Smart Labs Toolkit

New Construction

Photo of the ESIF building at NREL.

Energy Systems Integration Facility (ESIF) at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Photo credit: Dennis Schroeder / NREL

Pursuing the construction of a new laboratory facility is a unique opportunity to incorporate Smart Labs principles. A Smart Labs facility will save an organization time and money throughout the lifetime of the building, leaving a dynamic system of controls that will create enhanced safety, energy efficiency, and resiliency.

To guide research institutions in translating Smart Lab principles presented throughout the Toolkit in new laboratory construction projects, this section includes a version of the Smart Labs process adapted for new construction.


Requirements Document

Drafting a requirements document that outlines the scope, schedule, and budget of the project is a good starting point for any new construction project.

View an example of a Scope of Work for the National Renewable Energy Lab's Energy Systems Integration Facility, including goals for energy performance, which was which was named Lab of the Year 2014 by R&D Magazine.


Before designing a new laboratory building, the institution should first determine the need for a new facility. The Scope section of the requirements document should justify the decision for the new construction, identifying needs that cannot be met through existing facilities. The scope also defines the Smart Labs safety and energy performance goals for the new project.


From the first planning stage to the final construction documents, the Smart Labs team should ensure the designs for the new construction will provide a safe work environment for occupants for all intended research activities. In defining safety goals, the requirements document should outline:

  • Range of potential intended research activities that the new facility will host
  • Flexibility in system capacity to account for potential changes research needs
  • Resilience of facility in emergency situations (See Resilience Assessment.)

Energy Performance Goals

Energy-efficient laboratory design often goes hand in hand with safety, because the air flow is contained in fume hoods and equipment is turned off when not in use.

Energy-performance-based acquisition is the process of considering well-defined energy performance goals and incentives for the entire building life cycle, including planning, design, construction, and operation.

There are several ways to establish energy performance goals for new buildings.

  • Benchmark Goals: One of the most specific and verifiable energy standards is total energy consumption, which is usually expressed in British Thermal Units per square foot per year (Btu/ft2·yr). Use the online Labs21 Energy Benchmarking tool to compare energy consumption model of the new facility with that of more than 700 campus facilities.

  • Ratings and Certifications: Another increasingly common approach is to certify a rating organization such as the U.S. Green Buildings Council Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). In this case, the design team will consist of professionals who are certified in this system for scoring up to 10 points under the LEED Energy and Atmosphere Credit. Labs21 publishes a voluntary Environmental Performance Criteria that coordinates with and extends LEED ratings to set appropriate and specific recommendations for laboratory buildings.

  • Standards: The most common standards are published by the American Society for Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) and the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America (IESNA): ASHRAE–IESNA 90.1 latest version. ASHRAE bases these standards on consensus-based input from many stakeholders, so the goals can be readily achieved. Organizations that want to set more ambitious goals thus often set them at a percentage of this standard. For example, the federal government recommends energy performance goals at 30% below the latest version of ASHRAE–IENSA 90.1.

    The design and build team can use many strategies to meet its energy performance goals; these can be reviewed in detail under Labs21 Case Studies. Similarly, there are a number of methods for verifying that a new building will meet its energy performance goals during construction, during occupancy, and at the end of its useful life.

  • Simulations: The simplest approach is to require designers and builders to use computer programs called energy simulations to substantiate that energy performance goals are being met throughout the design and build process. Because of diverse process loads and ventilation rates laboratories are difficult to model accurately. I2SL has developed Laboratory Modeling Guideline using ASHRAE 90.1-2019 Appendix G to provide guidance in laboratory energy simulations. Usually these simulations are required as deliverables for the design and build contracts.

  • Commissioning: A more thorough approach is to check the settings against factory specifications and measure the performance of all energy-consuming equipment before the building is occupied. This process, called commissioning, can then be undertaken again, later in the building's life or at regular intervals.

Learn more about a typical energy-performance-based project.


Outline the timeline for the new construction project, highlighting any important deadlines that must be met throughout the design and construction of the facility.


In setting a budget for the new construction project, estimate how the implementation of cost savings will impact the institution in the long term. Working with the design team, use an energy model of the new construction project to visualize how building measures will affect energy use of the laboratory facility and result in significant long-term cost savings. Performing a detailed cost analysis of different high-performance design strategies will impact operational and maintenance costs in the future and will inform key decisions in the design process.

Some funding opportunities may be available for new construction. See Project Funding and Bidding Process for more information.

In developing a requirements document, reference the Smart Lab design guidelines. Other relevant resources for defining requirements for new construction include:

Building the Design Team

Much like building the Smart Labs Team, the design team should be carefully selected. Finding the right contractor within the project budget can be a daunting task. Each organization may have its own process for selecting a contractor for specific projects. In any case, discuss the balance between quality of work and cost carefully with the Smart Labs team and laboratory stakeholders to determine the best contractor for the project's needs. Furthermore, in selecting contractors for the new facility, it is important to identify a preferred design process: design-build or design-bid-build.

Design Build for New Construction

Design Build is a comprehensive process of planning, design, constructions and other services under one contract for the owner. The dynamic nature of high-performance laboratories requires the integration of Smart Lab principles from the beginning of the design process, making the design-build process especially successful in the construction of Smart Labs.

Additional benefits identified by labs that have used the design build process:

  • Manage risks better
  • Anticipate and plan for changes
  • Improve value received on a project
  • Potential project schedule reduction and reduced change orders


The Assess phase for new construction is the design phase. The Smart Labs team should work directly with the design team early on to ensure Smart Lab design principles are integrated to provide a safe work environment for lab personnel while still achieving high-performance goals.

Throughout the new construction project, important stakeholders should be included in key decisions. See Project Management for more on roles of stakeholders throughout the process.

Design of a new facility follows the following process:

  1. Development of schematic design
    Initial design concepts are developed in an iterative process that involves active dialogue and engagement among all members of the design team.

    Each design decision impacts energy-efficiency and safety. An integrated, dynamic “systems approach” that considers potential variability in loads due to architectural changes and occupant-use cases in mechanical and electrical systems design is fundamental to success.

    Engineering design specifications should be included in the design packages. See Develop Engineering Design Specifications for more information.

    A schematic design should be reached after many iterations and is still subject to change throughout the rest of the design process.

  2. Design development packages and reviews
    After the initial development of a schematic design, the design team presents different design packages that are reviewed by all stakeholders in the new construction. More iterations of the design will be developed based on reviews until a final design is reached. The energy simulations should be updated as the design changes to assure that energy performance goals are being met.

  3. Construction documents
    Once a final design is developed, construction documents are drafted. Some design features may be altered upon necessity and final additions should be carefully reviewed.

Learn more about the design phase in a new construction project from the case study, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Efficiently Energizes their Integrative Genomics Building.


The Optimize phase of new construction involves executing the scope of work: constructing the new facility.

Once the new laboratory facility is constructed, the building will be optimized through the commissioning, testing and balancing of building systems. Guidelines for optimizing operations can be found in the Optimize section under Optimize Operations.

Further guidelines on establishing a new baseline through benchmarking, performance management, and data analytics can also be found in the Optimize section of the Toolkit.


Once constructed and commissioned, a building management plan should be developed for the new high-performance laboratory facility.

Guidelines for managing the newly constructed facility are outlined in the Manage section of the Toolkit.