The Lasting Impact Of Sustainable Laboratory Design


Question previous assumptions
Focus on new innovations
and seek better answers

     Laboratories are notorious "energy hogs," so to help combat the effects of climate change, it's important to consider more sustainable approaches 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, where carbon is central.

     Architects and engineers have developed calculators to quantify the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere (as CO2) through the demolition/construction of buildings (embodied carbon), electricity production used in buildings and ongoing maintenance (operational carbon).


     Embodied and operational carbon should be considered when designing retrofits or new buildings. For laboratory projects, it is critical to check the total carbon footprint due to high operational carbon due to heavy equipment requirements.

     How can lab managers improve project sustainability? Let the design team know that sustainability is a top priority.


     Throughout the design process, allowing time for an honest conversation about carbon impact, safety remains an important design consideration. In the balance of planning and budgeting, the cost of carbon should be a close second.

     An experienced, competent designer will never understand the details of science and laboratory operations like a professional.

equipment needs
Evaluating equipment needs

     When evaluating the space required in a controlled laboratory environment, consider the following:

     Are there functions that can be located outside of the lab?

     Many labs have moved writing areas to essentially adjacent office areas. If you didn't move those functions out of the controlled environment, could you? What does it take to do this?

     Do you need added security?

     Or the office area next to the laboratory?

     The higher the level of control, the higher the carbon cost—that is, a BSL-3 lab is more expensive and uses more carbon than a BSL-2 lab.

     Resizing controlled lab areas and adjusting protection levels can have lab-specific impacts on project and carbon costs.


     The next thing to consider is the energy use of laboratory equipment.

     Range hoods use electricity for exhaust and require the delivery of heated/cooled/humidity-controlled air to the laboratory area to balance incoming and outgoing air.

     Are there functions currently in fume hoods that can be done where the carbon/energy costs are lower (like recirculation and cannulated BSCs).

     In the past few years, ductless fume hoods have entered the market; for your particular science,

     Are ductless fume hoods an option?

     Can your building plan for a centralized chemical storage area, reducing the amount of hazardous materials stored in the laboratory? Is your fume hood being fully utilized?

     Can you share it with another lab group or researcher?

     Can you use a smaller fume hood?

     Does a four foot hood use less energy and make up less air than a six foot hood?

     The energy load of freezers and refrigerators is equally intense: running the freezer requires energy, and the heat rejected by the freezer requires additional cooling.

     Centralized sample storage facilities are increasingly being considered due to operational carbon savings. While this may not have been within the project budget, and recognizing the enormity of the task, thinking about these issues in a holistic and collaborative manner, combined with the needs of other laboratories, can find efficiencies throughout the building.


UCSF Sandler Neuroscience Center in San Francisco

     When designing a new laboratory, designers are concerned with large equipment, ie equipment that takes up floor space, connects directly to the building exhaust system, or requires power different than the standard 110-120v/single phase.

     Designers typically don't investigate or plan for small desktop devices. Small power green sockets can be installed together with normal power and emergency power. Different types of power supplies are usually assigned different colored outlets.


Electronic power calculation formula

     While solutions such as green power systems add cost to building construction budgets, designers should be able to provide so-called "payback" calculations. This calculation tells you that, based on what you pay for electricity, it will take many years for the energy savings to pay off the construction costs.

Choosing the
right materials
Choosing the right materials

     Consider materials in the lab, starting with color. Traditional black lab bench tops "absorb" a lot of light, adding to the artificial light needed in the lab.


     Right now, it's hard to get rid of still-cleanable/scrubable finish materials made from petroleum, but are there options that include recycled content.

     It is also important to consider the source of the material. Laboratories are made up of a wide variety of components (equipment, benches, etc.), and laboratory buildings often do not meet local procurement requirements for LEED points.


     Many times, the transportation of materials is not taken into consideration. We know that the amount of carbon contained in the extraction and transport of raw materials to manufacturers, manufacturers, and to your building can have a huge impact on a building's embodied carbon. If a bench made 1 mile away has the same performance and cost as a bench made 1000 miles away, it is worth choosing a bench made 10 miles away to reduce the carbon cost of shipping.

Emerging solutions

     What is more likely?

     What is affordable?

     What is evolving?

     Equipment that harnesses wind power cannot currently be installed on rooftops or on project sites, but new equipment is being developed that could make on-site wind power a viable option in the near future.

     Currently, the cost of operable windows in office areas is prohibitive given the infrastructure to automatically close windows when it rains and turn off the air conditioning/heating when the windows are open, but these systems may become more affordable in the future.


     The cost of solar panels has dropped dramatically over the past 30 years: In the 1990s, a solar cell cost about $23 per watt. Today, solar panels cost about $3 per watt.

     No single decision or technological advancement will be the "cure" for ensuring a more sustainable future. Instead, it requires many good, ongoing decisions by millions of people around the world.

     The key to improving laboratory sustainability is to continually question our assumptions, examine new innovations, and continue to push for more sustainable answers.


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