab Transformation

Margo Pietras Barnes, University of Pennsylvania
Karen Brooks, Ballinger

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Retrofit or renovate? It's a common question facing aging lab buildings. A simple retrofit of building systems can improve reliability and cut energy consumption significantly, but a gut renovation can be transformative by enhancing performance and sustainability while providing associated benefits in recruitment and retention, quality of life, and scientific productivity-?benefits that can offset the higher initial cost. This presentation will explore an approach to sustainable laboratory renovations through a case study of Stemmler Hall, a 1978 biomedical research and teaching facility within the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine.

When the University set the goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2042, enabled by the Century Bond program, they conducted a rigorous analysis of University buildings and infrastructure systems. Stemmler Hall was identified as having the highest potential annual savings of all buildings reviewed. Like other buildings of its era, annual energy costs were high and faulty systems and equipment required continual repair. The University considered a systems-based retrofit as well as a comprehensive renovation, examining each option through the lens of construction duration, number of phases, annual energy savings, number of workstations, and cost. Ultimately they determined that a transformative renovation would bring the most value to the Perelman School of Medicine.

The driving forces behind the project were reduced energy costs and increased utilization and efficiency while enhancing future flexibility. Required continuous occupancy added considerable complexity to the project, including multiple phases of construction, sequenced tenant relocations, and numerous enabling endeavors aimed at maintaining continuity of systems operation. In total, the renovation increased lab workstation capacity by 50 percent, adaptive reuse of the facade and structure allowed for a limited campus carbon footprint, and calculations project a 50 percent reduction in energy use and $900,000 of annual cost savings. Stemmler Hall, formerly a significant drain on campus resources, is now one of the most energy-efficient research buildings on campus. It reinforces the University's campus master plan by reinvigorating a critical building connection between academic, research, and healthcare facilities and narrowing the gap between new and old facilities. Future planning and programming is aided by increased parity across the broader inventory of campus research space. In this presentation, you'll hear from the owner about the challenges faced during the project, including site constraints at the crossroads of three major institutions and the competing priorities of multiple stakeholders.

Learning Objectives

  • Appraise and weigh the benefits of renovating vs. retrofitting aging lab buildings;
  • Maximize efficiency and flexibility of lab benches and workstations through future-focused planning;
  • Recognize and prioritize opportunities for energy savings in lab environments; and
  • Predict and prepare for potential pitfalls in renovating an occupied existing building.


Margo Pietras Barnes, PE, LEED AP, CBCP is a senior project manager within the University of Pennsylvania's Facilities Design and Construction department. In her past 14 years at Penn, Margo has managed countless projects large and small, from campus-wide initiatives to lab renovations, and her focus has been on sustainability and infrastructure. She managed the renovation of Stemmler Hall, as well as upgrades to Penn's Chemistry 1973 building, which reduced energy expenditures by 70 percent.

Karen Brooks, AIA, LEED AP BD+C is a Senior Associate at Ballinger. She was project manager for the transformative renovation of the University of Pennsylvania's Stemmler Hall. Currently, she is project manager for the University of Michigan's Kraus Building, a 245,000 SF renovation and infill addition of a 105-year old building for the School of Kinesiology. Karen is also managing the 500,000 SF Drexel Academic Tower, part of the new Wexford Science + Technology's uCity Square development.


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