Adding Value to Your Science Building

You rarely have a chance to build a new science buildling, so it is important to value-enineer before you begin, but not through the typical definition of that phrase.

Let’s discuss how you can design value and innovation into your building up fton, so you don’t have to “engineer it out” later.  As we all know from experience, it’s not at all unusual for construction projects to be completed later than planned and overbudget, yet still not be what the purchases expected.

Lack of Innovation in Construction

One of the reasons for this is a lack of innovation in the construction industry. If there is one place we should certainly see construction innovation, it is in a science building. We need to be creating buildings for the future of science. Be sure to discuss these options early with your architects and lab planners to give them time to research and implement them properly. Innovations need to be integrated into existing processes.

Fume Hoods and Zero Net Energy (ZNE)

Most STEM buildings include fume hoods. Fume hoods themselves don’t cost that much. It is the mechanical systems [capital cost] and the air exchanges [operating costs] which clobber you. Here is a way to lower those costs. A small college in Fall River, MA, needed a science building design that would comply with a 2050 campus goal of carbon footprint reduction and a resultant decision that the building achieve Zero Net Energy [ZNE]. Yet science buildings are the biggest energy hogs on a campus, primarily because of the amount of exhausted air required for fume hoods.

Innovation was required. The linchpin technology in successfully achieving ZNE was the use of 13 filtration fume hoods. These are not ducted fume hoods, nor ductless fume hoods. They are standard chemical fume hoods using a specialized filtration technology which is licensed by a company that works with several fume hood manufacturers. The lab make-up air requirement was reduced from the designed 70,000 cfm to 28,000 cfm. This allowed the use of a combination of ground-source and air-source heat pumps, enthalpy heat recovery wheels, fan coil units, centralized IAQ monitoring, natural ventilation and a high-performance envelope. This series of strategies ended up reducing energy use intensity of the building by roughly 80%.The reduction of mechanical system requirements did more than achieve ZNE, lower construction costs and lower operating costs. It also minimized the practice of “diluting”   chemical fumes in the atmosphere.  Filtration fume hoods are now used in many colleges nationwide, especially in physically challenged buildings where fume hoods were added during renovations.

Plumbing for Burning Gas

Here’s an idea which is long overdue. In 1991 the American National Standards Institute published ANSI LC-1 for “Fuel Gas Piping Systems Using Corrugated Stainless Steel Tubing (CSST).” CSST was developed in North America by the American Gas Association and the Gas Research Institute. It was originally developed in Japan as a better anti-seismic solution than black iron pipe. LC-1 is recognized by the National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA), International Fuel Gas Code (IFGC), the Uniform Plumbing Code (UPC) and typically the fuel gas codes in all 50 states.

While almost half of all residential structures now use this kind of piping, most laboratories–and fume hoods–still use the much more expensive black iron for burning gases. The savings for you is in the labor, typically as much as 75% of the installation labor required for rigid pipe. If you have fuel gas coming into your STEM building, insist that you want LC-1 CSST used. It will be a big installation time saver. There are several manufacturers which can be easily researched on the web.

Flammable Storage Cabinets

North American flammable storage cabinet standards require cabinets resist a fire for ten minutes, to allow people time to escape the building before stored chemicals are affected. But what about fire fighters who may be in the building when the flammable storage cabinets give way? The very real possibility is they may delay fighting the fire until they know the risk of an explosion is minimal. By this time, the building may be a total loss. Even worse, if your STEM building catches fire, other buildings nearby are also likely at risk. Many European manufacturers build flammable storage cabinets to a 90-minute burn test. Now there is time for firefighters to not only save neighboring buildings but your STEM building also.

Considerations for Award

Consider inviting multiple teams to present proposals for your project. This is especially useful if you have a challenge to address, such as a difficult space on which to build. Innovative teams create innovative solutions if given adequate time. What you get, though, is a creative team that will demonstrate unique solutions. The give and take during presentations tells you much about how collaborative and innovative they really are. After their presentation ask them to describe other challenging projects they’ve had.

Another example of innovation comes from the government. One procedure for contractor selection by the U.S. federal government is managed under FAR, the Federal Acquisition Regulation [FAR]. Part of the FAR process is known as Contractor Performance Information. Past performance of the contractor is relevant in selection for future projects. Categories in which contractors are rated— creating a cumulative score, including all past projects of the contractor—include on-time performance, meeting specifications and standards of good workmanship, forecasting and controlling costs, integrity and business ethics and concern for the interest of the customer.

Ask for specifics about how the design team and contractor approve sub-contractors and vendors. Have they visited factories of key vendors? Do they have a record of past performance of those vendors on their projects? How do those vendors handle shortage and breakage? Do they keep factory capacity for short turnaround or does it go out months to the end of their order queue? Have they stopped approving a firm due to poor performance? Getting your project done on time is dependent on the answers.

A Final Value Engineering Concept

Here’s one last “Value Engineering” idea. You may consider holding back some of your budget for unknown risks or issues that come up during the initial design and beginning of construction. As the project progresses and the risks lessen, you can release these funds for the benefit of the facility such as a new, more expensive floor covering which greatly decreases maintenance costs but was originally ruled out due to cost. Another idea for upgrading lab furniture systems to give upper-level students a richer research experience may be state-of-the-art instruments to better prepare students for real-world jobs. Whatever their ideas, together select those which will give you the best return on your investment.

About the Authors
David Withee is President of Withee Works LLC and advisor to Rotarex Firedetec North America; he can be reached at Michael McSweeney, Sales Manager of Rotarex Firedetec North America, can also be contacted with questions at

James Contratto is VP of McCarthy Building Companies Inc. Both have served multiple times as members of the R&D Magazine Laboratory of the Year judging panel.