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Achieving Net Zero in Labs

Achieving Net Zero in Labs

Labs looking to generate renewable energy face unique sets of challenges

MaryBeth DiDonna
Jacob Werner, AIA, LEED AP, WELL AP, Living Future AP, PHIUS Certified Passivehouse Consultant

Labs are commonly known as “energy hogs,” which can be a challenge for project teams and lab managers who want to develop a more energy-efficient facility. Energy demands may differ depending on the end use of the laboratory—academic, wet or dry labs, how many fume hoods are present, etc.—so there are no universal answers on how to achieve net zero.

Lab Manager spoke with Jacob Werner, AIA, LEED AP, WELL AP, Living Future AP, PHIUS Certified Passivehouse Consultant (CPHC), senior project architect with Perkins+Will in Boston, about the things that lab planners need to know when working on a net zero project. 


Q: What is meant by “net zero” in labs?

A: A Net Zero energy building generates renewable energy equivalent to the total energy it consumes. The building may be connected to the grid, drawing power from the grid when renewable energy is unavailable, as long as the building later exports an equivalent amount of energy back to the grid to compensate. The energy balance is usually calculated on an annual basis, with an equation such as: 

Power Generated Annually – Power Consumed Annually > or = 0. 

Some definitions of net zero buildings prohibit the direct burning of fossil fuels at the project site, excluding the use of natural gas or fuel oil for heating. The purpose of these mandates is to hasten the transition to all-electric building systems. This is thought to be essential to the widespread adoption of solar power as a primary energy source.

Q: Are there any types of labs that are especially well suited (or not) for net zero adaptations? 

A: Teaching labs, maker spaces, dry labs, and field laboratories are all good candidates for net zero design. Relative to other lab types, these labs have a lower energy demand, offer a better opportunity for “setback” at off-hours, and have good control of operational procedures. Labs on large, open sites may take advantage of geothermal energy to increase mechanical heating and cooling efficiency. Low-rise buildings with large roofs, and/or large sites with big parking lots, will have greater opportunity for solar energy production. Thus, a teaching lab on a suburban site next to a large parking lot—as exists on many college and high school campuses—would be an ideal candidate for a net zero design study. 

“Teaching labs, maker spaces, dry labs, and field laboratories are all good candidates for net zero design.”

Labs with a high proportion of technical spaces, such as cleanrooms, vivaria, or data centers, will have a difficult time compensating for their high energy use via renewables. High-rise laboratories in urban settings will have more difficulty finding places to put renewables. Thus, a high-rise research facility in the middle of New York City may be a challenging candidate for a net zero design. 

We see an increasing number of new projects with radically low energy, or zero energy, goals. 

Q: How should a lab management team budget for a net zero project?

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A: Invest in an early and comprehensive feasibility assessment, including human factors, engineering systems, and renewable energy opportunities. Studies of operational practice, like a thorough Laboratory Ventilation Risk Assessment (LVRA), can slash project energy demand by as much as half, with zero upfront cost. This is valuable for all facilities, but especially for projects with low energy or net zero goals. A feasibility study of high-performance mechanical systems incorporating fully integrated whole-building design can substantially increase efficiency. Renewable systems analysis, by qualified specialist engineers, is critical to understanding the real cost versus benefit of complex geothermal, energy storage, and renewable energy systems. Conducting an early feasibility study to align the project goals and optimize scope, schedule, and budget can dramatically increase the chance of success for any net zero project.

Q: Are there particular advantages or disadvantages when building a new net zero lab, versus retrofitting an existing lab? 

A: Net zero design is simpler in a new building scenario. A new building project will include complete building systems with all associated costs. Because of the new building structure, envelope, and mechanical systems being created, this is the perfect opportunity for holistic, integrated design. Ideas in one system that save energy, or produce more energy, can influence the design of other systems. Synergies in efficiency, or cost effectiveness, can build upon each other, leading to gestalt—where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. 

Conversely, net zero retrofits can be challenging, especially if major building systems are not included in the project scope. For example, achieving optimized solar energy generation without reconfiguring the building rooftop may be challenging. 

Q: What are the crucial benchmarks that need to be hit in a net zero lab project? 

A: “Typical” labs have an EUI in the 150-300 kBTU/sf/yr range, depending on research activity. Recent AIA COTE award winning labs have EUIs in the ~90 kBTU/sf/yr range, or about half of the average. A net zero lab should aim for an EUI below 50 kBTU/sf/yr, or about half of these “best in class” buildings. Once the building is operating at 25 percent (or less) of the energy used by a typical lab, then it may be possible to build a large enough renewable energy resource on-site to achieve net zero.

Q: What do you think the future of net zero will be like? Will there be major advances in technology or materials, will the majority of labs end up going net zero, etc.?

A: The future is net positive. As we learn more about operations and develop smarter practices, building energy demand is falling. As building mechanical systems gets smarter and more efficient, building energy use is trending downward. As renewable energy and battery technologies advance, energy production is increasing all the time. With the unique purpose of advancing human understanding through discovery and developing new solutions to societal challenges, laboratory projects are ideally suited to lead the way toward the net zero—or even better, the net positive future.