Smart Lab Retrofit at UC Irvine’s Medical Sciences Building C

The high energy demands and complexity of campus laboratory buildings make them usual suspects for campuses seeking opportunities for reducing energy consumption and utility costs. A project team at UC Irvine creatively combined funding for deferred maintenance and energy savings with a design-build retrofit that uses many strategies from UCI’s Smart Laboratories program, a demonstration project of the U.S. Department of Energy ‘Better Buildings Challenge.’ This program aims to improve energy efficiency in campus labs by 50 percent.

This smart lab retrofit addressed needs for deferred maintenance coupled with energy efficiency measures, reducing exhaust and ventilation energy use while increasing laboratory safety.

At UCI's Medical Sciences Building C, built in 1978, integrated retrofit measures serve as a useful examples of the Smart Labs program. The project team upgraded to variable air volume (VAV) digital controls with new reheat coils throughout, and installed drop ceilings to reduce room volumes. A demand-control ventilation system was implemented to adjust supply and exhaust ventilation based on air quality sensor data, and on occupancy data from a new integrated lighting system.


View of roof with net exhaust stack design.

Demand-control ventilation is central to the Smart Labs program, as conventional laboratory ventilation rates may be as high as eight to twelve air changes per hour (ACH). At Medical Sciences C the ventilation rates now range from four to six ACH during occupied periods, and as low as two ACH during unoccupied times. Together with equipment upgrades, the average airflow in the building has been reduced by 60 percent compared to pre-retrofit rates, as calculated by comparing exhaust fan discharge volumes to measurements taken before the project.

Several improvements enhance user safety and awareness. A system of ‘red buttons’ to be pressed in case of spills will increase the ventilation rate to the maximum. Room pressure monitors show users both the air change rate and whether the lab is maintaining negative pressure compared to other spaces. Color-coded alarms and visual text indicators show users if conditions are unsafe.


View of a typical laboratory space with fume hood.

During the design process, the exhaust stack redesign was developed using a wind tunnel study to establish stack heights that would ensure safe lab exhaust discharge. The study tested stack heights and configurations that would function under expected wind speeds and directions, without requiring the use of a bypass damper.

The retrofit commissioning process was informed using the cloud-based SkySpark building data analytics software platform, the first use of this technology at UCI for a major retrofit. This tool integrates and centralizes data from various sources, improves data visualization and helps to identify potential problems. The project commissioning agent has already used the tool to identify and resolve hundreds of control issues that might have otherwise been missed.


Detail of exhaust stacks.

Additional building upgrades included new air handling units and exhaust fans that were at the end of their useful lives, LED lighting, and a full roof replacement. New lighting motion sensors were integrated with the HVAC system to inform ventilation rates and reset temperature setpoints based on occupancy.

A key component of success for the project was early and in-depth engagement with department chairs and laboratory researchers working in the building. The design team met with researchers to understand the intended use of spaces, and to discuss the retrofit’s goals and its potential impacts. They held town-hall style meetings to communicate the scope and timeline to all building users and other interested parties. In retrospect, the project team notes that addressing issues and opening communication channels early in the design process ensured a smooth construction process and reduced the risk of occupant dissatisfaction.

Images courtesy of UCI.

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Green Features
  • 38.4% improvement on 2013 Title 24 baseline
  • Upgraded to VAV system with digital controls that provide demand control ventilation on a zone-by-zone basis
  • Overall average reduction in building airflow by 60%
  • Commissioning using SkySpark data analytics
  • Integration of ventilation control with lighting occupancy sensors
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