Biosciences Research Building: National University of Ireland, Galway

Energy Efficient Laboratory on a Budget

© Warren Jagger Photography

Sited in a rolling meadow in Galway, Ireland, with uninterrupted views in four directions, the Biosciences Research Building (BRB) is the first phase of a new North Campus Science Precinct at the National University of Ireland, Galway (NUIG). The BRB provides high technology science research space dedicated to cancer research, regenerative medicine, chemical biology and animal research (biosafety level 3), and is one of the most energy-efficient research buildings dedicated to such an intense scientific agenda. It was also constructed for an extremely low cost per square foot ($413), as compared to similar facilities, which typically cost $600 to $800/ft2. This low cost per square foot was crucial to the success of the project as it was designed and built during the depths of the economic depression in Ireland.

At the outset of conceptual design, the client’s cost estimator established an aggressive construction budget of $450/ft2 (U.S.). During the depths of the Irish economic collapse, austerity measures were in place, and the design of the building could not appear to be excessive or wasteful in any way. This ethos also permeated the approach to the building’s energy efficiency, which meant the design team was prudent with its approach to the building’s energy use and its relationship to the architecture. Mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and fire protection systems typically represent 40% to 45% of the cost of research buildings, and, therefore, provided the best opportunity to realize value while striving for a high-performance building.

Passive strategies such as water reclamation, harnessing the building’s internal loads for heating, natural ventilation for cooling, daylighting and the zoning of program elements according to mechanical intensity, cumulatively worked to simplify the design, achieving a superior level of performance and driving down the cost. For example, the decision to rely on natural ventilation dramatically simplified the mechanical design, eliminating the perimeter system altogether.

The BRB is one of three buildings designed under one contract; the largest public building contract at its time in Ireland. To stimulate the economy as quickly as possible, the BRB was designed and constructed using a fast-track design-build process to get the project up and running as quickly as possible. This challenge focused the design team because the brevity of the design time frame forced a clarity of ideas and concepts both in the layout of the building and systems.

For example, the concepts of the thermal sweater and natural ventilation were envisioned from Day 1, and carried throughout the project. As a result of this focus, the BRB is one of the most energy efficient research laboratories in the world; it is also beautiful in its simplicity, where every element has its precise purpose and economy.

The BRB represents a “minimum energy” approach that has been rarely applied in U.S.-based laboratories with the same rigor, due to perceptions of comfort and safety in a research environment regarding natural ventilation for offices zones, writing carrels and public spaces. Traditionally, the write-up zones have been inside the lab and are treated as such with high air change rates, temperature control, etc. This project is perhaps the first that naturally ventilates the write-up area.

This approach, coupled with efficient HVAC system for the lab areas that are mechanically ventilated, leads to the substantial reduction in energy compared with a traditional lab.

Two large open lab suites face the River Corrib, and are bisected by a three-story atrium. Office suites, connected on three levels with a communicating stair, bookend the plan. These three seams of vertical communities within the linear plan enhance collaboration and provide a sense of place for the scientists. The BRB is a simple, thin, linear walk-up bar building, where the slight cant of its mass mirrors the profile and geometry of the neighboring River Corrib, which also shapes the form of the new precinct and establishes both a strong campus edge and a new pedestrian thoroughfare, connecting the new science precinct with the heart of the historic campus.

Building Zoning/HVAC Approach

An initial goal of the BRB was to design a landmark building for cutting-edge research in terms of program efficiency, energy conservation and thermal comfort. This led to a “minimum energy” approach that resulted in a superior working environment with a radically lower energy profile. The building block that allows this to happen is a “layered lab” concept with a high/low energy strategy, which places the most mechanically intensive spaces such as tissue culture and imaging suites, into a zone adjacent to the open lab space. Designed in 2009, the BRB was one of the first labs in the world to implement this new planning strategy.

Low energy use spaces, such as writing carrels, offices and interaction spaces are grouped along the perimeter to lower ventilation rates and optimize the opportunity for ample natural ventilation and daylighting. The “layered lab” concept also achieves a programmatic efficiency creating a compact and productive layout comprised of reconfigurable benches, coupled with lab support rooms. The increase in programmatic efficiency allowed the research to grow by 33% by increasing lab density from 2 to 3 bench positions per lab bench. This was achieved without a change to the building footprint, dramatically reducing the energy consumption per bench position.

© Warren Jagger Photography

Operable windows allow the west facing thermal corridor to breathe and give the façade a dynamic presence.


The design embraces the moderate climate of Ireland. By locating low-load spaces along the perimeter of the building, the project is able to take advantage of natural ventilation as the sole conditioning strategy for the majority of the year and is supplemented less than 10% of the year with radiant heating. Due to this approach, 45% of this intensive research building is able to function without mechanical ventilation. High operable windows are controlled by the building automation system to maintain comfortable temperatures and minimum ventilation, while lower casement windows are controlled by the occupants to allow adjustment to meet individual comfort needs.

While research buildings are typically internally load-driven buildings, the integration of a sun control strategy that was tuned to each orientation was an important component to control solar gain given the desire to eliminate mechanical cooling from the low-load perimeter spaces. There was careful detailing for a tight thermal envelope (R-value 28) to impede heat loss in the cooler months in order to minimize the need for supplemental heating. To deal with the long western façade of the building, a “thermal corridor” acts as a buffer, or “sweater,” between the interior and exterior. The thermal corridor was allowed to have an expanded temperature range (55°F to 85°F) to mediate between the closely controlled thermal environment of the lab and the exterior. The wooden slats integrated into the curtainwall create more filtered light and reduce glare, a chronic condition at this latitude.

Lighting Strategy

Daylight, natural ventilation and access to views were some of the biggest drivers in the shaping of the BRB and core design tenants. While traditional research buildings are typically comprised of a deep floor plate with many occupied spaces having no access to the exterior, the BRB started with a long, thin 70 ft width linear, narrow massing to maximize access to daylight. Most typical buildings of similar typology are 100 ft to 120 ft in width, allowing for a much greater reduction in lighting energy from the daylight harvesting than typically seen. Daylight autonomy was achieved for 52% of the occupied areas (based on design).

This was further reinforced by a layered transparency of glass partitions between the write-up zone and lab spaces to allow for views out from 100% of the occupied area, excluding light-sensitive lab support areas. Spaces also were aligned to allow for view corridors throughout the building.

© Warren Jagger Photography

Chemical Biology Laboratory. In the hood-intense chemistry labs, the transparent layered lab concept is maintained along with the high/low energy concept.

Energy Use

Based on early energy models to minimize carbon emissions, the team arrived at a predicted EUI of 133 kBtu/ft2 annually. This is particularly significant when considering that 85% of the space in the building is “lab use,” and that about of one-third of the “lab use” space is fume hood intensive chemical biology and vivarium. When comparing this energy usage to the baseline of comparable projects from Labs21 benchmarking data (average 505 kBtu/ft2), the BRB yields a savings of about 74% annually, which is remarkable for such a research intensive facility that is so densely occupied. In fact, 89% of the building is used for research space.
Since the building opened in October 2013, monthly metered utility usage of systems show the project is operating as designed. The project is operating at an EUI of 143 kBtu/ft2, or a 72% reduction in energy usage from peer research buildings. Because of the mechanical intensity of the research labs such as the BRB, the energy saved in comparison to the Labs21 baseline is equivalent to the annual energy use of 400 houses per year in Ireland, which is comparable to a large residential subdivision.


The average annual rainfall in Ireland is over 50 in. per year. The local requirements were to size the system to the 100-year storm with a 10% increase for climate change, as well as shorter intense storms that can drop rain at the rate 6 in./hr on the site. To deal with these large quantities of water, the team designed a stormwater management system with a series of treatment options.

Porous paving and bioswales pretreat and infiltrate much of the rainfall, and then overflow to an underground filtration and attenuation system then filters 100% of the stormwater and slowly releases 25% of the rainfall in a 110% of the 100-year storm, exceeding local stormwater requirements and replicating the site’s natural hydrology.

In addition, the BRB captures rainwater off the building roof for the flush fixture and other building uses, meeting 100% of the flush fixture demand. Coupled with dual-flush toilets and low flow fixtures, the building uses 75% less water than the LEED 2009 baseline. A low maintenance landscape was designed to require no irrigation, further minimizing the building’s demand on potable water supplies.

© Warren Jagger Photography

An indigenous render shell floating above a dark basalt limestone base clads the offices and laboratories.


The BRB is a prototypical project that minimizes the environmental impact of materials, maximizes building performance and optimizes the occupant comfort. For example, the precast concrete superstructure contains the 30% ground granulated blast-furnace slag resulting in the saving of 3,221 gigajoules of embodied energy. The superstructure was also pre-fabricated off-site to reduce the carbon footprint and minimize construction waste.

Finishes were selected to minimize the amount of energy/pollution required to manufacture, ship to site and erect. The basalt stone, steamed beech millwork, exterior and stucco and curtainwall were all locally sourced. The result is a building that minimizes the impact of its materials on the environment, while creating a material palate that embraces the Irish climate and views of the surrounding landscape.

Offices and write up zones are clad in a render shell, with horizontal bands of windows to capture the views and reveals the open loft aesthetic on the interior. Along the base of the building, an indigenous black basalt limestone is used to dignify the pedestrian realm with a tactile material, but also to allow the render shell to appear to “float” above the base. The thermal corridor facing west is clad in a continuous curtainwall (made of glass with wood inserts), which protects the interior from glare on the harsh western exposure and provides the building with a radiant material presence on its most public face.


The BRB was conceived by the National University of Ireland, Galway at the outset of the recession to invest in facilities that have synergies with the local biomedical/pharmaceutical industry and the potential to create new employment opportunities. The BRB provides a vital link between the “town and the gown,” both in the nature of the research, which spans national and international frontiers, and the architectural embodiment of a new ideal of “transparency of function.” •

About the Authors
Andrea Love, AIA, LEED Fellow, is director of building scientist/associate principal, Payette. Kevin Sullivan, FAIA, is president/CEO, Payette.

Read More About Biosciences Research Building

Web Exclusive: Q&A With the Authors
Lessons Learned for Biosciences Research Building

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