Lab Design and Furnishings

How to Use LEED in the Lab

Why should labs should be targeted for sustainability and green initiatives?

Shannon Bergstrom
LEED points are achieved in five major areas: sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, and indoor environmental quality. 
U.S. Green Building Council

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is the world’s leading green building rating system. It provides frameworks for sustainable, efficient, and cost-effective buildings. Starting in 1998 as part of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), it is now the most widely recognized rating system in the world for practically any building type that wants to be more sustainable. This includes medical facilities, and more specifically labs, which present their own unique issues and opportunities. 

How LEED works

LEED works by awarding points for various green building strategies, certifying a building based on the number of points the project has achieved. The levels of certification are Platinum (80+ points), Gold (60 to 79 points), Silver (50 to 59 points), and Certified (40 to 49 points). The points are achieved in five major areas: sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, and indoor environmental quality. 

For example, there are a possible three points for the “Daylight” credit in the LEED BD+C: New Construction rating system. This particular credit is intended to “connect building occupants with the outdoors, reinforce circadian rhythms, and reduce the use of electrical lighting by introducing daylight into the space.” This is implemented through a series of possible options such as measuring, or simulating before construction, the amount of natural illumination of a regularly-used work area and the percentage compared to artificial light throughout the year.

Application in medical facilities

Before looking at how LEED can be applied to labs, it’s worth asking why labs should be targeted for sustainability and green initiatives. First, there should be a global push for all buildings—commercial or otherwise—to be built in greener ways, but labs specifically can use up to three or four times more energy per square foot than a regular office building. This means, therefore, that they can “account for up to 60 percent of non-residential energy consumption of research-focused universities,” making it incredibly difficult for institutions to achieve any environmental or sustainability goals without specifically targeting labs. 

LEED is most effective when implemented at every stage of the building process, from site selection to maintenance and operations. Unfortunately, when it comes to labs, there are greater limitations in some of the earlier stages—site selection, for example, will frequently be limited to an existing campus or compound. Additionally, it may even be limited to retrofitting an existing building, especially in urban areas. 

However, it is important to note that a large proportion of LEED certified buildings are, in fact, existing structures. Retrofitting and upgrading generates significantly less waste than demolishing and building new, or even building on a virgin plot. Existing labs in particular can benefit from this system to develop more sustainable lab conditions while working with existing structure. 

One of the key credit categories of LEED is Energy and Atmosphere, something that greatly impacts the laboratory setting, when compared with your average office building, since the correct internal environment is a key safety feature. It also represents the greatest use of energy within a lab, with “moving, heating or cooling air through laboratory spaces” accounting for as much as 60 percent of total energy use in some labs. There are numerous ways to start tackling this energy loss through LEED, from structural changes like convection-based exhausts to operational changes like regularly changing filters. 

In a more specific example, fume hoods account for a huge part of ventilation-related energy loss, with a single open unit using as much as 3.5 homes, according to some estimates. Tackling this through LEED starts with correctly working out the number of units and then placing them in the appropriate positions. Then, there are some more advanced solutions, such as installing combination sashes (which combine traditional vertical and horizontal sashes) or automatic closing mechanisms. Both of which offer ways to drastically reduce the energy consumption from fume hoods while maintaining the safety levels required in a lab environment. 

Equipment is also a more notable factor for labs than other commercial buildings, with huge amounts of energy being used for items like fridges, freezers, incubators, and computers which are likely to be significantly more resource intensive than those found in an office. The loss here should be targeted by ensuring up-to-date and efficient equipment is used when equipping the lab as well as following good operational practices such as turning off unused equipment or minimizing the amount of time refrigerator doors are left open, for example. 

There are also some broader considerations which, while applicable to labs, are also considered in other LEED buildings. This includes lighting, which prioritizes natural light over artificial, as well as achieving more points for energy-efficient fixtures and bulbs. There are also aspects such as fixture placement, height, color, and more to consider, and this will be part of any lab's LEED process. 

In addition to lighting, there is water usage. This is actually going to be far higher in a lab than in other buildings thanks to unchangeable aspects like eyewash stations and water-cooled equipment, for example. But there are general changes that can bring a lab in line with LEED. These include selecting low-flow toilet fixtures and faucets, for example, as well as looking outside the lab, toward water-efficient landscaping.  Additionally, closed-loop water innovations can help to save significant amounts of water, particularly in cooling and vacuum applications, passing water through systems continuously rather than just once as in existing open-loop water systems. 

These are just some of the ways that LEED can be utilized by a lab, and while some solutions can seem expensive during lab construction, redesign or operation, the savings gained—both financially and environmentally—from more energy efficient practices more than make up for the initial outlay. LEED is the world standard for green buildings and is being applied to numerous projects both commercial, residential, and even city-wide. Labs account for a huge amount of energy usage and also a unique working environment on many campuses and compounds around the world, which makes applying LEED to labs all the more important.  

Shannon Bergstrom is a LEED Green Associate, TRUE waste advisor. She currently works at RTS, a tech-driven waste and recycling management company, as a sustainability operations manager. Shannon consults with clients across industries on sustainable waste practices.