Clean, green and cost effective: Considering sustainable lab design

By David Reese

For the past several years, heightened awareness of the effects of pollution, resource consumption and the interaction of the built and natural environments has inspired public- and private-sector organizations to adopt “green” or sustainable design criteria for many types of new and existing buildings.

Benchmarks, such as the U.S. Green Building Council's popular Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system, have provided the guidance that owners need to organize the evaluation of cost-effective, functionally feasible strategies for improving their buildings' environmental performance.

Laboratories and other types of R&D facilities, however, possess many inherent characteristics that are not compatible with most “conventional” green design strategies or LEED office building-oriented requirements. Many contain diverse spaces ranging from the highly specialized research and support areas to administrative offices, conference rooms, and their support spaces.

Labs may also require as much as 10 times more energy than a comparably sized office building for ventilation, process equipment, computers, and security, not to mention safeguarding employees and visitors from hazardous substances and odors.

Fortunately for laboratory owners, there are alternatives. A variety of cost-effective building technologies, materials and operating systems can enhance a laboratory's energy efficiency and environmental sensitivity.

Laboratories for the 21st Century

The Laboratories for the 21st Century (Labs21) approach, co-sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy, encourages bringing together many of the most successful sustainable design practices for today's high-tech environment.

One of the fundamental principles of Labs21 is the importance of looking at sustainability as a life cycle issue—from concept through commissioning and beyond—within the context of meeting the laboratory's specific objectives. In other words, owners must be able to make wise, informed decisions for what to use, and more importantly, why.

These decisions should consider how one system or component affects the function of others; the costs of procuring, constructing, operating and maintaining these systems individually and as a whole, as well as the relationship of the facility with its surrounding built and natural environment—the total cost of ownership.

Practical options for consideration

Consider the HVAC system, for example. Typically, ventilation and airflow capacities are zoned depending on the area's anticipated safety and air change needs. In areas with high-hazard classifications, it is to be expected that all air will be exhausted to maximize both safety and control over specialized processes at a rate consistent with the hazards present.

Administrative and certain low-hazard areas, on the other hand, can utilize more conventional ventilation and cooling systems that recycle interior air and minimizing unconditioned air intake.

The real design challenge comes in handling the “in-between” spaces—areas that may require modifications to accommodate new uses or technologies as the laboratory's needs evolve. Does it make sense to maximize airflow in those spaces knowing that it may not be used? Or, should the facility owner opt for a more conventional, energy-efficient HVAC system, even though it may limit the space's functionality in the future?

Similarly, the ever-changing research technology environment makes it difficult to project long-term power needs with absolute certainty. Rather than finding itself incapable of conducting research, the laboratory owner may want to overstate the amount of electricity that will be required as part of a maximum probable-load calculation.

But where do you draw the line between too much and not enough?

The modularized approach

One widely used solution for balancing these disparate considerations is designing the laboratory with modularized support systems that have oversized distribution mains and modularized space layouts. This provides the flexibility necessary to easily reconfigure interior spaces for new uses or equipment, without the risk of over-designing key systems for needs that may not arise.

As a whole, the laboratory may still consume an above-average amount of energy. Yet, owners will be assured of not only having a “right-sized” building infrastructure for current and long-term needs, but will be mitigating the overall environmental impact through other sustainable design elements and practices, and providing themselves with the flexibility to respond efficiently to future requirements.

A framework for finding answers

A well-planned sustainable design strategy doesn't need to result in higher construction and operation costs. Many sustainable design options have little, if any, construction cost impact.

With some other options, the purchase price of energy-saving building systems may be higher than comparable conventional systems and may require a higher level of sophistication to operate and maintain. Analyses of payback periods for these design choices may show that the costs will be offset within five years or less.

At the same time, these systems may increase long-term savings because of their enhanced durability and longer operating life. In addition, some passive measures, such as orienting the building to take advantage of sunlight, overhangs for shade, and strategic placement of glass, have minimal added cost as long as they also satisfy functional needs.

Of course, laboratory owners may, for whatever reason, find it necessary to request exotic building materials or highly unusual elements that do not offer a reasonable payback and add to a building's total cost. With a sound approach to controlling the facility's energy-consumption aspects, however, addressing other sustainability issues becomes much easier.

The key is to make informed decisions for the right reasons, using the best available knowledge, and from the broadest range of perspectives.

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DAVID REESE is a principal and vice president of Carter & Burgess, an architectural, engineering and construction management firm. He can be reached at: [email protected]


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