Selected Highlights of the Labs21 2010 Annual Conference

Do Less. With Less. Get More. Building High-Containment Laboratories in Challenging Economies—Mexico, India, and (Now) the United States

Ana Coppinger and Rainey Bice, AIA, LEED AP, Smith Carter Architects and Engineers Incorporated


Recent events such as SARS and H1N1 have sharpened our collective awareness that "…humans and animals [and the viruses they carry] now move around the planet at biological warp-speed."1 In this warp speed world, one constant is that, economically, we are not equal. How then do we ensure that all nations are able to build and operate biocontainment facilities without sacrificing biosurety?2

Faced with insufficient and unreliable infrastructures and resources, inaccessibility to modern technology, nonexistent operating budgets, and decreased funding support, developing nations such as Mexico and India are at a great disadvantage. Or are they? The heightened mobility of disease has increased the demand for the surveillance, storage, diagnosis, and research of dangerous pathogens. Recession economies have placed the first world in comparable economic distress in building and operation of biocontainment laboratories. These laboratories, operationally much more demanding than other facilities, need to meet stringent health and safety requirements to ensure safeguarding against epidemiological threat.

If strategies are not found to ensure minimal building and operating costs, necessary projects in first or developing countries may not be built, remain underutilized, or be completely unused due to lack of operating funds. In this regard, sustainable development is the great equalizer. Sound social and environmental strategies can be adopted by projects regardless of a particular economic landscape. Whether rooted in first world or developing countries, sustainable development expects that projects maximize available resources to continue indefinitely.

Environmental strategies are actually quite simple to explore and implement. There exists a body of knowledge on how to design passively, minimizing engineered solutions through appropriate building orientation, material selection, harvesting of natural resources, etc. These strategies represent 80 percent of the total energy reduction for any building type.3 Often there is a residual requirement for "a bit" of technology to meet the specific needs of a particular program.

For biocontainment laboratories, this "bit" is more of a "chunk" and is generally associated with redundancy and fail safes that respond to increased risk assessments. This last "chunk" of technology is the crucial differentiator between first and developing countries. In developing countries, the "chunk" of technology is not sustainable, and if implemented represents a disproportionally high dollar value relative to acquisition, maintenance, and operation. How do we reduce the technology "chunks" to a manageable level without sacrificing biosurety?

People are the "it" resource that all countries share regardless of economic limitations. In the first world, we traditionally engineer out humans, or better, human error. Technology is perceived to be more reliable than humans. Developing countries do not have this luxury, so by necessity, they leverage the human resource available to them. Sound social strategies involving education, training, regulations, and public understanding of scientific and technological risk support nations in implementing biosurety and operational models. These standards place people front and center during early development of programming, planning, and design.

Responding to a "people first" philosophy for our work in Mexico and India has led us to explore various strategies that shift the operational balance in favour of protocols that are people-centered as opposed to building systems that are technology-centered. Strategies implemented include protocol mapping4 and lean programming based on science, risk, and procedure. These strategies have resulted in effective reductions to building areas and consequently engineered system loads, reduction of water use for costly wash down, and decontamination protocols and effective zoning and segregating of critical activities and services, which facilitate partial shut downs when a facility is not at full capacity.

We have been able to do less, with less, and get more.

1Virus hunter Nathan Wolf; 2009 TED Conference lecture.

2Refers to the combined goals of biosafety and biosecurity standards.

3Heating, Cooling, Lighting: Sustainable Design Methods for Architects Norbert Lechner 3rd edition ©2009. Chapter 1, Heating, Cooling and Lighting as Form Givers in Architecture. The three tier approach to the sustainability design of heating cooling and lighting: Tier 1 Basic Building Design, Tier 2 Passive Systems, Tier 3 Mechanical Equipment (bit or chunk).

4Refers to a method of documenting and diagramming how, when, and with what resources scientific work will be executed focusing on the flows of personnel, materials, and waste necessary for each activity. This assists in highlighting where procedural efficiencies, savings, reductions are possible.


Ana R. Coppinger, a captivating and engaging speaker, has been a sustainable designer and high-containment laboratory planner at Smith Carter Architects and Engineers for more than 15 years. Her project involvement in the past 10 years has been almost exclusively research and diagnostic laboratory design. She is conversant with the guidelines and standards for human and veterinary laboratories, specializing in animal health issues.

Ms. Coppinger received her bachelor's degree in environmental studies and her Masters of Architecture.

Rainey Bice is an accomplished laboratory planner with extensive experience in laboratory and animal facility programming and design. Ms. Bice has specialized in the implementation of Imaging Modalities and other technically complex equipment within high-containment facilities for clients such as the National Institutes of Health, Boston University, and the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases. Ms. Bice has practiced as an onsite construction administrator for several projects at Smith Carter and is well versed in the art of consultant coordination. Her most recent work for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention resulted in Building 401 surpassing its stated goal of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED®) Certification and achieving Gold status in early 2010. In addition to her design and sustainability efforts at Smith Carter, Ms. Bice serves on the Stadium Tax Allocation District Advisory Board in the City of Atlanta, which reviews and approves new developments throughout the community.