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The Lasting Impact of Sustainable Lab Design

Question previous assumptions, watch for new innovations, and push for better answers

Danielle McGuire

Danielle McGuire is principal and sciences practice director at SOM.

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Labs are notorious “energy hogs,” so to help combat the effects of climate change, it’s important to consider more sustainable methods when designing, building, and renovating such facilities. When lab planners talk about sustainability, we talk about strategies ranging from low-flow toilets to solar panels. Here, the focus is on carbon. Architects and engineers have developed calculators to quantify the amount of carbon that is released to the atmosphere (as CO2) through the demolition/construction of buildings (embodied carbon) and the production of electricity used in buildings and ongoing maintenance (operational carbon). 

When designing a renovation or new building, both embodied and operational carbon should be considered. For lab projects, because heavy equipment demands lead to high operational carbon, it is critical to examine the total carbon footprint. 

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How can lab managers increase the sustainability of their project? Let the design team know that sustainability is a priority for you. Throughout the design process, make time for candid conversations around carbon impact. Question everything—your assumptions about how things “have” to be and the assumptions of the architects, lab planners, and engineers (collectively “designers”). Safety remains the most important design consideration. Balanced with schedule and budget, carbon cost should be a close second.

The most experienced, capable designer will never know the specifics of your science and your lab operations as well as you do. You, the lab manager, are a key member of the design team. The information you bring to the conversation about your lab and its operation is essential to developing carbon-optimal solutions that work in the real-world operation of your lab.

Evaluating equipment needs

As you evaluate the space you need within the controlled lab environment, consider this: are there functions that could be located outside the lab? Many labs have already moved write-up areas into what is essentially an adjacent office area. If you have not moved those functions out of the controlled environment, could you? What would it take to make that feasible? Would you need added security? Or office areas directly adjacent to the lab? The higher the level of control, the higher the dollar and carbon cost of a space—i.e., BSL-3 labs are more expensive than BSL-2 labs and use more carbon. Right-sizing the controlled lab areas and tuning the level of protection can have the greatest lab-specific impact on project and carbon cost.

The most experienced, capable designer will never know the specifics of your science and your lab operations as well as you do.

The next thing to consider is the energy use of lab equipment. Fume hoods use power for exhaust and require heated/cooled/humidity-controlled air be delivered to the lab area to balance the air coming in with the air exhausted out. Are there functions currently done in fume hoods that could be done somewhere with a lower carbon/energy cost (such as recirculating and thimble-connected biological safety cabinets)? Ductless fume hoods have come to the market in the last few years; for your specific science, is a ductless fume hood an option? Could your building plan for a centralized chemical storage area, reducing the volume of hazardous materials stored in labs? Are your fume hoods being fully utilized? Could you share them with another lab group or researcher? Could you use a smaller fume hood? A four-foot hood uses less energy and less make-up air than a six-foot hood, etc.

Freezers and refrigerators are similarly intense in energy loads: running a freezer requires energy and the heat freezers expel requires additional cooling. Can you reduce the number of freezers or refrigerators? Can older equipment be replaced with more energy-efficient models? Because of the savings in operational carbon, centralized sample storage equipment is being considered more frequently. While it may not lie within the project budget and recognizing the enormity of the task, thinking through these questions in a holistic and collaborative way with the needs of other labs can find efficiencies across the building. 

Typically, water-cooled equipment is more energy efficient than air-cooled equipment. Do you have air-cooled equipment that could be replaced with water-cooled alternatives?

Lab technicians work in the UCSF Sandler Neurosciences Center lab
UCSF Sandler Neuroscience Center in San Francisco.
Credit: Cesar Rubio Photography

When designing new labs, designers are concerned with large equipment—that is, equipment that takes up floor space, is directly connected to the building’s exhaust system, or requires power different than standard 110-120v/single phase. Designers typically don’t survey or plan for small, benchtop equipment. In your lab, do you have smaller equipment that could be without power for a number of hours each day? If so, a green power system may make sense (green power outlets are controlled by the building management system and power to them is turned off for set hours each night). Green outlets can be installed alongside normal power and emergency power. The different types of power are typically designated with different color outlets. For things like balances: could they power off outside normal work hours? While solutions like green power systems add cost to building construction budgets, the designers should be able to provide what is called a “pay-back” calculation. This calculation tells you, based on how much you pay for power, how many years it would take for the energy savings to pay back the initial construction cost.

Choosing the right materials

Thinking about materials within your lab, start with color. Traditional black lab bench tops “suck up” a huge amount of light, increasing the amount of artificial light needed in the lab. Could a lighter color bench top work for you?

The key to increasing sustainability in labs is to keep questioning our assumptions, checking for new innovations, and to continue to push for more sustainable answers.

Contemporarily, it is difficult to get away from finish materials that are made from petroleum and are still cleanable/scrubbable, but is there an option that includes recycled content? It’s also important to consider the source of your materials. Labs are made up of such a wide variety of components (equipment, benches, etc.) that lab buildings usually can’t meet the local sourcing requirements for a LEED point. All too often the transportation of materials is not considered. We know that the amount of carbon embodied in the extraction and transportation of raw materials to the manufacturer, fabricator, and ultimately to your building has a huge impact on the embodied carbon of your building. If the bench manufactured 1,000 miles away has the same performance and cost as the bench made 10,000 miles away, it is worth choosing the bench produced 1,000 miles away to reduce the carbon cost of transportation.

Emerging solutions

 What is possible and affordable is constantly evolving. The equipment to harness wind power can’t fit on rooftops or project sites today, but new equipment is being developed that could, in the near future, make on-site wind power a viable option. Currently, the cost for operable windows in office areas is cost prohibitive when you factor in the infrastructure that automatically closes the windows if it starts raining and turns off the air conditioning/heating when a window is open, but those systems may become more affordable in the future. Over the last 30 years, the cost of solar panels has dropped dramatically: in the 1990s, solar panels cost about $23 per watt. Today, solar panels cost approximately $3 per watt. 

No single decision or technological advancement will be the “silver bullet” to ensuring a more sustainable future. Instead, it requires millions of people across the globe to make many good, continuous decisions. The key to increasing sustainability in labs is to keep questioning our assumptions, checking for new innovations, and to continue to push for more sustainable answers. As a lab manager, the decisions you and your design team make can and should play a role in leading us to a sustainable future.