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Prefab lab systems: Concepts to optimize construction, maintenance, and flexibility

December 10, 2018

By Shawn Maley

Prefabricating multiple elements in the new Yale University Science Building eases construction and helps future-proof the research laboratory

The only constant in research is change. For this reason, flexible facilities (including the systems that support these spaces) are crucial. This is especially important to leading institutions looking to remain competitive in their fields.

Modularity and repetition have been shown to yield great gains in the flexibility of science and technology projects. We’re taking this concept a step further by using prefabrication in the design and construction of the Laboratory Services portion of Yale University’s newest Science Building. This tactic—which is gaining popularity in the multi-family, hospitality, and healthcare building sectors—has the potential to provide value for science and technology projects of the future.

The Yale Science Building designed by Stantec in association with Pelli Clarke Pelli.

The Yale Science Building, which Stantec designed in association with Pelli Clarke Pelli, will house the university’s interdisciplinary research laboratories focused on molecular, cellular, and developmental biology and atomic, molecular, and optical physics. The seven-story, 277,550-square-foot project is designed to be a state-of-the-art research facility that includes open flexible labs, physics labs, and a rooftop greenhouse.

Some of the most important elements of this advanced facility are the areas that aren’t on display. One of Yale’s chief mandates for this new building was flexibility in design, including the supporting systems, to accommodate fast-moving changes in research.

Predictability leads to flexibility

While the Yale Science Building features many specialized areas, a good portion of the project is comprised of high-tech open labs with a purposely repetitive design that supports Yale’s goal of flexibility. When designing a project like this, I often think of my Uncle Tony who was blinded at a young age but continued to successfully run a farm with his brother. I remember once watching him weld a bracket to a pump (amazingly well) when I asked him how he did it. His answer, “I keep things organized.”

Over the years I’ve applied this philosophy to my architectural and laboratory planning career and am proud to say our teams have successfully delivered organization and consistency in lab spaces using modular approaches. This repeatability in planning and design creates flexibility as benches and equipment can be moved, modified, removed, and reinstalled in a plug-and-play format to give institutions the power of customization.

It’s vital to develop and embrace design solutions that enhance infrastructural longevity, promote ease of maintenance, and mitigate change to be simple fit-outs and not full renovations.

While we’ve been able to create consistency in the lab, this puzzle hasn’t been as easy to solve above the ceiling. Increasingly, our clients’ research is requiring more complex and increasingly adaptable lab-service systems, making labs more challenging to construct and maintain. With the increased number of buildings systems, it’s nearly impossible to organize and control the intricate engineering components above the ceiling. Because of that, we’ve focused on designing systems with repeatability that aligns with that of the labs below, where each repetitive piece should be in the same place, every time. The problem, however, is that there is still room for varying interpretations of drawings or fabrication methods, creating sometimes drastic differences once installations are complete.

This disparity between design documentation and field installation set our team on a path to find a solution that would guarantee consistency for the Yale Science Building, as well as future projects.

The power of prefab

Inspired by the control generated by prefab construction in other sectors, we explored how these concepts could be utilized and adapted to optimize lab service organization above the ceiling.  

As Pelli Clarke Pelli was developing their conceptual design options, our interdisciplinary team would analyze each option for prefab opportunities. This information was then used to tweak the design. Ultimately, we established a layout of eight repeating lab modules per floor. Each of these were designed to be modular across each mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) discipline with future capacity and routing built into the design and documentation. The intent was to establish repetitive single trade components within each MEP discipline to facilitate shop-based fabrication during construction.

A breakdown of typical floor prefab concepts at the Yale Science Building.

In addition to the modular design, we designed multi-trade rack assemblies within the building’s two primary corridors. The multi-trade rack is composed of a modular structural frame with a custom assembly for the mechanical, plumbing, electrical, fire protection, and telecommunication components. In the final design we utilized 19 multi-trade racks per floor (86 total assemblies) that were constructed off-site, delivered to the field, and lifted into place. The contractor’s production schedule delivered seven 20-foot assemblies to the site at once on a specialized truck, with a dedicated team installing up to four assemblies per day. This resulted in over 80 feet of corridor mains installed per day, with a team a fraction of the size of that needed on a typical installation.

The multi-trade rack features a modular structural frame with a custom assembly for the standardized MEP components.

Similar to the multi-trade corridor rack assemblies, we designed the lab service risers as prefabricated assemblies. With the creative ideas and suggestions from the mechanical contractor, the team was able to integrate the main building piping and ductwork risers as prefab assemblies.

Early in preconstruction the mechanical contractor recommended prefabricating the 18-inch diameter chilled water lines, 12-inch diameter steam lines, and main duct risers. These riser assemblies were built off-site in 90-foot lengths, delivered to the site on specialized trucks, then threaded into the superstructure via crane before finally being welded into place. Although the total fabrication and installation hours are similar, the prefabrication method reduced the on-site construction by 960 hours—from a traditional 1,100 hours to just 140 hours. This shorted the on-site installation time to two days compared to the seven weeks required for the traditional approach.

The 90-foot risers are delivered to the project site.

Benefits of prefab

Aside from design consistency and efficiency in on-site work hours, we found that using this prefab system at the Yale Science building yielded many other benefits:

  • Safety: By building elements off-site in a shop, you have the benefit of a controlled environment where elements can be assembled in a more ergonomically friendly way. This process creates greater engineering controls to reduce the safety risks associated with traditional construction.
  • Quality: Fabrication in a controlled environment and the ability to use machinery lends itself well to ensuring a standard level of quality with consistent testing and inspection before parts reach the field. It also facilitates dedicated on-site and off-site multi-trade crews, each specializing in repetitive tasks.
  • Cost and schedule: While users can expect an increased upfront cost for the prefabricated assemblies, there is a savings in the overall production and general conditions.
  • Sustainability: By shop fabricating the assemblies, we were able to capitalize on established material management and recycling programs to reduce waste and limit the number of deliveries to the site. During construction, this reduces the number of interruptions to Yale’s campus and the surrounding neighborhoods, which is a huge benefit to the operations.
  • Operations: It was especially helpful during prefab assembly development to involve Yale’s building facilities team. During the mock-up reviews they were able to provide input before the racks were finalized and installed, avoiding unexpected changes. This also allowed the group to get familiarized early on with the assemblies, the repetitive access locations, and future expansion capabilities.

Of course, these benefits come with careful planning and collaboration with the entire project team. Through this process, I’ve found that it’s essential to incorporate prefabrication concepts early in the planning process and to develop a system of design guidelines. It’s also important to involve the construction managers and trades contractors as early as possible, since they can help develop creative solutions that can increase the benefits in safety, schedule, cost, and quality. It’s vital to develop and embrace design solutions that enhance infrastructural longevity, promote ease of maintenance, and mitigate change to be simple fit-outs and not full renovations.

  • Shawn Maley

    Shawn has designed client spaces in the education, corporate, light industrial, and government sectors. His specialization is in laboratory planning, and he serves on a board of directors that supports emerging leaders in Butler County.

    Contact Shawn
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