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How Do You Make a Vivarium More Sustainable?

What lab managers need to know when converting a mammalian vivarium into an aquarium

by Crystal Soto,Joe Phillips
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Vivaria are arguably some of the most energy-intensive facilities for scientific research. Requirements for scientific integrity, animal welfare, human health and safety, and durability drive design, construction, and operations. The impact on the environment is substantial when compared with other types of laboratory facilities. To understand how laboratory management can make R&D facilities more sustainable, it is important to examine the requirements for responsible laboratory design and operation.

zebrafish lab vivarium

One of the major influences on the facility is the research of animal species. Historically, rodents have been the predominant research subject for a variety of reasons. These and all other mammals present several unique issues that influence design and operations. First, for the maintenance of animal health and well-being, housing requirements from the USDA include well-conditioned air at rigorous temperature and humidity, as well as bedding material for animal comfort and well-being. Air for housing must be conditioned 24/7/365. The bedding must be replaced on a regular schedule. Next, both requirements for mammal housing pose risks to human health, primarily in the form of animal dander and dust present in the air rodents share with human caregivers and researchers. These risks, regulated by OSHA requirements, are mitigated by intensive air change rates, often double rates used in most laboratories and 10 times the rates for a typical office building.

Specialized ventilation equipment is also necessary to reduce human exposure to laboratory animal hazards. Both are energy intensive. Increasing the building’s energy demand is the process of cleaning and sterilizing animal housing equipment with hot water and steam. From a sustainability perspective, it is important to note that neither the conditioned air for animal welfare and human health nor the heated water can be reused. Each is conditioned and discarded. While technologies exist that may allow some degree of recovery, recovery methods are inadequate to produce the air and water quality required and are not cost-effective. 

Finally, a mammalian facility must be designed and constructed to accommodate the constant movement of housing equipment weighing hundreds of pounds. As well as withstand cleaning with agents and hot water necessary to achieve the necessary level of sanitation for animal welfare and human safety. The design and construction impact of the use of durable materials, such as concrete masonry, sealants, and resilient surfaces, is significant.

Research trends to use aquatic species, such as zebrafish, present excellent opportunities to make animal research more environmentally sustainable. While the selection of the research species is guided by the intent and desired science outcomes, lab managers should be aware of the environmental benefits of aquatic vivarium facilities when presented with the opportunity to employ aquatic species.

What are the long-term benefits of converting a vivarium to an aquarium?

The primary benefits found in the aquatic vivarium are a result of housing conditions and maintenance. Aquatic species do not generate airborne hazards to human health, which are prevalent in mammalian operations; as a result, ventilation requirements can be reduced to those used for constant temperature and human comfort. These reductions can reduce the energy required for air conditioning by half. While water is the medium in which aquatic species live, water use can be reduced by even greater cuts.

Unlike mammalian facilities, water used in tanks can be effectively filtered, treated, and recycled by large-scale treatment equipment. This equipment maintains the narrow range of balance necessary for animal welfare, using energy only to recirculate and modestly heat or cool the water. In addition, housing cleanliness is achieved without the use of hot water and steam. The modest amount of waste generated is a small fraction of the bedding that must be decontaminated and disposed of from mammalian species housing. Finally, housing equipment is lighter and not typically transported to cleaning areas by large carts and racks, lighter construction materials are typically employed.

Long-term energy and water consumption are significantly reduced in aquatic vivaria compared with mammalian facilities, while the facility longevity remains constant. Additionally, the extreme conditions required for managing mammalian housing are demanding on equipment. Equipment for the aquatic vivarium requires far less maintenance and has a longer life span. Equipment and labor costs are reduced significantly.

What kinds of questions should lab managers ask a project team (architects, engineers, lab planners, etc.) before undergoing this process?

To achieve the functionality of any vivarium, it is important the lab manager conduct a thorough search for team members with animal facility experience for whatever species is necessary for research outcomes. The team’s expertise must extend to familiarity with vivarium operations and logistics. The hand-in-glove relationship between research and maintenance operations with the facility cannot be overstated. In addition, the lab manager must be assured the facility team can meet the requirements of budget and schedule that align with the demands of the scientific enterprise.

How can a lab manager determine if this project is worth undertaking? What is the evaluation process?

The aquatic vivarium facility is worth the effort, primarily if the aquatic species satisfy research demands. Beyond that foundational requirement, the environmental and operational savings over mammalian facilities are significant. The essential criteria are research outcomes followed by facility construction and operation budget and the schedule of readiness for occupancy to meet enterprise research business objectives.

What are some challenges that can occur during this project, and how can a lab management team overcome them?

It is very important to note that existing mammalian facilities can be converted into aquatic vivaria. Accommodating the specialized equipment required for aquatics is readily achievable, considering the baseline physical requirements necessary for mammalian facilities. All requirements for durability, security, operating continuity, and health and safety already exist in most mammalian facilities.

The unique primary challenges today relate to the supply chain and the availability of the specialized materials and equipment required. It is essential that the lab manager collaborates with the facility design and construction team to be aware of any delays or changes to the budget. Surprises in the design, construction and operation of animal facilities are never welcomed. The lab manager should be completely engaged in the process. Awareness of the status of the project requires the lab manager to budget time to regularly engage in meetings and reviews of the facility design and construction process. The participation of the lab manager is a vital key to project success.

Joe Phillips, RA, is a senior lab planner at CRB, and Crystal Soto, LEED AP, is an architectural designer at CRB.