BSA Lifestructures

Getting Spec-ific: Laboratory Materials and Systems

David MillerMarch 19, 2021

Specifying the right materials to deliver a safe, efficient, and cost-effective facility that can adapt to changing research directions can be a daunting task. At the outset of any laboratory building project, the design team must work with the stakeholders to reconcile a multitude of priorities and competing goals before proceeding with design.

It is important that expectations for materials and systems performance be established as early in the design and construction process as possible. It is equally important that all stakeholders understand and accept these expectations, both during design and construction and as the finished building is occupied and used.

Choosing the Right Materials

While durability is still a prime consideration for materials selections in labs, availability of new materials, environmental considerations, life-cycle costs, ergonomics, and changing needs of the science itself are influencing how materials are selected.

Floor selection requires the consideration of many factors, including slip resistance, chemical resistance based on intended use of the lab, biohazard and chemical spill containment needs vs. risk, ability to withstand loads from stationary or rolling equipment and carts that may be in use within the lab and cost.

Poured Epoxy is commonly thought to be the most durable flooring option and is great for chemical resistance, managing biohazardous and chemical spill containment, and withstanding wear and tear associated with cart traffic and the movement of heavy materials or equipment. MMA is similar in terms of durability, with the added benefit of being able to withstand extremely cold conditions within freezer rooms.  The cons typically associated with Epoxy and MMA is the cost and that it is typically hard to blend patches and repairs in with the existing floor and therefore are very noticeable, which can be an aesthetic concern.

Sheet rubber is another very durable option that is great for chemical resistance and managing biohazardous and chemical spill containment.  Another advantage of sheet rubber is that it is easier to repair.  Damaged floor sections can be cut out and replaced with a new section of floor heat welded into the existing.  Depending on the pattern and age of the floor the patch may be less visible than a patch on an epoxy floor.

In labs with normal to light cart and equipment movement, vinyl and linoleum products should also be considered, says Derek West, Principal at BSA, “Vinyl is very affordable and is appropriate for a number of lab types. Linoleum and other PVC-free materials are also a good choice in applications similar to vinyl and have the advantage of being sustainable.”

The most commonly reported con regarding the use of sheet vinyl in a lab is that in areas of high cart use or foot traffic where the material color is surface applied (not integral), the surface can show wear over time.  Linoleum, in this case, maybe the better option in that its color is consistent with the backing, so wear that occurs over time is less visible.

Lastly, low- or no-VOC concrete stains and epoxy sealers allow sealed concrete a wide range of aesthetic effects with good chemical resistance. However, slip resistance is a concern, and concrete is not very comfortable underfoot for long periods.

Wall Finishes
Wall finishes should be selected to withstand the types of use and cleaning procedures expected in each lab. Beyond latex enamel paint and epoxy enamel, if wipe-down is required, multicoat epoxy coating systems are used when chip- or scratch-resistance is necessary and/or where rooms will be washed down, such as animal labs, glass wash facilities, and containment labs. Systems may include varying numbers of layers, fiberglass mesh reinforcement, or clear topcoats.

Reinforced panels are also used in containment labs and animal facilities, and can be stain and chemical resistant, and can be hosed down with a power washer.

Counters and Benchtops
Countertops need to resist chemical and physical damage. Still, lighter-color tops have been found to help reduce lighting load and improve visual acuity in some applications and provide more pleasing aesthetics. Epoxy resin is a popular standard material for its resistance to damage by moisture, solvents, heat, acid, and abrasions. The cost is reasonable, and unlike many other materials, it is repairable.

“Phenolic resin benchtops have come a long way in the last few years wherein cost is comparable to epoxy, temperature and chemical resistance is better than it used to be, and core colors other than black are readily available,” says West.

Stainless steel countertops are common in biocontainment and animal research labs where stringent cleaning and decontamination procedures are required.

Laboratory Casework
The first question in selecting laboratory casework is mobile, fixed, or a mix of fixed vs. mobile. “Most corporate clients that have been managing equipment moves and the installation of new equipment seem to be looking for some level of flexibility when we talk about goals and objectives for their new lab space,” says Piasecki.  For this reason, mobile casework or a mixture of mobile and fixed casework seems to be the preferred approach.  Mobile casework allows for the lab to be reconfigured to accommodate new equipment more easily.

Just as ergonomics has been a concern in the office environment, ergonomics is becoming more of a concern in the lab environment as well.  As a result, more casework providers are starting to offer sit-stand vertically adjustable casework.  This ergonomic option is especially welcomed and requested in environments like QC labs where people may be performing repetitive tasks.

In terms of materials, metal casework tends to be the most commonly used casework in corporate research and testing labs.  Metal casework is very durable and is offered in a variety of colors to enhance the aesthetics of the lab environment.  In areas that require a higher level of sterilization and may be subject to more stringent cleaning guidelines, such as clean rooms or vivarium, stainless steel casework may be more appropriate.

In academic settings, wood casework continues to be a popular choice for aesthetic and durability considerations.

Engineering for Efficiency and Operations

The complex and dynamic engineered systems at the heart of modern laboratories have a material impact on life-cycle operations and cost. Since today’s goals and expectations are typically more stringent than those of only a few years ago, the MEP systems that go into a new building differ from historical standard systems.

There are at least three essentials areas that need to be understood by the owner and the engineer when designing MEP systems in a research laboratory:

  1. Your organization
  2. Your research
  3. Your equipment

Your Organization
Just like no two organizations are alike, no two research facility requirements are the same. There may be an applicable kit of parts, but cookie-cutter solutions are not the answer. Some of the differentiators are the users, principal investigators, utility rate structures, regional climate, goals, and priorities.

“For example, goals for sustainability may be similar between organizations,” says Kevin McNutt, Senior Mechanical Engineer at BSA, “but the solutions could be quite different. Features like an energy recovery wheel can be a highly efficient means of preconditioning lab air, but not in every climate.”

When sophisticated systems are put in place, the organization must be able to operate and maintain the equipment on a long-term basis. The best features money can buy are worthless if they are not operated properly. Training and hiring practices must match the level of complexity of the system.

Further still, how do the users in the building work? What is the percentage of work done at fume hoods? At a Fortune 500 research corporation, the hood diversity (percentage of hood sashes at operating height) was planned at fifty percent. Other organizations plan theirs in the ninety percent range. The difference in the first cost between the two can be very high.

Also, systems should be envisioned beyond the day-one user, so training is important and considers safety features such as diversity alarming.

Your Research
Anyone in the life sciences industry can tell you how fast the direction of research can change. To keep up, labs are reconfiguring at a faster rate than ever before. Beyond flexibility, these spaces feature a new level of adaptability- being able to change with minimal downtime and disruption.

Recently, BSA designed pre-assembled modules (PAMs) in an R&D building for most utilities. “PAMs are essential building blocks for creating the agile infrastructure that is required for a truly adaptable lab facility,” says McNutt. “The PAMs carry exhaust air, lab gases, water, electrical bus ducts, and cable trays. Designed with connection points every 8’ for quick connections to fume hoods, ceiling interface panels, or future equipment without the typical costs and downtimes.”

As an example of the success of the PAM approach, the first 18 months of operation saw 10 percent of the hoods in the facility reconfigured. In the past, this would have cost nearly $750,000 and considerable time to design, demolish, and reconstruct the space. With the PAM approach, each of these reconfigurations took place in a matter of days – at almost no cost.

Your Equipment
Understanding lab processes and the way equipment is used is the third essential component of designing MEP systems in a lab facility. The function, utility needs, usage, and sensitivity are all important factors influencing how the systems will be designed.  For a new optical lab, the relative humidity band (the range tolerated by the instruments) was very strict. The problem was that the solution requirements would make the cost high enough to cancel the build-out.

According to Ted Zemper, Principal and Engineering Lead at BSA, “We worked with the manufacturers and discovered that the instruments were not as sensitive as once thought. Changing the design to accommodate the new tolerances allowed the project to move forward.”

As you might conclude, specifying the right materials and systems takes a combination of communication, experience, and expertise. Working together, your project team can produce an efficient, productive, and adaptable laboratory that remains highly performing for years to come.

Connect with Dave, discovery practice director, on LinkedIn, here.