Design Focus: Sustainability

With the issue of sustainability fast becoming ubiquitous in our culture, the benefits of green design and building are prized highly by architecture, engineering and construction professionals as well as by many in the scientific community at large.

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Best Practices in Green Design

When considering the design and construction of a new laboratory space, the question of environmentally sustainable or “green” design will arise early on. With the issue of sustainability fast becoming ubiquitous in our culture, the benefits of green design and building are prized highly by architecture, engineering and construction professionals as well as by many in the scientific community at large.

In keeping with the commonly held notion of the three pillars of sustainability—people, planet and prosperity— a lab project is best approached when framed with the question “Can we design and build a new research facility that benefits all the building stakeholders and the planet as well?” And in fact, there are novel labdesign techniques that significantly reduce not only negative impact on the environment but also operational, maintenance and energy costs. Many of these approaches also create a healthy environment for the facility’s occupants, fostering such added benefits as improving the productivity and usefulness of research.

For these benefits to be realized with minimal increases in capital costs, the design approach must be fully integrated. Adding a few green elements to a traditional lab design may not only fail to yield the desired benefits but also could negatively impact other building systems. The best approach is a holistic one: integrate all design and building elements by taking a sustainable approach, from the earliest stages of planning through the operation of the facility, and by expressing the client’s mission, from the overall plan to the smallest detail.

1. Planning stage

First, it is crucial that laboratory owners, users and designers agree on project goals and parameters. Clearly articulating the specific requirements and ambitions of each stakeholder at the beginning of the design-build process is critical: you have to get everybody to the table and set the project’s priorities from the earliest stages. This can be best accomplished in a project positioning workshop held with the architect and engineer before design work has begun. Everyone present will be able to understand not only his or her individual role in the process, but also what compromises may be required and how the agreed-upon priorities may affect the achievement of individual goals.

The owner, for instance, may be confronted with the increased front-end capital costs of incorporating sustainable design features. But if the owner understands from the outset that the savings from reduced operational costs in high-performance labs will quickly offset the increase in initial outlay, he or she can be a willing, even enthusiastic partner in the development of the sustainable lab. In this way, stakeholders are less likely to ask about cutting corners and reducing costs in later project phases.

During the workshop process, a stakeholder from the facilities department may find, for instance, that the green lab will have more controls that require monitoring or learn that the lab may need to operate more closely to certain safety tolerances than another comparable facility does. The user will learn from the workshop process how staff members and technicians will function in the space and how lab equipment will be operated, such as turning off water supplies and closing fume hoods, so that control systems are working at their highest efficiency levels.

All stakeholders should benefit from participation in the workshop process, and this will also mean a greater overall benefit to the space. And in addition to the long-term cost savings enjoyed by the owner, the facilities manager will have a shorter list of responsibilities and the user will occupy a safer, healthier lab space. Of course, this workshop process will be especially successful if the meetings continue throughout all phases of design and construction.

2. Green certification and LEED

Being the first name in certification for green building, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) LEED rating program is well known, largely respected and occasionally controversial. Some owners will insist that a new facility follow LEED guidelines and file for certification. With respect to laboratories, this creates unique challenges.

Because there is no “LEED for labs” category in the program, guidelines developed for other building and project types will have to be used. A well-known example is the restructuring of the interior of a new laboratory for the Yale School of Medicine. Designed by the local New Haven architecture firm Svigals + Partners, the project received a Gold rating under the rubric of LEED for Commercial Interiors (LEEDCI) and was chosen by the USGBC as a case study for developing a LEED standard for lab renovations.

Because the category of Commercial Interiors is a rather awkward fit for a laboratory, the design team needed to constantly adjust its approach. For instance, LEED requirements for energy use are quite strict; even the application of heat-recovery units in the HVAC system put only a minor dent in the requirements. The big problem for lab energy use is ventilation: higher air exchange rates, required for the safety of building occupants, mean a higher energy load is needed.

LEED certification may not always be the best goal for laboratory design, and the LEED checklist is only one of many available systems. Stakeholders should agree early on whether LEED is project essential and also should discuss whether the project could achieve goals of sustainability that surpass LEED requirements. If the team members agree to seek LEED certification, they should then make surpassing the LEED requirements a part of the strategy, in part because exceeding the requirements is laudable, but mainly because it is unlikely that the Green Building Certification Institute—the body that awards LEED credits, points, certifications and rankings—will approve each and every individual credit for which the project team has applied.

In the meantime, while the USGBC drafts an Application Guide for Laboratories (LEED-AGL), the design team might consider the Environmental Performance Criteria (EPC) created by the Laboratories for the 21st Century program (Labs21), upon which LEED-AGL is being developed. Though the EPC is not a rating or certification system, the guidelines are specifically geared toward labs and are very useful in this context. Other programs worth exploring include Green Globes, Energy Star and Green- Guard; each may offer a set of guidelines that fits better with the specific project’s goals.


3. Materials and systems

Certain aspects of engineering and building design are magnified in the context of laboratory spaces, as seen in the example of ventilation. Another example is water use: labs typically use between three and eight times the amount of water used by comparably sized commercial office buildings. So what choices will best equip the laboratory to function sustainably and satisfy requirements for safety or for LEED?

The best strategy is the one that works for all sustainable design: to tackle the largest issues the most aggressively. In new construction projects, the team might consider the potential benefits of greywater reuse and storm-water capture systems, which offer a large savings potential. On the other hand, a major culprit of lab water inefficiency is the traditional cup sink, which uses running water to create a vacuum for waste. The design team might consider instead the installation of a vacuum system that works without cup sinks. A similar installation helped the Yale School of Medicine project achieve a 24.5 percent improvement from the baseline in water efficiency.

Power and energy use are, of course, a major consideration in efforts to achieve sustainability. Fume hoods are a major component of any lab, so system choice and design require a good deal of attention. What are the users’ needs? Will constant-volume, variable-volume or low-flow systems serve the needs of the expected research programs? Will the choice address energy savings without compromising safety requirements?

Controls for lighting and HVAC systems should be chosen in consultation with both the users and the facility’s staff, who must once again balance safety with efficiency. Often the best choice will be dual-sensor controls, which operate upon detection of both heat and motion, rather than only one of the two. The result is a lower chance that the system will operate accidentally while the area is empty, thus wasting energy. Another good strategy is to zone the HVAC and lighting systems so they respond to the needs of specific user types. This may be especially useful with ventilation: group the spaces with the heaviest ventilation requirements into one zone—perhaps closer to the outside of the building—to reduce overall HVAC energy consumption.

Labs use a great deal of casework in their interiors, and careful selection of materials and components can go a long way toward achieving sustainability goals and LEED points. Traditionally labs are furnished with metal casework, which is often available with recycled content. However, stakeholders may consider the benefits of wood and other casework materials, such as bamboo, which can be sourced locally and at costs comparable to those for metal. The casework installed in several Yale School of Medicine projects is derived from wheat, a rapidly renewable resource, with panels of maple veneer. In this case, the maple was certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which ensures that the wood is from a sustainably managed forest.


4. Optimizing the interior environment

An additional benefit of wood veneer casework is the appearance. Pleasing to the eye, the wood finish contributes to the enjoyment of the space by its occupants, and because its components emit low levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), the casework contributes to the health of the occupants as well. In this way, the casework becomes part of a strategy to optimize the lab as a workplace and research tool: using the space efficiently, designing the space for lowest carbon output and increasing the space’s positive effects on the occupants.

In addition to zoning lighting and HVAC systems, daylighting strategy is also a crucial component of a holistic approach to the green lab design. Correct use of daylight begins early, with site selection and building orientation. Where this is not possible or applicable, daylight can still help reduce electrical lighting costs and climate control needs while simultaneously fostering a healthier, more productive laboratory facility.

The design should attempt to introduce natural daylight into most work areas. Using a strategy that incorporated windows and partial dividing walls, the Yale School of Medicine interior renovation achieved a design that brings natural daylight into 90 percent of the facility’s discrete spaces.

Views of the facility surroundings should also be maximized, though this is not as crucial as the daylight itself. It is recommended that exterior views be incorporated especially into gathering areas, both formal and informal, as studies have shown that a pleasant view fosters a rich environment for collaboration and for interaction in general.

A final note regarding floor planning: because ventilation is such an important issue with regard to both occupant safety and energy consumption, the stakeholders may deem it wise to invest in digital modeling such as computational fluid dynamics (CFD) or another building-specific tool. The purpose of CFD is to create a model that tracks airflow from supply to exhaust and through the space in between. An accurate CFD model can identify where in the intended design the air stratifies or pockets. The engineering team can then recommend alternate supply diffusers and arrangements, which will create a safer lab with lower air change rates.

With tools both simple and complex, laboratories can be as green as their owners and occupants want them to be. In today’s competitive marketplace for great researchers and better science, an up-front investment in sustainability can add the third pillar of prosperity to facilities that also work well for their people—and the planet.

Published In

Science & the Public Trust Magazine Issue Cover
Science & the Public Trust

Published: September 1, 2010

Cover Story

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