Image: Laboratory Design NewsletterWhat you see is what you get. And in the world of architecture, architects and lab designers are starting to get more sustainable strategies right in lab settings. By assessing the true issues seen in labs and counteracting them with the correct technologies and strategies, labs have become more sustainable than ever. Yet, further steps can be taken.

The issue with plug loads
In today’s lab buildings, lab designers are starting to see, through analysis and post occupancy studies, that plug loads can have an enormous impact on energy use in lab buildings, in some cases, accounting for up to 50% of a building’s total energy consumption, even after the design team has done everything else “right”. This means lab designers must work with owners and user groups to get these plug loads under control and find both design and user strategies that work with the building, but are also easy to understand and convenient to use. At the same time, a lab building must allow the science to do what it needs to do. To make everything work is a challenge architects and lab designers are bumping up against.

To address plug loads, the first thing a lab designer must do is make sure the assumptions about usage are correct. An old-fashioned rule-of-thumb is 10 W/sf, which formerly worked for most lab environments and allowed flexibility for the future. “However, the reality is, when you start to meter labs, you get some rooms (support labs and equipment-intensive spaces) that have much higher loads than the old [10 W/sf] norm. Open labs will likely have much lower plug load demands than that norm,” says Joshua Gassman, Senior Associate, Lord Aeck Sargent. Right-sizing the plug loads is one of the first steps to an energy-efficient and sustainable lab; without addressing this piece of the equation, the building’s performance can only go so far. Benchmarking against buildings performing similar science is also important in this step.

The second step is obtaining a deeper understanding in the use of such utilities. This means lab designers must talk with user groups about what equipment they are using, when it runs, how often they are using it, and for what purposes. New ASHRAE guidelines are starting to require outlets that time-out with occupancy. All of this is contingent on what jurisdiction a lab is under, what has already been adapted or will be adapted in terms of outlets that switch off when the equipment isn’t in use.

“This is just one [of many] strategies looking at operating from a variety of power sources for equipment—some is only on when you need it, some is on during business hours and some is on all the time and has emergency back-up—and figuring out how to balance these needs,” says Gassman. Some equipment doesn’t need to be on the emergency circuit, and some doesn’t need to be on 24/7. With some equipment you have circumstantial conditions and phantom loads, such as equipment with small lights and LEDs that are on all the time just because they are plugged in. “So, we are trying to work those loads out of the system,” says Gassman.

The issue with water
Another piece of the puzzle is looking more closely at water. Benchmarking water usage is something that few people are doing and can be a significant challenge. To further complicate this piece of the energy-efficiency puzzle, many buildings don’t even meter water at building level, let alone at a lab or floor level. Trying to understand how water is being used, where it is being used, what it is used for and why can start to shed light on this issue.


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At Virginia Tech's LEED-Gold Certified Human and Agricultural Biosciences Building 1, high-perimeter ceilings and large windows allow deep daylight penetration into labs. Image: Jonathan Hillyer Photography  


“There are certain strategies that are self-evident, especially in the hot and humid climates,” says Gassman. “LAS is headquartered in Atlanta, where we get a lot of humidity and resulting condensate, and it’s the perfect place to collect water.”

Another level is still needed. Technologies such as cisterns for graywater and re-use of this water for sewage conveyance has been around for a while. However, inside a lab building, domestic water is a relatively small issue compared to other water uses.

“We need to look at process water loads and figure out how to close loops,” says Gassman. “We need to figure out ways to make systems more efficient and push manufacturers to build more efficient systems. There’s always an opportunity to do something else with water.”

If engineers and lab designers take a step back from both energy and water systems, and try to figure out how to create closed loops, greater water and energy efficiency can be achieved. “Any time you have what appears to be a waste product from one system, that waste product can now become a source product for another system someplace else and we can start to close the loop,” says Gassman.

One of the issues that many owners face, no matter how altruistic they are, is that return on investment (ROI) is still a significant consideration. And this means they want payback times that aren't always achievable for water systems due to the relatively inexpensive cost of water. This is true even in the state of California where there’s a tremendous drought. Establishing true ROI is dependent on accurately valuing the resource.

“Trying to get water correctly priced is an important goal so that water conservation measures start to become economically viable,” says Gassman. “Water conservation measures are almost all at loss, and they become altruistic and showpieces in many buildings.” Yet, if there was a higher payback on water conservation measures, more water conservation methods would be incorporated into lab projects.

The idea of resiliency
Sustainability and resiliency effectively converge into one. Depending on the project and its location, passive survivability is a common theme. Here architects look at what it takes for a building to maintain critical operations in the event of extended power outages or hurricanes and big storm events.

This idea of passive survivability starts to play into other sustainable strategies that would hopefully be implemented in any building from the beginning, such as daylighting, energy conservation, natural ventilation, effective use of the building envelope and more. And these strategies will play into making a building effective and functional despite having low power available, or none at all.


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Arizona State Univ.'s LEED-Silver Certified Global Institute of Sustainability Renovation features a biophilic breakroom designed to incorporate views, live plants and fresh air circulation. Image: Mark Boisclair  


Ideas like natural ventilation are dependent on the climate. “There are many climates that are suitable for extensive natural ventilation,” says Gassman. “And some are probably almost never a good idea. However, by understanding the climate, sun, building orientation, humidity levels and the diurnal cycles, you can create a resilient building.”

This requires architects and lab designers to also serve as climate analysists. It requires a detailed level of understanding, for example, to see if night flushing might be a suitable choice in a climate with large diurnal swings. Architects and lab designers must get down to the granular of climate analysis to understand the potential a given climate has and then design a solution that works with both the challenges and opportunities within that particular climate.

The future of sustainable lab design
In the realm of sustainable lab design there are already items becoming more important, such as daylighting. Yet, one of the challenges in daylighting is technology, in particular LED lighting. As LED lighting is ever-increasing and prevalent in lab settings it’s also becoming cheaper and more energy efficient. However, as the technology becomes cheaper and more sustainable, lab designers are starting to run up against ROI and extended payback times.

In the end, designers want to make the owners and occupants of labs happy. They also want to make the people inside the labs safer and more productive. In order to do this, lab designers are looking more into the idea of biophilia and people’s love of nature and views to nature and starting to incorporate that into lab settings. This leads to a discussion of healthy buildings and understanding not only the level of indoor air quality, but also the quality of the space and its impact on the building occupants.

“There are many studies demonstrating that biophilia positively impacts occupants and occupant productivity,” says Gassman. “And, over the life of a building, the complete cost of the building, including design, construction, utilities, maintenance and occupant salaries, is actually predominately in the compensation paid to the occupants; hence improving occupant satisfaction via biophilia and other strategies and thus increasing productivity, can have huge life-of-building impacts on a project’s bottom line.” Ideas like looking at human health and welfare within lab buildings is of growing importance, and a number of certification programs modeled after these ideas are starting to be implemented, including the Living Building Challenge and WELL certification.

Providing a building that can increase productivity and conserve resources and energy will allow future generations of researchers to meet their needs without compromising the needs of future researchers.

Extra: Can sustainable design be cost effective?