Lab Manager | Run Your Lab Like a Business

Lab Design and Furnishings

The Next Generation of Sustainable Commercial and Pharma Labs

Key topics to advance sustainability in lab design

Energy efficiency, reduced carbon footprint, and healthy workplaces help advance sustainability in lab design.
Ed Wonsek, Photographer; arrowstreet

Sustainability continues to grow in importance for lab users, yet many “practical” considerations continue to drive client decisions around this important trend—including financing, tight timelines, and company goals. Additionally, in the world of commercial labs, there is a practical set of pressures as well, not the least of which is safety due to ever-present dangers such as contaminates and other hazards that must be regularly addressed. Yet, as architects and engineers working in the greater Cambridge-Boston area, there is a growing mindfulness of the need to address climate change and develop more sustainable, lower carbon-emitting facilities and operations. 

Below are five key topics that are currently advancing sustainability in lab design. These are aimed to help corporations, operations managers, architects, and engineers design and build the next generation of life science research facilities. 

The five topics covered here are key drivers of energy efficiency, reduced carbon footprint, and healthy workplaces:

1. HVAC/air change rates

2. Electrical power (energy and carbon footprint)

3. Water usage

4. Employee well-being (eg. Fitwel)

5. Flexibility 

Air change rates

HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning) is one of the largest capital and operating costs and energy uses of a lab facility, driven by air change rates. Building code requires lab air to be completely exhausted from the building, meaning the air brought from outside to replace the exhausted air needs to be conditioned (filtered, heated, cooled, humidified, or dehumidified) for every air change in a space. Reducing air change rates has a direct impact on lowering HVAC costs, both in construction and in operation. 

Targeted air change rates are based on the type of space and the function it serves. For example, open labs can require rates from six to 12 air changes per hour, depending on the type of science, i.e., chemicals and processes that take place in the lab. Some labs can also have a turndown rate during unoccupied hours of two to six air changes. 

While there are a number of strategies for reducing the air change rate for a space, the first step to dialing in on the optimal air change rate is to perform a “YES/NO” exercise for chemical use. This exercise is performed for each space in a facility, and this level of granular detail can realize substantial savings in HVAC costs. 

Similar to a HAZOP analysis, the YES/NO exercise navigates the team through a diagram that asks a series of questions about the chemical usage in a space, starting with the question, “Are chemicals used in the space?” 

As an example, if a facility starts with a baseline of 12 air changes for all lab and lab support spaces, but half can function safely at six air changes, you have effectively reduced HVAC daily operating energy for conditioning air by 25 percent. For facilities with multi-million-dollar annual HVAC utility costs, this can translate into sizable savings.

Air change rates also drive the capacity of the system equipment, including supply air handlers, exhaust air handlers, chillers, boilers, and heat recovery systems. Reducing the air change rates reduces all of this equipment, reduces ducts and pipes needed to move air, and water around the building. These reductions also contribute to construction cost savings and space savings in the building.

If the chemical usage is such that utilizing new filtered fume hoods, in lieu of standard fume hoods, is a viable alternative strategy, additional savings can be gained. Filtered fume hoods recirculate the air exhausted from inside the hood back into the room, after filtering the exhaust with specific filters designed for the chemicals being used. The advantage is that the “exhaust” air is returned to the space, thereby reducing or eliminating the need for 100 percent outside air make-up, which needs to be heated or cooled.

Electrical power (energy and carbon footprint)

Electrical power used in labs is generally needed for three functions: lighting, equipment power, and electricity for the HVAC system. As discussed above, reductions in HVAC usage immediately results in electricity and fossil fuel reductions.

Lighting power usage is generally driven by two factors: light fixtures/lamps, and lighting controls. Light fixtures used in new lab fit-ups typically use LED lamps, which provide good overall general lighting at lower power densities than fluorescent fixtures and show an immediate reduction in power usage compared to fluorescent. Further reductions in general lighting can be achieved by using task lighting at benches and work areas. Lighting controls can be provided (and are required by Code in many areas) to dim lighting in areas with windows based on the daylight available; other controls can be provided to shut off most lights when a room or space is unoccupied. Both methods can be used together to achieve additional lighting power savings compared to conventional approaches.

As HVAC and lighting systems are made more efficient, the impact of plug loads, which are user-controlled, becomes a large percentage of the energy use. Equipment power is always the lab user/lab designer/lab engineer conundrum and is a delicate balance to strike. Lab users and tenants want as much power as is available; no one wants their science limited or an experiment interrupted by an unscheduled power failure. For this reason, lab buildings are generally designed with twice as much power infrastructure capacity as office buildings, and lab buildings utilize on-site power generators to provide power during normal power failures. But the additional infrastructure costs money to purchase, takes space to install, requires ongoing maintenance, and uses carbon-based fuel supplies. 

In reality, lab equipment rarely operates at 100 percent load, 100 percent of the time. Diversity (what equipment operates at what percentage load, at what percentage of the time) is a key component to right-sizing the electric infrastructure to the equipment load, but lab users rarely understand it. Understanding lab equipment operation and scheduling equipment for non-simultaneous operation can reduce the electrical demand of the space over time. As an added bonus, reducing the electric load in a space can also reduce the heat load generated, which can further reduce the HVAC system operation.


In general, the most substantial water use in a lab is cleaning (autoclave, sterilizer, glasswash, cage wash), followed by pure water filtration then by lab waste pH adjustment. Eliminating the use of water faucet venturi vacuum connections went a long way in reducing excessive water use. Autoclave and glass/cage washer manufacturers have reduced the amount of water used per cycle, similar to residential dishwashers, but the process will never use zero water. (The alternative would be to use disposable containers and cages, which introduces a different challenge: increased waste and storage of clean and soiled cages on-site).  

Filtering water to make pure water has also improved over time, but large RO systems still reject three-quarters of a gallon of water in order to make one gallon of pure water. Many municipalities now understand this and are requiring labs to capture the rejected water and utilize it again on site; uses can include flushing toilets and urinals, refilling cooling towers, or irrigation. However, space is needed for reclamation systems.

Finally, lab waste pH adjustment systems also use freshwater, along with acid and base supplements, as part of the chemical treatment process of disposing of the lab waste into the sanitary sewer. This system can also benefit from the lab chemical YES/NO process described for air change rates; if chemical usage can be reduced, then pH adjustment can also be reduced.  Further, if chemical waste can be contained and removed off-site by a disposal contractor, even less goes down the drain, providing additional water savings.

Additionally, while not yet viable for commercial or pharma labs, research and development labs are moving away from using a pH system. An extra sump pump would be required to marshal chemical waste away. However, organizations such as Clean Harbors can take the waste off-site, resulting in reduced water usage, and the amount of chemicals that eventually get into a freshwater stream—back to a processing plant—and back into our drinking water.

Health and well-being

Sustainability has long included some consideration of occupant well-being, such as indoor air quality, thermal comfort, and lighting.
Ed Wonsek, photographer; arrowstreet

People spend 90 percent of their time indoors, and much of that time is spent in the workplace. Sustainability has long included some consideration of occupant well-being, such as indoor air quality, thermal comfort, and lighting. Increasingly owners recognize the impacts of the built environment on occupants’ physical and mental health and productivity and are employing a comprehensive approach to wellness in design. This not only impacts the employer’s expenses for healthcare and sick days but also the quality of the work product. 

A holistic approach addresses the indoor environment, active design, food and water, safety, social well-being, and biophilia or connection to nature. In a lab environment, biophilic elements include views of natural outdoor spaces, the use of nature-inspired finish materials, and natural patterns or images on surfaces, among others. There are a variety of rating systems that evaluate the impact of design on wellness, such as Fitwel and WELL, which are beginning to be used for lab projects such as the EMD Serono project in Billerica, Massachusetts.


The expectations for flexibility are rising all the time as research projects often change direction, and when they do, facilities need to be modified as a result. Companies may need to expand quickly—or, in some cases, contract. Buildings are notoriously expensive to change, with long lead times for some equipment and the process of change: design, engineering, construction furniture, and equipment changes. Some of the most successful commercial building owners and managers have developed skill in judging what new construction/core and shell renovation work can be built prior to leasing to shorten the turnaround time between the receipt of funding and the start of research.  

Arrowstreet, working with BioMed Realty, has designed “Flex-labs” in order to meet the needs of this market. Long-term value in a building is very dependent on not having to rip out and relocate infrastructure such as lab ventilation systems. Flexibility within modules for lab benching and offices is similarly critical. Supplier companies are increasingly providing demountable wall systems as well as changeable furniture and equipment systems. A key is understanding what built-in flexibility is worth the cost of flexible systems and what is not worth that cost. Some active competitors in the market have near-opposite beliefs on this question.

There is a long-standing principle in sustainable design—“Loose Fit, Long Life.” This applies philosophically, but, especially in high cost locations like Cambridge, the “fit” needs to be an effective use of space that allows for future flexibility in order to meet the market’s rapidly changing needs. The key is to identify high value and less expensive flexibility strategies that minimize the waste of redoing systems that should have long-term use while giving researchers the ability to modify their space and facilities quickly as their developments in science require.

Business models are emerging for shorter-term leases, similar to co-working office concepts though specifically for labs, such as Lab Central. Elsewhere we are also seeing longer-term leasing, which in general will support longer-term returns on improvements that may have costs that are operationally repaid over time.  

As in any corporate setting, there is also the question of cost vs. return. So while some companies may look for other areas within their workspaces to reduce their carbon footprint, others believe in the importance of incorporating sustainability in the lab. Notably, these initiatives can help reclaim your carbon footprint and save money.

Jim Batchelor, FAIA, LEED AP BD+C; Kate Bubriski, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, Fitwel Ambassador; and Tavis Frankel, AIA, are with Arrowstreet. Bob Andrews, PE, LEED AP BD+C, is with AHA Consulting Engineers, Inc.