Renovating Laboratories

If you are a researcher or laboratory manager considering the need to renovate your laboratory(ies), you may find some conditions in the list below which are familiar, if not frequent, problems.

• Soot & water infiltration through windows
• Lab door either hard to open or close
• Rusty hinges and other hardware
• Bad smells, not generated in your lab
• Lud noise generated at or near fume hood
• Unsightly stains on floors and countertops
• No open space remains on any countertop
• Crowded aisles and occasional collisions

• Roof leaks
• Stains on suspended ceilings
• Rusting metal casework
• Bad smells generated in your lab
• Jam packed reagent shelves
• No open space remains in fume hood
• No storage space left in cabinets
• No outlet left unplugged

The conditions on this list could be just nuisances or possibly truly dangerous. A survey showed that most researchers in the chemical industry have occupied the same lab for over twenty years.(1) Most of the researchers surveyed said they experienced one renovation or more in their laboratories at some time during that period.

Most academic institutions and corporate research organizations respond to the legitimate demands of individual researchers to make improvements in or renovate their labs. Sometimes because of capital budget constraints or convenience, facilities engineers and planners only treat the symptoms, while losing sight of the causes that can adversely affect the integrity of the building and even the health of all of the occupants.

How can a researcher, lab manager or safety officer evaluate these problems? How can corrections be prioritized? What are some facilities management and preventive maintenance mechanisms which can help get these problems attended to efficiently?

One needs to explore, list and document the conditions which need to be corrected. Staff should assist in making these observations. For acute situations get action quickly from safety and facilities personnel, but make sure these incidents are documented.

It is not always deteriorating conditions that instigate a laboratory renovation. The introduction of a new research protocol or new piece of equipment in the lab can also be an incentive. Look for conditions to improve which would assist productivity.

With your list in hand, prioritize the issues. Priorities can be developed by evaluating the probability, frequency and the gravity of the potential hazard caused by the condition. There are three major drivers for funding change and improvements in laboratory facilities which administrators and management can usually justify to pay for renovations:

• Conditions which are clearly hazardous
• Those which cause aggravation to occupants
• Those which evidence lack of maintenance and building deterioration


Determine the conditions with possible negative impact on occupants’ health and safety.

Determine the conditions that reduce your staff’s productivity and concentration

Determine conditions that look bad or reduce cleanliness of your laboratory

Good maintenance can’t fix every problem, especially if the source of the problem is not properly identified. Let’s look at these complaints again with some investigation perhaps into some of the less obvious possible causes.

Of these common complaints, eight of the possible causes are from inadequate ventilation systems, seven are from overcrowding of staff or stuff, and two are from accidental leaks or spills. What can you do to do to improve these conditions?

Conditions Caused by Overpopulation of Staff and Stuff

Overcrowding by staff will not be solved without political and financial support of the laboratory administrators or scientific head. Allocation of laboratory area is one of the most fiercely protected perks in both corporations and academia. However, clearly defined conditions of overcrowding can be readily documented, particularly in relation to less populated and less productive labs. The long range solution would be reassignment of additional area or relocation to a larger area. However, there are a few strategies to quickly, if temporarily, to relieve unsafe crowded conditions in the interim.

The first strategy is to clear out and clean up; tackle the overpopulation of stuff. Research scientists tend to be pack-rats. For instance, it is rare to see a research laboratory, chemical or not, that doesn’t contain over a week’s supply of chemicals stored on the floor, on shelves, in cupboards, in and beneath fume hoods and in fire protected chemical storage cabinets. Reduce the amounts and numbers of chemical containers. Purge your stock of chemicals.

Some universities, government agencies and corporations provide amnesty for chemical disposal to help you to properly dispose of unused, rarely used or unlabeled chemicals in your lab. However if there is a stiff charge for disposal, reduce what you can and do not add more to the lab unless absolutely necessary. Some institutions provide a chemical exchange service to redistribute excess chemical stock to other labs. Some corporations have strict chemical inventory controls, including bar code readers on lab entry doors, which are an excellent strategy to prevent overpopulation of chemicals, as well as to locate where hazardous chemicals are kept. Another strategy is to establish a comprehensive, well-run chemical stockroom, accessible to each lab building and combine with a convenient distribution and chemical waste pick-up service. This service is a great incentive to reduce the stockpile of chemicals in the lab.

While chemicals may not occupy much lab area, equipment can occupy great amounts of space. How many instruments are stored that are rarely used? Calculate the time wasted by your staff maneuvering around unused equipment stored on the floor, a bench or in a cupboard or drawer. Also, calculate the percentage of lab area rendered unproductive with storage of unused equipment. Although the equipment cost a fortune at the time of purchase, up-to-date replacements are often proportionately far less expensive physically smaller.

These exercises can open your eyes to the cost benefits of ridding your lab of relics. Be aware however, there are normal psychological barriers that may make this exercise very difficult to achieve. A well-informed and objective staff member can inventory the dispensable equipment, thus removing those with emotional attachments from the decision process.

An alternative to actually disposing of excess equipment and instrumentation that actually will be used from time to time is to secure long-term storage. Some institutions even provide brokerage service to reassign and relocate your excess equipment to the lab of younger and/or less well-funded researchers who will actually use it.

A second strategy for relieving overcrowding is to relocate the staff or student desks or paper-work stations out of the lab. One shared data entry desk per average four-person lab, or two for a large lab, are sufficient to handle in-lab recording activities. Assigned desks can be outside the lab to save space for full-time research activities. Relocating desks may seem obvious, but there are often long-standing habits in the research community which advocate keeping staff within the confines of the lab walls.
However, two significant factors support separate “paperwork” areas. The first is increasingly strict OSHA regulations for limiting personnel exposure to chemicals in the lab environment. The second is the documented increase in productivity when computer data analysis and reporting are done in a quiet, non-lab setting.

Conditions Caused by Leaks and Spills

The second group of common lab conditions are leaks and spills which create unsightly stains on floors, ceilings or countertops. Solutions for these conditions are problematical, because these conditions arise from accidents, unplanned and unpredictable. Preventing lab floods from burst pipes and chemical spills is the best solution. Chemical spills can be prevented by using secondary containers or absorbent work surface coverings. To retard and reduce leaks, water-proof and fire retardant sealant should be used to fill and seal holes in the ceiling and floor. In new lab buildings metal flanges on sleeves which extend 2 inches above the finished floor surface can be cast in place into concrete floors for pipes penetrating the floor to pass-through. This provides a dike around the floor opening and reduces the risk of fluids spilled on the floor leaking into the lab below. Outside of preventing spills, laboratory materials and finishes should be stain resistant and easily cleanable.

Conditions Caused by Inadequate Ventilation

The largest and most serious conditions are those caused by poor or inadequate ventilation. Ventilation problems are often multi-faceted. One of the most pervasive causes of laboratory building deterioration is poor balance of ventilation systems. If supply air volumes do not compensate for all of the air exhausted through laboratory fume hoods and other building exhaust systems, building air pressure can actually drop lower than the outside atmospheric pressure. This imbalance of air pressures over time can cause insidious damage to buildings and endanger the health and safety of building occupants. In extreme cases severe imbalance turns the building into a giant vacuum, which sucks in all the soot, mold and moisture laden air it can through every imaginable crack, nook and cranny of the building enclosure. This process is particularly destructive in newer buildings which are supposedly sealed air-tight to reduce energy loss. How does this imbalance happen?

Researchers frequently request installation of additional fume hoods or other exhaust devices to be installed in existing laboratories using chemicals. Fume hoods are primary laboratory safety devices, so these requests are usually very well justified. Or sometimes researchers add equipment to their laboratories that put off excessive heat into the room. Heat loads must be removed to maintain comfortable temperatures for occupants and to meet manufacturers’ specifications for some equipment operating conditions; so exhaust capacity is increased. These requests are certainly reasonable as well. Yet these types of exhaust system modifications can accumulate over the years to the level of air pressure imbalance. Is this the only source of the problem?

No, there’s more to it. Lab building supply air systems are often designed without sufficient extra capacity to meet researchers’ needs even a few years away, even less a few decades away. Owners are reluctant to add cost to a project with spare capacities in expensive heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) or electrical systems. Good engineering practices have demanded consideration of multiple modes of energy conservation, at times making buildings virtually air-tight. Again, significant spare supply air capacities were, and still are, difficult to justify, even in a good economic climate. In consequence, even responsible, expert lab HVAC design engineers can be reluctant to push the issue with owners.

Although air pressure imbalance problems are endemic to older lab buildings, new buildings are certainly not immune to these conditions. Recently an institution investigated the cause of breaks in the thermal vacuum seals between the two sheets of glass on many of their new chemistry building’s exterior windows. The windows were constantly fogged and water condensed between the panes and leaked inside. There was also a leaking roof and lots of water damage to walls and ceilings. The first suspect was a possible imbalance of the air pressure, because the entry door was difficult to open and the building air intake was noisy. The original HVAC design drawings were inspected and the calculations were checked for balance of air supply and exhaust. The drawings were in order, and no gross imbalance should have been expected. The two supply air handling units in the basement and the outside air intake were tested for condition and flow rates. Again, the test results were consistent with the design values and no gross imbalance should have been expected on the supply side.

The roofing systems had no obvious breaches or evidence of poor condition, so the investigation turned to the supply air distribution systems on each floor. Air flow discharge rates were consistently found to be only a fraction of the engineering design values shown on the drawings. The ducts which connected the horizontal supply main in the center of the corridor ceiling to the lab diffusers were the culprit. The ducts were made of flexible plastic material (similar to dryer exhaust hose) which were twisted and crammed like spaghetti into the tight space above the suspended ceiling.

The capacity of the supply air handling unit was insufficient to overcome the severe pressure loss from crimping and sharp turns in the terminal distribution ducts. When the magnitude of the pressure imbalance was discovered, the cause of a number of building problems became clear. The double-glazed thermal window seals were unable to resist the pressure of water infiltration, nor were the roof membrane joints. No breaks were visible; they were microscopic but still able to transport plenty of water into the building interior to ruin walls and suspended ceiling panels.
Consequently, the ducts from the horizontal main to each lab had to be replaced. The mixing boxes and valves were relocated from the tight concealed corridor ceiling space onto the lab exposed ceiling. This provided sufficient volume for a relatively straight run of rigid duct to the lab. The change allowed over 33% additional supply air to be delivered to each lab to make-up for the exhaust from fume hoods. The windows, which were still under warrantee, were replaced by the manufacturer and installer. The roof was resealed and the water damaged ceased. Even the entry door to the building was easy to open.

The lesson learned was that intricate arrangement and crowding of HVAC equipment and ducts often lead to system failure. The architect should coordinate closely with the engineers to provide sufficient building area and volume for simple and clean installation of HVAC system components.

However there are other signs which can indicate air pressure imbalance and/or inadequate air supply. In brick or concrete block buildings, if the mortar is worn away from joints, particularly on the sides exposed to the strongest wind currents, there may be a problem. These signs may be more difficult to find in joints of stone and pre-cast concrete buildings, particularly if plasticized joint sealants are used instead of mortar.

The roof should be inspected, but water stains on finished ceilings and walls of the top floor and stains and spalling of concrete on the underside of roof slabs may be more evident. Soot and water stains on interior window sills and heads or beneath window openings are also tell-tale signs. Also, if the door to the building or lab is difficult to open or shut, there could be an imbalance in the air pressure. A pervasive or frequent chemical smell in labs or corridors is indicative of a potentially serious problem as well.

Unfortunately, ventilation problems are typically difficult and expensive to correct. Local “fixes” for pressure imbalance and inadequate air supply to an individual lab are unlikely to produce either good or long term results, because the entire building is affected. Good results can be achieved by dealing with the larger problem, the entire building.


Planning renovations of laboratories can be time consuming, expensive and disruptive to occupants and users. In many institutions minor modifications to a laboratory, such as installing or removing a bench or addition of electric circuits and outlet may take a short time to plan, but months for approvals of funding and for work orders or outside contractor bids to be processed. If the problem critically impacts the lab health and safety, the safety officer may have funds available and authority to circumvent some of the bureaucracy in order to expedite the improvement.

The normal request, planning, approval and funding process for major lab improvements or modifications can take many months, even years to bring to reality, particularly in public academic research institutions. Because of the considerable amount of time this may require, researchers need to be very thoughtful about what they request. The process for funding purchase of new instrumentation through grants can be much faster than the funding process for renovations. By the time the renovation or modification is funded, the instrument or process which may have motivated your request for change may have already changed itself. Request planning assistance from the facilities management department so that the renovation can meet future conditions in the best way possible.

Qualified laboratory design architects and engineers will be able to offer valuable advice on ways to achieve good performance and flexibility for the future. They document the planning decisions in detailed drawings that are used in the approval process and for construction. If the renovation is extensive or complicated, the planning stages will occupy some of your valuable time, up to a meeting per week for several months. You will be asked to review drawings periodically and to provide detailed information on instrumentation and processes in your lab to the planners. Lab design professionals can provide or arrange for a professional estimator to provide cost estimates at several times during the design process to check that the project is within the established budget. During construction, the architect and engineers review the contractor’s work for compliance with the drawings and specifications.

The construction phase of a laboratory renovation can take anywhere from a month to a year to accomplish, depending on the extent of the renovation. During this period the lab must be vacated, research generally has to cease or be relocated temporarily to another location. If research operations absolutely must continue during construction, the work must be phased, done a lab at a time. Phasing generally adds considerably to construction costs. Laboratory renovations can cost from $50 to $500 per square foot, depending on the existing conditions and the performance goals and complexity of the modifications. The impact of laboratory construction cost can not be over-stated.

Understand the process, in terms of your time and the funds that could be required, before embarking on a lab renovation is critical to a successful project. It is worth the time to be involved in the process to make sure the modifications are done well and improve the health and safety, as well as the efficiency of the workplace.