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Ask The Expert: Designing An Eco-Friendly Lab

Dr. Michael D. Hopkins talks to Tanuja Koppal, contributing editor to Lab Manager Magazine, about his experiences and involvement in renovating the Searle Chemistry Building at the University of Chicago.

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EXPERT: Michael D. Hopkins, Ph.D. Professor of Chemistry, University of Chicago.
Dr. Hopkins has been at the University of Chicago since 1999 and was the Chairman of the Department of Chemistry from 2003-2009. His research interests include solar energy conversion and molecular electronics. He has had extensive experience leading space planning, design, and construction projects for the Chemistry Department and the Physical Sciences Division (PSD). He was a member of the committee that developed the Space Master Plan for the PSD; led the faculty team that designed the synthetic chemistry laboratories for the Gordon Center for Integrative Science, a $220M building completed in 2006; led the Jones Laboratory renovation project in 2005-2006; and led the Searle Chemistry Laboratory renovation from its inception, including selection of the architects, programming of the project, and the design and construction phases.

Dr. Michael D. Hopkins talks to Tanuja Koppal, contributing editor to Lab Manager Magazine, about his experiences and involvement in renovating the Searle Chemistry Building at the University of Chicago, which has now received a LEED Gold certification for its “green” attributes. The renovation was a multi-year project which began in 2002 with an internal proposal to get the University on board. Dr. Hopkins was involved with the project at every stage, right from planning and design to construction and occupancy.

Did the renovation of the Searle Building start out as a “green” project or did that happen over time?

That was something that was not planned from the outset. As we worked with the architects we realized that there were opportunities for cost savings and energy efficiencies that would prove beneficial in the long-term to both the University and the environment. It evolved into a green project over time and now we have been assigned the LEED Gold Certification.


Can you elaborate on some of the green features of the building?

Buildings that are designed for synthetic chemistry need to have a lot of fume hoods and these hoods are notorious energy consumers. They constantly draw air from the laboratories and this air is released outside and cannot be recycled, in order to maintain the safety of the occupants. This happens 24/7 and according to some metrics a typical fume hood consumes energy equivalent to that consumed by about 3.5 houses. So a building like ours that has over 100 fume hoods has the energy footprint of multiple city blocks with single family houses. We have now designed hoods that have proximity sensors where the unit lowers the sash if the hood is not being used for a certain period of time, hence reducing the volume of air that is drawn. Lowering the sash not only reduces the energy consumption but also makes the lab safer by providing a shield between the contents of the hood and the people walking by. There are also other features that may be transparent to the users but nonetheless have a big impact on the energy efficiency (see sidebar for additional details).


How can scientists get involved in the design of green laboratories?

The amount of impact that you can have depends on the stage that you get involved in. Buildings are highly integrated systems and one decision may impact several others which can then affect the budget and performance criteria of the building, both of which are often set early in the project. So obviously the earlier you get involved, the bigger the impact you can have. The most important decision to be made early on is choosing an architect who knows how scientists think and what they need and has experience working with a green design. Hence, scientists must be willing to invest the time early in the project to help choose the right architect and set the design criteria.


Are there resources that can help one find the green options available for a laboratory?

The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s high performance building design group has a website with information about many different aspects of building design. This website can provide information both at a broad and at a more specific level about the types of options that are available. There are also many trade conferences. But the scientist’s time being limited, your architect is probably the single best source for information. In our case, our architects understood what was important to us and presented us with a set of thoughtful options that we could choose from and worked closely with us to refine the designs offered.


The Searle Building officially re-opened in June 2009 but few areas still remain under construction and labs are being occupied in stages. The laboratories are designed mainly to facilitate research in Synthetic Chemistry and Chemical Biology and to accommodate instruments that support those areas of research. The total renovation costs were estimated to be $49 million but the project is now expected to finish under budget.

This month Lab Manager Magazine introduces a new editorial feature called “Ask the Expert” (page 34). Each month author Tanuja Koppal will interview industry experts to discuss a range of topics important to lab professionals. This month she spoke with Dr. Michael D. Hopkins, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Chicago, who helped renovate the Searle Chemistry Building, which received a LEED Gold certification for its “green” attributes.

If you want to learn more about this month’s expert, Dr. Michael Hopkins, visit to see his video interview.

Next month’s expert will answer questions concerning setting up a high-throughput screening lab. To submit your questions to future experts, visit and click on the “Ask the Expert” link below Laboratory News.

Look for more “Dig Deeper” video links in upcoming issues of Lab Manager Magazine. This new online feature is designed to offer a more in-depth exploration of the ideas behind particular articles and unique information that only the authors and “experts” themselves can provide.