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Designing and Building a ‘Green’ Lab

Designing and Building a ‘Green’ Lab

Flexible, thoughtful lab design saves both energy and money  

MaryBeth DiDonna

Laboratories are well-known energy hogs because they consume a high amount of natural resources. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, laboratories typically consume five to 10 times more energy per square foot than do office buildings. Some specialty laboratories, such as cleanrooms and labs with large process loads, can consume as much as 100 times the energy of a similarly sized institutional or commercial structure

There are several reasons for this—many labs contain equipment or experimental processes that need to run 24 hours a day, and some of these labs also allow occupants at any time of day to operate or monitor equipment. Lab equipment consumes energy at much higher levels than equipment and electronics found in offices and homes, and may also generate high levels of heat that need to be dissipated by the lab’s HVAC system. Air flow and air conditioning must adhere to specific standards to manage waste removal and exposure to dangerous chemicals. Applications such as these mean that labs consume a particularly high amount of energy—which, in turn, means a greater impact on the environment, as well as a high operating budget.  

What makes a lab “green”

The desire to save money and lessen their environmental impact has resulted in more and more labs seeking ways to “go green,” by adopting more energy-efficient lab equipment and practices. Experts such as the Department of Energy, I2SL, My Green Lab, and universities are just a few bodies that have issued guidance and studies on how to develop a more sustainable laboratory facility. However, there is no standard, third-party definition, or specific set of criteria for what exactly constitutes a green lab.

“When I think of a ‘green lab,’ I think of the United Nations’ definition of sustainability,” says Kimberly Reddin, AIA, LEED AP, director of sustainability for Flad Architects. “A green lab is a lab that supports science and health and economics—is that success today, without diminishing resources for tomorrow? We don't know exactly what tomorrow will look like, so we need to be flexible as we design a green lab. And we also need to work together to be innovative and creative with the solutions that we put into our labs today, so that they continue to be green into the future.” 

“There's a quote used in sustainability circles...it's to the effect that, ‘We've not inherited the land from our ancestors, we have borrowed it from our children.’ I think that same fundamental premise underlies scientific discovery. It’s changing, of course, with more focus on application, but a lot of the actual impact application of a lot of science and engineering research can take years or decades to develop,” says Stuart Lewis, LEED AP, associate principal, planner with Flad Architects. “I think researchers, for that reason, tend to be forward-looking people. To me, the idea of being ‘green’ in a lab context is something we've been doing for a long time—you're protecting people, protecting the environment, and that's a core principle when it comes to managing or designing a lab. The challenge to us is to take what we're already doing—taking the mindset that we already have—and focus on pushing the envelope with the tools and with the kind of broader buy-in to get these ideas that are much more prevalent in the industry right now.”

Collaborating for a green lab

“The primary goal of managing or planning a lab…is creating a place for research or diagnostics that's healthy for the people in the lab. It’s absolutely fundamental that proper containment is there; proper SOPs; they're supported by the engineering controls, all that kind of stuff; and that the environment itself is protected from the operations in the lab. Fundamentally, that's ‘green,’” says Lewis. “The nice thing is that the process of talking with the lab managers and the other stakeholders about those concepts sets up a dialogue on those issues. It lets us bring in other important functional issues around supporting the processes they place in the lab—things like future flexibility that are really hard to get metrics to, but can have a lot of impact in reducing waste and downtime and energy inefficiencies in the future.”

Reddin adds that it helps keep everyone on track if lab managers, design team members, and other stakeholders come up with their own definition of what makes a green lab early in the design process. “When we set up those goals and priorities and our definition with the client of a green lab, that gives us something that can act as a framework for decision making, too,” she says. “As we move through the project and we're developing the project, if the project ever starts to stray from that definition of green lab, or the vision that the client has set out, that means that it's our job as the design team to hit pause and sit back down with the project stakeholders, and reorient everyone until we're back on the same page.” 

Going green to save some green

Smaller labs may use less energy, which creates a ‘greener’ facility.
Garry Belinsky

The future of green lab design has both potential and pitfalls, say Lewis and Reddin. The influx of information provided by modern lab technology can measure energy use, or monitor air and detect contaminants in the air stream, for example. Lab occupants can rely on that data to vary the energy in their lab based on what is needed. However, the increase in automated lab technology might mean that fewer people will occupy labs in the future. “Maybe five to 10 years ago, we thought, ‘Oh, this is great. Labs are going to be smaller, people won't be in them, this equipment is just going to be running,’” says Lewis. “But what we're actually seeing is that labs are not getting smaller, they're just filling up with more equipment.” He continues, “We need to figure out what the implications of these technologies are, and figure out how to mitigate them and leverage them for positive outcomes.”

Reddin believes that ESG is a hot topic in green lab design. ESG criteria is a set of environmental, social, and governance standards for a company’s operations that are used to analyze how a company performs as a steward of nature. “I think what we'll see is that ESG reporting is going to continue to gain momentum. And I think it won't just be investors who are paying attention to it, but we might end up seeing that the government is paying more attention to it,” she says. “And I definitely think that it will play into that whole idea of transparency and give employees a good understanding of what the companies they work for are trying to do and what they value...it really means a lot to an employee to be able to go to work in a place that aligns with their own values.”

A tactical strategy to achieve a green lab, says Lewis, relates to optimizing internal electricity use and heat loads. Lewis remarks that an engineer friend of his says that “the most sustainable thing that a lab manager could do would be to replace all their freezers when they move into a new lab—or just to do it anyway.” Current, state-of-the-art freezers are highly efficient in terms of electricity use and reduced heat load, and that efficiency will translate directly into the operating costs of the lab. Another example, he continues, would be for the lab manager to lead the design team through the type of containment the lab is using for things like fume hoods, and keep sashes closed rather than open when possible.

There are a lot of different opportunities for long-term cost savings when designing a green lab, says Reddin. “When we design labs with sustainability in mind, we tend to see between a 20 to 40 percent reduction in predicted energy use intensity.” 

She adds that a flexible lab design also contributes to the longevity of a lab, which can lead to cost savings down the line. “If you can build a flexible lab for longevity, and you don't need to renovate or build more in the future, you're actually making a pretty considerable impact on the sustainability of that lab,” Reddin says.