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Labs Must Aim to Become Net Zero

Evaluate whether a new build or a renovation is more beneficial for your project

Gary Clark

The UK government’s Life Sciences Vision states that it aims to make the country the leading global life sciences hub, having recognized the sector’s vital role in supporting public health, attracting foreign investment, and stimulating growth. 

The goal has made considerable progress, underpinned by an unprecedented demand for laboratory space. We Are Pioneer Group reported that between 2016 and 2020, 681 new life sciences businesses were launched—24 percent more than the previous five-year period—which has fueled all-time high laboratory space requirements. This has been driven not just by life sciences companies, such as pharmaceutical manufacturers, but also universities, government institutions, and biotechnology firms. 

Currently, 1.8 million square feet of lab space is required in Cambridge, more than has ever been needed, with the city—dubbed “Silicon Fen”—reportedly unable to accommodate additional lab occupiers, according to the property consultancy firm Bidwells LLC. Given that labs are “hot property,” there has never been more interest from developers and operators to explore options on how to increase their footprint. However, the government, universities, and many life sciences companies are also under growing pressure to decarbonize assets and meet net zero carbon targets. The pressure has been on since Cop26 and concerns are particularly high for those owning, operating, or occupying lab space. 

It is well-documented that labs are amongst the most carbon intensive commercial facilities, often containing double the amount of embodied carbon compared to other types of buildings such as residential or offices. This is because they are high-functioning buildings that need vibration resistance, sealed rooms with mechanical ventilation, strict temperature control, and electromagnetic shielding. Running a building, including its air change ventilation rate, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year also contributes to this carbon footprint. 

A typical life science lab building requires around 589 kWh/mper year of energy to operate and contains 1,400 kg CO2 e/m2 of embodied carbon. By comparison, the annual benchmark current energy use for a commercial office building stands at 130 kWh/m2 per year, and the benchmark for residential buildings is 120 kWh/m2 per year. 

To meet 2030 net zero targets, many lab buildings need to reduce their operational consumption by 75 percent and embodied carbon by 50 percent. The risk for lab owners, of course, is that if the building doesn’t meet a specific carbon rating by 2030, then fewer organizations will agree to buy or rent it. Additionally, if it hasn’t been designed to be resilient to future climate regulation risks, then getting it insured also might not be possible.

Does this mean that the solution is to build new, greener labs space? That would probably prove to be counterproductive. Complex lab buildings normally take between five and 10 years to complete, and 2030 net zero targets need to be hit now in terms of what is being designed. Adapting and reusing existing lab buildings is almost always the more sustainable option, as it is likely to save 500 kilograms of CO2 per square meter compared to demolition.   

Instead, investing in comprehensive refurbishment could be a more viable path to net zero. Operational energy consumption can be reduced by 60 percent through a combination of improvements to air tightness, insulation, glazing performance, shading, and most importantly lowering the number of average air changes to four per hour rather than six, where the science allows. On-site renewable energy sources could offset energy demand another 15 percent to achieve a 75 percent overall reduction before additional offsetting. An additional 25 percent reduction in energy would have to come from certified offsetting programs—a necessary requirement until the energy grid itself is decarbonized.

A timber-based design approach is also the most effective option to reduce embodied carbon. This will require the development of a mass timber structural system, including timber cladding and full timber framed fenestration that overcomes the current fire insurance concerns. If we included the carbon sequestration of the timber (the amount of carbon absorbed from the environment and stored during the growing of the trees) the embodied carbon would be reduced by 90 percent against the industry benchmark. Manufacturing timber does produce carbon, but it is then locked away in the structure for at least 50 years.

It is a tall order, but companies need to look beyond the short-term complications to ensure that their labs don’t become stranded assets when more stringent operational energy rating regulations take effect.

Gary Clark is regional leader of science + technology with HOK in London.