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Putting 10 Pounds of Labs in a 5 Pound, 50 Year-Old Box

Putting 10 Pounds of Labs in a 5 Pound, 50 Year-Old Box Banner Image

When designing new lab facilities, a floor to floor height of 16 feet is common, however, clients can’t always afford a new building. Many clients do a “facelift” to their existing laboratories and it is becoming more frequent within the higher education market. These existing buildings are often 50 - 60 years-old and have floor to floor heights less than 12 feet. In fact, a current project to renovate a Higher Education Research Lab building has a floor to floor height of only 11 feet 4 inches. Height in laboratories, like no other space, is an invaluable asset now and for future adaptability of the building. It’s the very first item I look for when I receive a set of old blueprints to review.

A few issues to keep in mind during lab renovations:

Issue 1: Ductwork space. Traditional ducted fume hoods required in Chemistry laboratories need large ducts for huge quantities of exhaust air. Common room air change rates often range from 6-12 AC per hour. These ducts run horizontally, creating a need for head space for horizontal distribution, and vertically, requiring mechanical chase space; unfortunately, both likely don’t exist.

Issue 2: Lighting. The current lighting trend in modern labs are pendant mount direct/indirect light fixtures, minimizing shadows at the benchtop. By bouncing up and off the ceiling, the light is diffracted in a way that diffuses the shadows. However, buildings with low floor to floor heights may find the ceilings to be too low and therefore, are unable to hang pendant mounted fixtures at a reasonable height.

Issue 3: Daylight. Modern labs utilize natural lighting as much as possible. Large windows on the exterior, combined with high, sometimes even sloped, ceilings are commonplace in new laboratories. By bringing natural light in high in the room, we often can diffuse the light across a large room. With older buildings, we’re often working with smaller windows and limited opportunity to direct light into the lab space.

The key to a successful renovation of a facility with floor height constraints, is to recognize the limitations early and manage the expectations of your customer, before offering viable options and planning solutions within the parameters given.

A recent example: We conducted a Feasibility Study on a 1965 Chemistry Building. During our presentation to the Chemistry Department we shared the option of using non-ducted, filtered fume hoods to eliminate the need for many new exhaust fans and large ductwork. While this solution may work better for some teaching or research operations, it is certainly worth considering as it has been proven successful in many institutions.

Understanding the limitations and working within those parameters is vital to the success of a renovation in an older building. Since every project is different, there is not one be-all end-all solution, but rather varying degrees of creative, yet effective options.

Eric Slifer

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