Low-Energy Laboratory Design Fundamentals

Robert Thompson, SmithGroup

Laboratories remain one of the largest energy consumers by building type, using many times more energy than offices and classrooms per unit floor area. Unlike classrooms and offices, laboratories may have agents that are hazardous to personnel or the environment and that require isolation from other parts of the building. Minimum ventilation and exhaust remain key components in ensuring a safe environment for occupants within the laboratory and provide negative pressurization to support laboratory containment. While most people equate the term ventilation with outside air, ventilation may include the use of clean air from other areas such as offices to help flush a laboratory environment.

The highest energy use in laboratories is often the conditioning of outside air. Driven by the need to provide a consistent and repeatable environment, outside air is conditioned, including being filtered, heated, and cooled with a degree of humidity control before being supplied to the laboratory. Exhaust air energy recovery uses the tempered lab exhaust to precondition outside air for ventilation. Another large energy consumer in laboratories is the fan energy to supply elevated airflows and exhaust (single-pass ventilation from a central HVAC system). The balance of laboratory energy consists of process energy use (equipment) and lighting.

Low-energy laboratory design begins by identifying the underlying factors to influence energy use. The two largest energy sources are both driven by need for increased ventilation. Employing strategies to reduce ventilation has a direct impact on building energy use. Rarely do laboratories exist on their own; laboratories collocated with office and support spaces have additional resources for improved energy efficiency. HVAC systems serving both laboratory and office spaces provide an improved environment for personnel in the office while simultaneously lowering energy use.

Daylighting provides an improved experience for lab personnel and lowers energy use. Direct-indirect light fixtures allow light to be reflected from ceilings to mimic daylight, and the extensive use of task lighting enables general lighting levels to be reduced. When combined with energy-efficient light fixtures, the overall heat loss to the space is reduced along with the cooling and ventilation energy. The presentation will discuss these considerations together with other resources available from I2SL, enabling attendees to build a foundation by which to apply low energy laboratory design.

Learning Objectives

  • Understand the evolution of laboratories and categorize primary energy drivers in laboratories today;
  • Have a sense of code requirements for typical laboratories, air classifications, and be able to describe what makes laboratories safe;
  • Realize the importance of reducing ventilation where possible and identify alternate approaches to lower laboratory energy use; and
  • Recognize the potential health and energy benefits of consolidating HVAC systems to serve both laboratories and offices.


Robert is a Mechanical Engineer and Principal at SmithGroup. Robert supports the Science and Technology studio, the Mission Critical studio, and has worked on projects across the United States. He has written articles for the ASHRAE Journal, Consulting-Specifying Engineer, Engineered Systems, and 7x24 Exchange Magazines. Robert also supports the University of Arizona's architecture program each fall, highlighting the importance of integrated architecture and engineering.


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