SITE LINES:Top 10 Ways To Design a Sustainable Laboratory
October 31, 2006

By Staff
Appeared in Contract Pharma

The average laboratory uses five to 10 times more energy than an equivalent-sized office building, but the rising cost of energy and an emerging concern for a laboratory's environmental impact have led to greater industry awareness -- more labs are now "going green."

One steadfast principal about energy use holds true: A small reduction in the energy expenditure of a large consumer, like a laboratory, has a greater environmental impact than the substantial reduction of a smaller energy consumer.

It is critical that today's lab owners and managers implement sustainable features in their new and already existing facilities. Here are some ways to design, maintain and renovate any lab to be more energy-efficient.

1. Design with a holistic approach
The success of a laboratory's sustainable efforts is driven by the processes taking place within its walls. This means that any attempt to conserve water or energy will only be successful with the harmony of all its building systems, architectural elements and interior functions.

This can be achieved by designing with a holistic approach, an idea that requires collaboration among the engineers, architects, building owners and scientists from day one. Working together with the laboratory's end users, the design team can create a facility that not only achieves the desired energy-efficiency, but also supports its staff's goals.

We take this approach one step further. Our engineers are committed to seeing a project from its pre-design phase through commissioning, assuring that all building elements and sustainable qualities are realized to their fullest potential.

2. Employ Labs21 EPC criteria
Using the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED rating system as a model, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy in conjunction with the International Institute for Sustainable Laboratories, created Labs21 EPC, a national standards system dedicated to improving the environmental performance of the country's laboratories.

Organized in early 2000, Labs 21 has challenged facilities to reduce their emissions, pursue energy-efficient HVAC technologies, streamline energy and water usage and design systems that recover and incorporate renewable resources over their lifetime.

With training programs, annual meetings and classes that highlight cutting-edge technologies, new designs and energy conservation initiatives, Labs21 has been embraced by the management of government and private sector laboratories and design professionals alike.

This positive first step for the industry gives laboratories a place to begin their sustainable life. More information is available at

3. Minimize loads
One practical way to reduce a laboratory's energy consumption is to group together areas of the building that use similar amounts of power. This involves accurate and thoughtful programming of spaces and adjacencies so that laboratories can be segregated from areas that don't share their cooling loads and exhaust requirements, like offices and some lab equipment rooms. By doing this, 100% outside air systems are only employed where needed.

Accurate benchmarking and prediction of internal loads is also crucial to minimizing a laboratory's energy expenditure. Designers must work with the facility's end users to specify new, more energy-efficient laboratory equipment that uses less power and generates significantly less heat than conventional equipment.

Another way to reduce the laboratory's load is to specify a climate-responsible building envelope, a building skin de-signed to minimize solar gains and heat loss and gains, while also maintaining a comfortable temperature. Minimizing loads can help maximize a facility's sustainability.

4. Use passive systems
When the outdoor environments surrounding a laboratory are able to provide some of its indoor need, take advantage of it.

Natural light is the primary example. Using advanced simulation software, engineers can identify the areas where natural light can best penetrate the building. Light shelves, advanced envelopes and daylight harvesting systems are just some of the tools that allow a building to benefit from natural light. Other systems include passive solar heating for the winter months and natural ventilation for a separate atrium or breezeway.

Project engineers prepare the analysis and research required to best utilize passive systems, after which the building's architect can more accurately design what the components look like, complete with installation specifications.

5. Optimize active systems
Once you've taken advantage of the available, passive natural resources, it's time to spend money on higher-efficiency, high-technology systems.

A laboratory's biggest loads are its HVAC system and the heat-generating equipment plugged into the building's electrical power outlets. How it keeps cool is what separates a sustainable lab from its energy-guzzling neighbors.

Fume hoods are large energy consumers in laboratories. Therefore it is important to evaluate the number and size of fume hoods required for the facility. Elimination of a single hood offers savings in capital and operations costs. After the number of hoods is established, various approaches can be used to reduce their energy consumption, including Variable Air Volume (VAV) ventilation systems, occupied and unoccupied operation, reduced sash openings and use of low-flow hoods. Other alternative HVAC systems like radiant cooling technology and chilled beans lower temperatures with circulated water instead of air and can provide additional energy savings as well. The above options need to be carefully studied in the early phases of the project to find the best solution for your laboratory.

6. Utilize renewable energy technologies
Renewable energy technologies -- including photovoltaic panel systems, wind turbines, biomass, and biofuel systems -- have grown in popularity as the result of a heightened global interest in sustainability. Photovoltaic and wind turbine systems can convert solar and wind energy, respectively, into electricity to be used by the building, while biomass and biofuel systems are made from rapidly-renewable agricultural products and used to reduce dependency on oil.

These systems, when used alone, are often the least effective and most expensive of all available strategies, providing lab owners with little return on their investment. They can, however, flourish in a facility designed holistically, where they are the final step in a series of sustainable features. Utility companies and government agencies may provide incentives for owners to offset the high cost of investing in these technologies.

7. Perform a building life-cycle cost analysis
After the building systems' preliminary concepts have been developed, it's important for engineers to use the latest building simulation technology to perform a life-cycle cost analysis for the laboratory. This includes energy modeling, computational fluid dynamics, daylight and ray trace simulation, building thermal dynamics and building information modeling.

These design tools help engineers determine the strengths and weaknesses of each of the building's systems, giving us the ability to right-size the equipment for today's needs, while anticipating and planning for future growth and expansion, and expediting the construction process at the same time.

At our company, this also helps us act as a consultant to our clients, providing them with the systems analysis to make the right financial decisions, and to the project's architect, aiding in their facility design.

8. Flexibility is key
One of the most important aspects in today's laboratory design is to ensure utility infrastructure flexibility. Because of the rapid rate at which technology advances, a laboratory's typical lifespan is just eight to 10 years before it requires significant upgrades.

To pigeonhole every inch of the building without leaving room to add or subtract from its systems would leave labs confined to the technology infrastructure they already have.

Instead, for a nominal additional cost, owners can ensure their lab is built to last from the beginning. On a smaller scale, new equipment can be added at a much faster pace than it would take to complete a major renovation.

9. Comprehensive commissioning
No project would be completely sustainable without proper commissioning. The purpose of this final step is to provide documented confirmation that the building's systems function as they were designed, both for the owners' and the end users' benefit -- it is the best quality assurance a facility can acquire.

Commissioning is an integral part of both Labs21 and LEED rating systems, where additional points can be earned for retaining a third-party commissioner as early on as the project's design phase.

This process can apply to existing facilities as well. A third-party commissioning agent evaluates a laboratory in order to address the owner's current systems performance requirements and develop a new set of functional criteria for the facility.

10. Renovate right
There are two sustainability-driven ways to renovate laboratory space. The first is to upgrade an existing lab's infrastructure by swapping the building's MEP systems for more energy-efficient equipment. Because of a laboratory's tight pocketbook, this often happens in phases, leaving parts of the building less energy-efficient than others.

The second type of renovation is the adaptive reuse of an existing building where its building's envelope remains, but the interior structure is fit with new, more sustainable systems. Very often this type of reuse will also allow improvements to the building envelope, including new and better glazing and new insulation. This is more environmentally friendly than constructing a new laboratory facility from the ground up, but requires excellent coordination and planning from the design team. The challenge here is to intelligently use the existing facility in a new way.

But, before either of these options is considered, the first step for laboratory owners and managers is to evaluate the building's operations. Very often housekeeping practices, chemical disposal and storage, commissioning, HVAC system maintenance and lighting can be enhanced without major construction.

David Callan, P.E., C.E.M., LEED-Accredited, is vice president, director of Sustainable Design & High Performance Building Technology at Syska Hennessy Group. He can be reached at Markus Yakren, P.E., is senior vice president, leader of Science & Technology at Syska Hennessy Group. He can be reached at