Balancing Requirements in Chemical Laboratories: Brian Richard, Kirksey's Science & Technology Practice Leader, spoke at the International Lab Design Conference in Madrid, Spain, about architecture and lab design Brian Richard, AIA, Executive Vice President, along with members from Kirksey’s Science & Technology team, flew to Madrid, Spain to speak at the International Lab Design Conference September 20 -22.

The conference, a first for the international community, was spurred from a growing interest at the Laboratory Design Conference, a US conference held since 2002. This first international conference focused on global challenges, lab design and sustainability/energy. Speakers from all over the world brought their knowledge and expertise to this conference in the forms of keynote speaking sessions and symposiums.

Brian summarized his lecture, Keeping Economics & Safety at the Forefront: Balancing the Economics and Practicalities of Commercial Building Design and Construction, as: “this is really about how to build a big complex chemical laboratory and balance all the requirements without going completely over the top with what you’re trying to accomplish.”

With geographic proximity near many energy, oil and gas companies based in Houston, Texas, Kirksey Architecture has a wealth of knowledge and expertise in lab practices in these specific sectors.

Brian’s presentation hit on four big ideas in lab design, regarding architecture:

1. Chemical Management – noted as a high priority need
2. Clean / Dirty Corridors (LERs or utility service)
3. Template Laboratory Modules
4. “Office Buildings” with a Lab Inside

Brian shared case studies and examples that incorporated ideas for each of these 4 points, sharing how architects are responsible for complying with competing sets of codes and owner requirements that don’t necessarily play well together.

Chemical Management

“While we are not industrial hygienists, we have considerable experience in knowing what chemical and material management strategies work best inside and outside of buildings,” he said.

It’s a difficult thing to coordinate and design for a chemical company when the building code is usually set-up to minimize the amount of chemical you can have in the building. Not only is it sometimes a challenge to coordinate and comply with various codes, but Brian’s team also works hard to find the best value in each project for every client.

“There’s a business case to be made for being labeled a non-hazardous occupancy,” he said. “Even though you may have many hazardous materials in the building, you always want to operate beneath the MAQ – beneath the ‘maximum allowable quantity, unless it’s just not possible to do because of the science application.”

Why would labs want to do that?

Because it’s inherently safer and ultimately, makes room for better research, better employees and better end products — in addition to typically being more cost effective to build.

“You ask yourself, ‘why is DowDupont (for example) leading the world in chemistry?’” Brian posits. “One of the answers would be: we intentionally designed their labs so they can maximize the amount of scientists who are researching and actually looking at the material within their spaces. More people to innovate, make discoveries and ultimately create new opportunities for chemistry. We do this by managing the design against the chemical regulations and what the code allows us to do — to maximize researchers interfacing with science applications.”

Clean / Dirty Corridors

A commonly used phrase in lab design, clean and dirty corridors are used to describe which walkways are used for regular staff, and which are used primarily for the transport of chemical or hazardous materials, when discussing them in terms of chemical laboratories.

“We truly believe, especially in chemical laboratories, that it is a necessity to separate material movement from people movement,” Brian said.

In almost every single Kirksey chemistry lab project, the team has wisely designed a corridor that is dedicated exclusively to the movement of chemicals and materials throughout the building, with a separate corridor for egress and ingress of personnel.

In one of Kirksey’s project examples, the design solution became a little more unique.

“The utility service corridor is actually an exterior component of the building,” said Brian. “One of the reasons we did this was because of the materials that were going to be located in the building. We weren’t comfortable in getting air change rates high enough to be able to accommodate LEL calculations, so we designed a unique exterior service corridor that allowed them to vent straight into the atmosphere.”

The design includes an aesthetic screen wall and did not have to be mechanically air conditioned.

“It was sort of a no-brainer,” Brian said. “We saved the client quite a bit of money.”

Template Laboratory Modules

Kirksey almost always establishes a template for any lab design project first. Starting with a standard template, the team always talks to the end users about how to fit into that template and then they modify it as necessary. Starting with a template allows the design to come together more smoothly and gives the end user a better understanding – at the beginning – of where their lab is headed.

Office Building vs. a Lab Building

Minimizing “specialized” construction typologies on where special construction is not needed allows the user to save money (or apply it where most beneficial).  When the lifespan is expected to be short, it’s also useful to utilize what’s known as an “exit strategy” to place a building back into the commercial real estate market if its lab-life has ended. It’s important to not diminish a building’s uses, so building for both options allows for more future possibilities.