Image: Laboratory Design NewsletterWhen most talk about sustainability or energy efficiency in labs, words like chilled beams and demand-controlled ventilation are thrown around. And these technologies are very important and part of a holistic approach to energy efficiency. Yet, some of the most valuable tools for energy conservation aren’t systems, but people. Providing the actual researchers that inhabit these labs with control over their systems and energy usage can provide long-term energy savings and building efficiency.

One such example is the Johns Hopkins Univ.’s Undergraduate Teaching Laboratories.

About Johns Hopkins Univ.
Johns Hopkins Univ. was the nation’s first research university and it encompasses over 21,000 full- and part-time students in nine academic divisions. It currently has some of the top-ranked programs on the university circuit in graduate education, public health, nursing and biomedical engineering, and has campuses in Maryland, Washington, Bologna (Italy) and Nanjing (China).

Sustainability is integral at Johns Hopkins. And the university offers programs such as Pioneers in the Environmental Movement. It also started one of the first university recycling programs, opened an Office of Sustainability in 2006 and has co-generation power plants on the campus. The university has also pledged to reduce its carbon emissions by 50% by 2025.


click to enlarge
North façade featuring rain garden. Image: © Halkin/Mason Architectural Photography LLC  


And when Ballinger came to the drawing board for the Undergraduate Teaching Laboratories at Johns Hopkins, strict sustainability objectives were set to follow: storm management (return site to pre-development water runoff profile); create a healthy and pleasant environment; and create sustainable design standards and strategies for future science building construction and renovation (LEED Silver or better).

“I give Johns Hopkins a lot of credit as they pushed sustainability forward,” says Bradford Crowley, Senior Associate, Ballinger. “Our firm has been a leader in designing and implementing high-performing technologies in lab buildings. Some clients are hesitant to implement certain technologies, such as chilled beams due to cost or operation issues, but Johns Hopkins wanted to do the right thing and was willing to invest in systems that provide long term payback.”   

In the case of Johns Hopkins they were on board with building what they deemed as the most sustainable lab they could build. They wanted to make a standout building. And this made it easy for Ballinger to follow their goals and achieve them.

“We designed what we believe to be the most efficient HVAC system,” says Crowley. The system, designed holistically, incorporates neutral temperature air with energy recovery, chilled beams, daylight sensors, occupancy sensors, high-performance fume hoods, process chilled water, a network vacuum system and perimeter radiation. As an added bonus, they also incorporated a rain garden.

“Johns Hopkins, like many other universities, requires that building sites be restored to pre-development storm runoff conditions,” says Crowley. “So Ballinger implemented a rain garden system.”   The rain garden was created there to catch all the runoff from the roof. The rain garden not only looks great in its siting, providing a connection between the undergraduate building and the adjacent north forest, but it also performs well.


click to enlarge
North façade. Image: © Jeffrey Totaro  


However, one strategy allowed the users to have control of the energy usage in the lab by turning off the airflow. And this idea was simple, but made a lot of difference on the end bill.

Turning off the airflow
The Undergraduate Teaching Laboratories at Johns Hopkins Univ. included three floors of teaching labs, both biology and chemistry. As it’s a teaching environment, the labs are used from 12 p.m. in the afternoon to 5 p.m—about four or five hours per day, Monday through Friday. For the rest of the time, these labs aren’t being utilized.

“We knew from the very beginning there was going to be a great deal of time where the labs aren’t utilized,” says Crowley. “And, to have airflow go through these labs during unoccupied time would generate energy waste.”

And while this is true of most labs, this reigned particularly true for this lab. The protocol developed for these labs was no chemicals were to be stored in the labs, they would be stored in prep spaces. “So, to us, it made total sense to develop a mechanism that allowed air to be shut off,” says Crowley.

Ballinger talked with Johns Hopkins at the beginning of the project about how to develop a mechanism that would turn off the air. The team decided to install a relatively simple key switch, or a decommissioning switch. “The device was designed to encourage use and active participation,” says Crowley. However questions still arose as to how lab users would utilize the switch, such as whether it would be used daily, on weekends, or only between semesters.   

The easy-to-use device is integrated into the control system of the building, and wasn’t costly from a construction standpoint. The device was cost-effective because system design already had most of the components needed. “All we really needed was one device and some software to control it,” says Crowley. “So, it was quite simple, and simple to me is good. And if people start utilizing it, it will provide impressive energy savings.”


click to enlarge
Intro to chemistry lab with exposed utilities and chilled beams. Image: © Halkin/Mason Architectural Photography LLC  


Activation responsibility of the switch was given to professors, teaching professionals and building managers, not the facilities.

A user’s sense of ownership
Designing for feedback is key to providing lab users with ownership of monitoring energy efficiency within labs. If you own a house, you know what this is like. You pay a utility bill every month and it gives you feedback on how you are consuming energy in your house.

However, in most cases, there isn’t energy feedback for lab users. Most lab users understand labs use a lot of energy, but they don’t know their role in consumption or the breakdown of energy usage.

In some labs, designers have implemented some versions of feedback like posters or kiosks with displays showing/reading how much energy the entire building is using, but they aren’t aware of their individual contribution to that energy use. 

“The simple answer would be if each lab got a bill for their energy use, then they would understand,” says Crowley. “I don’t think you need to publish it. I don’t think you need kiosks and displays. Some people respond to that and some people don’t. I think if we simply sent each lab user a bill or a report at the end of the month to show them the breakdown their energy use, it would promote energy consumption for the long term. It would be just like a utility bill.”

Along with this, universities have responsibilities in terms of signed initiatives to reduce their carbon footprints. Whether it’s the American College of University Presidents Initiative to reduce carbon, or whether they have their own initiative to reduce carbon, they have a responsibility to push all their users, including lab users, to energy efficiency and a greater understanding of what that entails. And energy monitoring is of upmost importance to achieve these goals.


click to enlarge
Organic chemistry lab with chilled beams and high-performance fume hoods. Image: © Halkin/Mason Architectural Photography LLC  


Giving users ownership of their labs is important. And if they don’t have ownership universities can’t push to their sustainable goals. “In regards to the Johns Hopkins Undergraduate Teaching Laboratories, I think we did everything we could from an equipment and a component design perspective with this building,” says Crowley. “What we would like to focus on next is getting the users engaged in the design process. There are many opportunities to save energy if the users take responsibility and are engaged in both design and operation.”

One system that gives users ownership in the building is the decommissioning switch. But it’s not a feedback device. During the first year of operation, the switch was rarely used due to lack of understanding of the device, no incentives and undefined schedules. However, once the full team was engaged (plant operations, lab users, building managers and EH&S) people became aware of the device and protocols around the device were set. With the merging of the university team and instruction by Ballinger, realistic opportunities as to when the decommissioning switch would be utilized, as well as more defined schedules and day-to-day operations were surfaced.

Overall savings
The Undergraduate Teaching Laboratories at Johns Hopkins Univ. are impressive in terms of energy use. The building as a whole is 50% less than a code-compliant building. And it is at about 166 kBTU/sf/yr for site EUI.

“This is really impressive, and even more impressive due to the building intensity; 100,000 sf, almost entirely wet labs with 142 fume hood,” says Crowley.

Having a user-friendly switch  to turn off airflow is another effective way to reducing energy consumption in an already efficient science lab building.

Extra: Can sustainable design be cost effective?