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Innovations in Sustainable Lab Design

As the demand for greener lab facilities increases, so does the potential for novel sustainable lab infrastructure and materials

Lauren Everett,Holden Galusha

When labs are looking to reduce their carbon footprint, the most common approaches are to reduce excess waste, identify more opportunities to recycle supplies and materials, and seek out “greener” equipment. However, there are also choices that can be made when evaluating the overall lab environment for sustainability.

Here, we highlight three aspects of the laboratories that have seen some promising advancements in sustainable lab design and that have the potential for continued growth over the coming years.

Energy

With laboratories consuming five to 10 times more energy than office buildings of comparable size, energy efficiency is an aspect of lab design that is ripe for innovation. In recent years, a significant innovation has been IoT (Internet of Things) energy consumption monitors. These sensors are installed on the circuit of a laboratory, typically between an instrument and the outlet, and send information back to a central server. After processing the data, the server then relays it back to the lab manager’s account, where the manager can log on and see real-time usage reports consolidated into dashboards.

Spending the time to identify key areas where greener materials and systems can be used early in the design process is crucial.

Machine learning and artificial intelligence also play a role in energy monitoring. Many manufacturers of these monitors advertise intelligent analysis capabilities that can help lab managers identify areas of inefficiency and take steps to reduce energy usage, saving money and becoming more environmentally friendly.

Air quality

Pure air is incredibly important in laboratories to protect both researchers and sensitive samples. Just as real-time energy monitors are becoming more common, so are real-time air quality monitoring systems. These systems often consist of sensors mounted at outlets in individual rooms that continually sample the air and analyze it for impurities, pathogens, viruses, etc., then report the results to a central hub. This hub can then alert the lab manager of any hazardous air impurities with corresponding warnings.

Some air monitoring solutions are touted as being capable of purifying the air, often through a method known as bipolar ionization. In this process, the purifier charges the air flowing past with positively and negatively charged ions. These ions weigh down the air particles, bringing them closer to the filters that will evacuate contaminated air from the building. However, as the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers points out, “Convincing, scientifically-rigorous, peer-reviewed studies do not currently exist on these emerging technologies; manufacturer data should be carefully considered.”

Materials

There are numerous novel building materials that have been developed for housing and commercial projects—including lime-based paint and mushroom foam board. Unfortunately, those innovations have not been adopted into lab settings yet. Kevin Brettmann, director of science and technology, JE Dunn, explains that the lack of adoption of these types of materials in lab facilities is mostly due to the strict guidelines for material usage and the nature of hazards of research.

However, the use of recycled materials has become a trend in sustainable lab design that is likely to stay. “For example, recycled fly ash is being used more in concrete mixes. There is [also] advancement using mass timber in place of concrete and steel for structures,” says Brettman.

Many sustainable materials offer the additional benefit of improving the quality of the lab environment for the staff that works there for many hours each day. As Holly Dezinski, NCIDQ, IIDA, LEED AP, associate and senior interior designer at SmithGroup, explains, “Bringing in warmer recycled plastic acoustic textures, biophilic or custom wall graphics, and ergonomic floor coverings can not only be good for the environment but also enhance the users’ quality of life at work.”

Many sustainable materials options offer the additional benefit of improving the quality of the lab environment for the staff that works there for many hours each day.

Brettman agrees with Dezinski on the growing popularity of biophilic design, which aims to bring nature indoors. These natural design elements, such as increased natural light and “living” walls, can be incorporated into collaboration spaces to provide a welcoming atmosphere and spark creativity. 

Building materials are also being seen as a way to reduce embodied carbon and move toward decarbonized laboratories. Brettman provides an example of this: “Deep foundations are increasingly being used not just to carry structural loads, but also to act as heat exchangers as part of a ground source heat pump system.” These types of foundations are called energy piles. “They have the potential to make significant contributions toward meeting the heating and cooling demands of buildings, thus reducing overall energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions during their lifespan.”

Sustainability is a team effort

Striving for a more sustainable lab environment can be difficult for a variety of reasons, including struggling to find “greener” options, getting buy-in from other stakeholders to do so, and ensuring the quality of the products meets the lab’s standards. But working with an expert design team and taking the extra time to do your own research into viable options helps ensure a smooth process. A skilled design team can show you what is realistic and where you can get the most value out of sustainable options. “Spending the time to identify key areas where greener materials and systems can be used early in the design process is critical,” says Dezinski. “As we work through the design of the lab spaces, the team will do continued check-ins to keep the project on track and make sure what is being specified is aligning to our sustainability goals.”