Exterior view of the Center for Novel Therapeutics

LEED and WELL Considerations in Lab Design

Early identification of LEED or WELL goals creates a clear path forward

Christa Wood, AIA, LEED AP BD+C

Christa Wood, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, is senior project architect and senior associate with Perkins&Will.

ViewFull Profile.
Learn about ourEditorial Policies.

Sustainability is a critical consideration when designing any new building, and that is certainly true of life science lab space. Two popular green certifications that guide these decisions are LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), administered by the US Green Building Council, and WELL (WELL Building Standard), administered by the International WELL Building Institute. Both certifications, or rating systems, address sustainability and human health at many scales. 

What are LEED and WELL?

While the two are connected, they have different goals. LEED focuses on the building’s role in the environment, and WELL focuses on the building’s impact on the occupant. Each rating system contributes to environmental, social, and corporate governance and should be considered at the outset of any new project. LEED and WELL both have local priorities, such as community integration and access to transit. In recent years, it is more common to see the definition of sustainability expand beyond just the environment to include wellness and community impact.

Projects pursuing LEED or WELL certification can benefit by receiving credit for having a site connected to the community, with access to public transportation and bicycle lanes. Points can also be awarded for human-oriented items, such as providing control over individual task lights at each workstation, meeting thresholds for acoustic performance and audible transmission, or even providing access to healthy food choices. 

The design team can help navigate if one or both certifications are the right fit for any given project’s goals based on the relative evaluation criteria of each system. LEED includes location and transportation, sustainable site, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality, innovation, and regional priority. WELL includes air, water, nourishment, light, movement, thermal comfort, sound, and materials. Early identification and prioritization of LEED or WELL goals create a clear path for the design team. Both certifications have tiers of compliance, ranging from bronze (WELL only) to silver, gold, or platinum.

The recommended best practice is to target additional credits beyond the minimum threshold requirements to provide a buffer for project certifications, especially as standards routinely evolve. Project certifications are finalized and awarded at the end of a project’s construction, and having credits beyond the target threshold allows for the identified goal to be met even if unknown conditions arise during construction. There are also variations for new projects versus redevelopments. 

How to achieve LEED or WELL certifications

As the process commences with user group meetings, it is especially helpful for lab users and their architecture, engineering, and construction teams to discuss unique requirements and project goals from day one. User group meetings provide a forum for general questions about lab function, processes, and workspace requirements. From a sustainability and certification lens, there are details that will help inform what threshold is possible to attain. 

Some questions to consider in advance: 

What type of water and quantities are needed?

  • Water consumption and low-flow fixtures are common items that receive credits for LEED and WELL, but may not be suitable for the lab workflow. 

Is any of your lab material UV- or light-sensitive?

  • Increased access to daylight is prioritized for occupant health and helps reduce lighting power energy loads. 

What is your cleaning process?

  • Interior finishes that are bio-based, red-list free, or contain recycled material may have different durability to withstand intensive cleaning agents. Identifying cleaning materials and frequency can help the design team select healthy and durable materials for a project.

Typically, there will be at least one dedicated sustainability discussion, sometimes called a sustainability charrette. If a WELL or LEED goal has already been established, the design team should come prepared with ideas about realistic targets based on how many credits are needed and how those may impact any previous lab planning designs. If no sustainability goal has been identified, the sustainability charrette often becomes an active and important brainstorming session. The design team can help navigate expectations for the lab and building design, identify priorities, and set realistic goals. The earlier in the planning process the sustainability charrette occurs, the easier and less expensive it is to design to the target goals. 

The atrium of the Center for Novel Therapeutics is a showcase of sustainable design
The atrium of the Center for Novel Therapeutics is a showcase of sustainable design, with integrated photovoltaic panels and automated operable windows, enabling natural ventilation in the semi-conditioned space.

Laboratories are heavy energy users and have a higher target energy use intensity (EUI) than most office buildings. Depending on location, energy reduction mandates may be written into the energy code. Code requirements for a certain percentage of outlets are commonly on a timer that can automatically shut off outside of typical business hours to help reduce plug loads and energy use. In a lab setting, this can pose an additional challenge for critical equipment. 

To help navigate these requirements, the sooner equipment lists are developed and shared, the better. This includes knowing what type of power the equipment uses and if it must be on standby power either with or without an uninterruptible power supply (UPS).  

Larger lab equipment produces heat loads that will likely require additional cooling. More sustainable cooling options are possible, depending on the expected heat loads and the required equipment. The mechanical and electrical design teams will work together to create comfortable spaces that can accommodate these equipment loads. Early on, overall electrical service and generator needs are considered for the project. Since generators can provide only a limited capacity for standby power and UPS, it is important to identify critical equipment to ensure the generator can support the lab’s specific needs. Once construction starts, it becomes more of a challenge to revise the plans.  

An example of a LEED-certified facility

A case study example is The Center for Novel Therapeutics (CNT), which accelerates research advancements and knowledge sharing between the academic and private sectors by housing both under one roof and offering community spaces that support chance encounters and collaboration.

A LEED Gold-certified project, the U-shaped building layers labs at the exterior facades and turns inward with offices adjacent to the atrium space. Inverting the traditional lab planning approach, which places offices at exterior locations, CNT’s design increases daylight in the labs and allows for a higher level of visual transparency and connection throughout the building and central atrium. 

A sustainability charrette generated key ideas and prioritized environmental features and project goals. The atrium is a showcase of sustainability, with features like:  

  • A sloped atrium glazing with integrated photovoltaic panels and automated operable windows enables natural ventilation in the semi-conditioned space. 
  • A fixed sun-shading device for the building is incorporated into the energy modeling process to help offset cooling loads.  
  • Mass timber beams and columns support vertical and horizontal atrium glazing and are used in the bridges that span the atrium and stairs to encourage active occupants and accommodate fire and seismic code requirements. 
  • Out of sight, hydronic piping in the atrium floor assists in radiant cooling and heating for occupant comfort. 
  • On the exterior, automatic roller shades mitigate glare.

Additionally, the project includes a fitness center, secure indoor bicycle storage and lockers, analogue meeting spaces in pods, electric vehicle charging stations, and gray water in the building’s cooling tower. In the lab spaces, there is energy-efficient LED lighting, a flexible lab benching system that helps streamline reconfiguring the space with minimal renovation waste, and increased access to daylight to offset lighting power usage. 

CNT attempts to showcase what can be done for a lab building in terms of authentic sustainability. Keep in mind, design started in 2013 and delivered in 2019, and technologies and standards evolve. The industry now plans with the next generation of certification, LEED v4, which strives to understand how a project can benefit local communities and the global environment to achieve better environmental, economic, and social impacts. LEED v4’s prerequisites are more intensive than previous versions’ requirements, especially as related to material health and product specification, as they necessitate Health Product Declarations that disclose all materials in furniture, wall coverings, and paint. 

Lab managers can help ensure the success and sustainability of their spaces and projects by providing the design team with project priorities and goals at the onset of the collaboration. The designer’s role is to help them work through the ever-changing requirements and navigate these complex certifications. Scientists are knowledgeable and predisposed to being curious, which are vital aspects to seeking and obtaining LEED and WELL certifications. As an industry, life science developers, researchers, and manufacturers can showcase what’s possible, and that is certainly something to pursue and celebrate. 

Top Image:
Exterior view of the Center for Novel Therapeutics, on the campus of the University of California, San Diego. The LEED Gold-certified building underwent several design changes but still worked toward its LEED goals.