Making Labs Sustainable

Ask Mark Yakren

Mark Yakren 

One of the most compelling trends in facility design and engineering today is sustainability. The issue is acute in energy-intensive laboratories, where sustainable design can dramatically improve building performance and produce significant hard-cost savings. Still, the nature of laboratory engineering presents unique challenges to the adoption of sustainable design strategies. The Laboratories for the 21st Century (Labs 21) Program, sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the US Department of Energy, has begun developing guidelines for laboratories based on the LEED® Green Building Rating System. Syska Hennessy Group senior vice president and lab design specialist Mark Yakren believes that the LEED® for labs movement is an important step toward the acceptance of provable new practices that will benefit all stakeholders.


What makes sustainability more difficult to implement in laboratories than other building types?
Laboratory design tends to be anchored in past practices, with good reason. The number one priority in laboratory design is, and will remain, occupant safety. Virtually no designer would suggest, for the sake of innovation, an unproven building technology that could jeopardize safety, and no owner would accept it. This zero-tolerance for untested methods instills reluctance to change. For that reason, sustainable design strategies may be slow to find acceptance in the industry. The techniques themselves must be adjusted to the requirements of a high-risk environment. That's why the Labs 21 movement is so critical.

Is some of the resistance due to misconceptions about sustainability?
Misconceptions about sustainable design abound. Chief among them is that sustainable design is a defined entity, an extra fixture that can be attached to a building as it is about to be constructed. In reality, sustainable design is a process of integrating ideas, objectives and priorities for building systems by the players responsible for their creation. True sustainability is not driven by complicated or unproven techniques, but by sensible decisions made early-on in facility programming.

Another misconception about sustainable design is that it necessarily costs more. The sustainable approach may require a greater commitment of time and a focused effort, but it frequently costs less to implement than a conventional design. Moreover, a guiding concept of sustainability is to evaluate efficiency using total lifecycle cost. By that measure, initial capital costs pale in comparison to human costs, and to the potential gains from even modest improvements in worker productivity that sustainable treatments often support.

Are sustainable design strategies radically new?
Not necessarily. Certain practices already common in conscientiously engineered and outfitted laboratories are elements of sustainability, such as using energy efficient equipment, rightsizing, and selecting equipment and systems based on lifecycle-cost rather than first-cost analysis. Yet applying sustainable principles in a holistic way rather than component-by-component is innovative and achieves far greater results. This is the approach that we advocate, leading an integrated design process that teams the building owner, designers, contractor, facility manager and building occupants to derive the best strategies for each project.

What are some of the design guidelines suggested by the Labs 21 draft rating system?
Much of the document suggests a commonsense protocol that can readily be followed to the betterment of the building, its occupants and the surrounding community. Here are some of the design considerations it promotes:

  • Site selection. At a basic level, a sustainable site is one which takes advantage of solar access, prevailing breezes and programmatic adjacencies to produce more efficient lighting, ventilation and temperature control. It may also be possible to select your site with a view of proximity to public transportation and minimizing impact on wildlife and the local natural ecosystem.

  • Water Efficiency. By their nature, laboratories use more water than office buildings. In many locations, water is readily available so few people have paid attention to reducing usage or recycling. Yet efficiency methods are quite simple and prudent, and include gray water collection and reuse; rainwater recapture and reuse in irrigation; drought-tolerant landscaping; and elimination of once-through water systems for equipment cooling.

  • Energy & Atmosphere. On average, laboratories use five times more energy than other buildings, much of it in process equipment. Selecting energy efficient and low-demand lab equipment is thus one of the most effective and immediate ways to reduce energy consumption. Energy, electrical and ventilation systems can benefit from recapture and reuse potentials. The use of daylighting, for instance, is often overlooked. Shared lighting concepts and dimming controls for non-work surface lighting may also be feasible.

  • Materials & Resources. The selection of "green" materials for building construction may seem a low priority to the laboratory owner, yet many people don't realize that much of the structural components already in use are comprised of recycled content: structural steel, concrete and gypsum, for example. By far the most critical objective to the laboratory owner is building reuse. Unlike other building types which may have an inherent 50-year lifespan, laboratories tend toward obsolescence after a mere 10-12 years as programs and research needs change. Designing built-in flexibility or adaptability for future building reuse is critical to sustainability.

  • Indoor Environmental Quality. This is perhaps the most important priority in any laboratory design, and the sustainable approach only further assures that appropriate safety standards are met. The design team must accurately assess risks and provide proper air dilution rates. Hood alarms and room pressurization monitoring are very important. Where appropriate, containment areas should be provided to protect occupants and minimize risks of cross-contamination. Proper placement of air intakes and exhausts is critical; modeling and wind tunnel tests should be employed to predict results.

  • Innovation in Design Process. The guidelines propose to credit a laboratory for demonstrating innovation in design depending on the impact to the project. We believe that appropriate innovation will be the natural byproduct of the team approach to sustainable design in which all parties share ideas and understand risks.

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