Energy Efficiency in the Modern Lab: UC San Diego Tata Hall for the Sciences

By Taylor Hsiao

Research laboratories are one of the most energy intensive building types, with consumption driven by demanding HVAC requirements, safety requirements and the fact that the buildings run 24/7. This poses a challenge for architects and mechanical engineers in constructing a new laboratory facility, but it also creates opportunities for tremendous energy savings not available in other building types.

Tata Hall for the Sciences at UC San Diego is a new seven-story, 130,000-sf building housing chemistry and biology research and teaching laboratories, a leading nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy laboratory, and an auditorium for symposia. Its three floors of biology and floor of chemistry research facilities are state-of-the-art, intended to attract and recruit new talent. The building also provides a purpose-built home for the Center for NMR Spectroscopy & Imaging of Proteins. Rounding out the program are two floors of chemistry and biology teaching labs. The project will be completed in September 2018, with the first class starting in Spring 2019.

Rendering of south facade

Architecturally, the building is sited narrowly between the existing Pacific Hall and Recreational Gym buildings. The siting preserves open space and allows for better daylighting in the laboratory spaces. The existing Urey Green open space is leveled out and completely redesigned as a space to encourage academic collaboration in a new plaza where events can be held. The narrow footprint allows the building to be sited further west to take advantage of ocean views, which can be enjoyed from the terrace and the upper offices.

Site plan

In recognition that many scientific breakthroughs occur across disciplines and through serendipity, the floor plan of the research labs break out of the standard lab layout. Traditionally, laboratory work benches are arranged linearly with associated procedures rooms running in parallel. Placing the laboratory work benches together in an open work area and pushing the procedure rooms to the end of the building facilitates interaction among the scientists.

Research floor plan

Energy conservation was identified a priority from the start of the project by both UC San Diego and CO Architects. Working closely with Affiliated Engineers, the project achieved a 27% reduction in energy consumption. To achieve this extremely aggressive target, many energy conserving strategies were utilized.


The first step to developing an energy-conserving building is to develop an energy efficient floor plan. The west and east are the most challenging orientations in terms of solar heat gain. In the morning and evening, the sun will come into the building nearly horizontally and is difficult to control with shade structures. As a result, the two facades are reduced to small ends of the building’s rectangular footprint. The north and south facades are maximized, as they provide the best daylight. The south facade is subject to great heat gain, but this is offset by locating the general circulation corridor to the south half of the building, eliminating heat gain from direct sunlight in the occupied rooms. In the procedure rooms and shaft space, where daylighting was not desired, a solid insulated facade reduces heat gain. A white honeycomb grating is integrated intermittently into the south facade to diffuse and direct more daylight deep into the space. Floor-to-ceiling glazing on the north facade maximizes daylighting.

White honeycomb grating


The east and west facades are the most challenging facades from an architectural and energy standpoint. They are subject to sunlight that enters the building at a very shallow angle, making it very difficult to control without obscuring views. For this reason, functions that do not require views are typically placed at these orientations. As the best views are at these two orientations, it was decided to places researchers offices at the west side with an ocean view, and place the post-doctorate offices at the east side with a view over the campus. Electrochromic glazing by Sage Glass was selected to regulate the amount of light and heat gain. Electrochromic glazing, a technological glazing with a tint that is electrically controlled from a clear state to a very dark tint. The glazing will normally be at a clear or lightly tinted state, and will darken in the morning at the east facade and in the evening at the west facade. A study by AEI shows that the reduction in heat gain is projected to be as much as a 52%. Electrochromic glazing regulates the quality of the light as well. Each panel of glazing is divided into a separate top, middle and bottom section. Depending on the location of the occupant and the elevation of the sun, the glazing will automatically tint to eliminate glare without  obscuring daylight.

Electrochromic sectional diagram

Displacement Air

This project has a two spaces with high 25′ ceilings. These spaces are a challenge from a heating and cooling point of view. The usual strategy of heating and cooling a space from above and at velocity would be inefficient, especially as both of these spaces are faced with full-height glazing. Instead, displacement air is provided to reduce energy consumption. Displacement air, frequently used in theater or large assembly spaces, utilizes a low-velocity, high-volume of conditioned air supplied at the ground directly to the occupants. The air above the floor is allowed to heat up and is removed at the ceiling.


Displacement air sectional diagram

Perforated metal screens cover displacement air vents.

Chilled Beams

Tata Hall uses chilled beams to cool the majority of the spaces. A chilled beam system provides cooling and heating at the diffuser, instead of supplying through air in the ductwork. This requires the ductwork to provide only required fresh air, not heating and cooling. The approach provides energy savings in two ways: there is an overall reduction of building volume to cool and heat, as the ductwork is smaller, and the size of the fan needed to push fresh air through the building can also be reduced.

Chilled Beam Diagram

Tata Hall will serve a test case and model for energy conservation in laboratory design. The building utilizes several innovative energy saving technologies, which will likely see greater adoption in the future. CO Architects and AEI will monitor the performance of the occupied building to verify the value of the technologies employed, and will carry this experience into future projects to support our commitment to energy conservation.

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