Establishing higher standards

A Labs21 approach can strengthen long-term cost savings from increased energy efficiency.


If just half of the nation's estimated 150,000 private and public research laboratories improve energy efficiency by 30 percent, the United States could reduce annual electricity consumption by 84 trillion BTUs, states the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Because of its intensive ventilation requirements and other health/safety concerns, the typical laboratory uses far more energy and water per square foot than the average office workspace, according to the EPA. Clean labs, with even higher needs for purging toxic fumes and materials, consume even greater amounts of energy and water.

The EPA's new voluntary program, Labs21, offers detailed criteria to guide laboratories in improving energy efficiency and environmental performance. The approach requires examining the entire facility from a “whole-building” perspective to improve the building's overall efficiency rather than focusing solely on specific lab components.

A new nanotechnology lab (which will be discussed as a general case study due to confidentiality purposes), is being designed to meet both the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification requirements and the new Labs21 criteria.

Since lab administrators have been involved in developing the Labs21 criteria, they wanted to try using the new lab facility as a test case and consider using it for other future lab projects. This test case can provide other lab owners with information to consider the program for their own facilities.

LEED and Labs21

The LEED program, created for the general building audience, defines “green building” by establishing a common standard of measurement. LEED emphasizes the use of state-of-the-art strategies for sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality. A comprehensive system of project certification recognizes those buildings designed and constructed to meet LEED criteria.

Labs21 presents criteria written specifically for laboratories. Technical details regarding labs include lab equipment, process water, energy efficiency and indoor air quality. Each area is written as an addition to the related requirement stated in LEED. Process water, for example, includes the LEED requirements for general water, plus additional requirements for process water used in lab functions.

In LEED, buildings must be designed to be as efficient as possible, while in Labs21, the efficiency of lab equipment also needs to meet standards.

While LEED has not yet officially adopted the Lab21 requirements, the two programs can complement one another in energy planning during lab design and construction.

For the nanotechnology lab facility, a goal has been to establish a highly interactive environment to incubate new multi-disciplinary research teams focused on nanoscience integration, meeting Labs21 criteria. Reaching LEED certification is a contract requirement.

Testing Labs21 in a real situation, the nanotechnology lab team has relied on the Labs21 technical committee for interpretation of some points that needed clarification. In general, the criteria is dedicated to the pursuit of sustainable, high-performance and low-energy laboratories that will:

  • Minimize overall environmental impacts;
  • Protect occupant safety;
  • Optimize whole-building efficiency on a life-cycle basis;
  • Establish goals, track performance and share results for continuous improvement.

In becoming a Labs21 partner, lab owners have agreed to commit to: adopt voluntary goals; assess opportunities from a whole-building approach; use life-cycle cost analysis as an important decision-making tool; incorporate a comprehensive, whole-building commissioning process; employ a range of energy- and water-efficiency strategies; measure energy and water consumption; and track emission reductions.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Web site on Labs for the 21st Century, the Labs21 commitment also includes: to evaluate on-site power generation, combined heat and power technologies, and renewable power purchases; build with green construction materials; promote energy- and water-efficiency efforts; and expand beyond the lab building.

The whole-building approach, in which both LEED and Labs21 are grounded, involves improving the entire facility's efficiency. In Labs21, an initial evaluation of a laboratory's energy use is made from a comprehensive perspective. This requires focusing on all of a lab's energy systems and wastes, including its HVAC and electrical power supply, rather than focusing only on specific energy-using components.

Long-term savings

The greatest benefit a building can gain from complying with either or both LEED and Labs21 is the long-term cost savings from increased energy efficiency.

According to a 2000 joint study conducted by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Pacific Gas & Electric, a lab can easily use 4 to 100 times as much energy as a typical commercial building. Just about anything that can be done to reduce consumption will lead to a return on investment.

Following Labs21 may create the greatest savings currently possible, but since both Labs21 and LEED programs are still new, no information is available about how quickly an investment in increasing energy efficiency will be paid back. Even in the LEED program, the more senior of the two, only 60 buildings have been certified, and only a few of those are labs. So, the exact return and its timing are difficult to determine.

Recognition for a lab that receives LEED certification and meets Labs21 goals will be valuable in attracting highly qualified scientists who are in great demand. Recruitment of all quality lab technicians can be facilitated to an environment that has been made more appealing with increased natural illumination and healthy, non-toxic-emitting materials and furnishings.

Other benefits of Labs21, as stated by the EPA, include lower laboratory utility and operating costs, reduced health and safety risks, improved facility management, reduced pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and access to technical assistance.

When completed, the integrated nanotechnology lab, merging teams of many scientific disciplines that are interfacing nano-materials with the micro and macroworlds, will give scientists from many backgrounds the opportunity to view first-hand an energy-efficient, healthy Labs21 environment. The center will provide a national focal point for nanoscale activities while using the latest, green-building technologies and sustainable-design approaches.

Together, LEED and Labs21 are key components in establishing higher standards.

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MICHAELLA WRIGHT is a LEED Accredited Professional, HDR. She can be reached at: [email protected]


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