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A look at how each of the “10 Strategies for Sustainable Lab Design” impacts various areas of a lab project. Image: Blake Jackson, Tsoi/Kobus & Associates  


As the sustainability movement matures and LEEDv4 becomes “law” in October 2016, the market is scrambling to understand its impacts regarding obligations for LEED certification, cost control, stricter codes and more complex team/project integration. While most clients value environmental stewardship, placing a higher priority on sustainability—and creating an opportunity for innovation—presents major hurdles.

As demand and cost for resources increases while research funding becomes scarcer, balancing sustainability with cost is pertinent in lab design. In 2010, Tsoi/Kobus & Associates (TK&A), with an interdisciplinary team, saw an opportunity to clarify LEEDv3 implementation. Our “Cost of LEED” study dove into each credit/prerequisite, providing hard costs (materials, installation and overhead) based on a percentage premium above minimum code compliance and highlighting cost synergies between credits to promote “systems thinking.” In 2015, we updated the study for LEEDv4. While the original study pulled from several completed LEEDv3 projects, the update built on a LEEDv3 Gold-certified project by adding new requirements to achieve LEEDv4 Gold—all for less than 1% premium above current cost.

Simultaneously, TK&A published 10 Strategies for Sustainable Lab Design (LBN 12/08/2014), an update of our 10 Tools for Challenging Conventional Lab Planning (2010). By 2015, the 2010 “strategies” had become standards, so, TK&A, with BR+A, revisited the study, emphasizing sustainability, to enable lab design for LEED certification (Gold, plus), meet AIA 2030 Commitments and (potentially) target net-zero energy building.

Drawing information from both studies could advance sustainable lab design. The major emphasis of “10 Strategies” is energy reduction and management. Eight of the “strategies” impact energy. When all 10 are applied, they specifically target up to 36 of 110 possible LEED points (four prerequisites/12 credits). They look beyond “low-hanging” LEED points (those earned by virtue of the site), forming a systems-thinking approach by emphasizing a few impactful credits, rather than “cherry-picking” across LEED. This approach isn’t meant to undermine the importance of designing holistically, but rather to place early emphasis on elements most impactful upon initial investment and long-term savings.

While some “strategies” incur cost (for example, building dashboards), several initial savings opportunities exist. Demand response (new to LEEDv4) could eliminate $5 to $6/sf/year through 0.05% reduction of peak annual electrical load. Another initial and ongoing saver is Lighting Power Density (LPD) reduction. With LEDs mainstreaming, easy LPD reduction incurs utility rebates, lowers internal gains and improves visual comfort.

Photovoltaics (PV) provide an opportunity for labs to save money over the long term. PV’s high initial cost has been overcome through Power Purchase Agreements (PPA). PPAs are a mutually beneficial agreement wherein PV providers install/maintain systems for a term (typically 20 years). In return, building owners purchase 100% of the output for a fixed rate over the term, saving money by locking in a low rate not subject to inflation. PPA consultations are free and new technologies avoid the need for sizeable converter rooms; however, certain locales (snow) incur a structural premium. Rooftop PV can save up to $1.50/sf off initial cost and may mitigate structural upgrades, but might not earn LEED points. Additional savings (potentially $3.00/sf ) are available for for-profit organizations able to purchase PV outright and utilize renewable energy credits (RECs).

The “strategies” indirectly emphasize space usage with several impacting right-sizing, which has a trickle-down effect throughout most LEED categories. Although no lab has pioneered it, Cloud-based computing has the potential to replace on-site data centers, saving valuable space while reducing process loads. This approach could reduce the development footprints and expensive space needed for data centers (relative to labs/offices) for new construction and free up square footage for spatially constrained existing facilities.

A notable omission from the “strategies” is water. While rainwater harvesting and low-flow fixtures are a means to reduce potable water usage by 30 to 35%, based on cost-per-LEED-point, there’s little incentive to push greater efficiencies (for example, black water treatment) due to water’s artificially low cost.

Taken together, these studies provide ways to achieve higher-performing, cost-effective lab design by emphasizing energy reduction, spatial right-sizing and streamlined LEEDv4 certification with a rapid return. While some “strategies” have a cost premium, not all do. Even the strategies requiring a higher initial investment still have the potential for long-term payback through energy savings over the life of these (typically) single-owner buildings.

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Blake Jackson is a registered architect, Associate and is the Sustainability Practice Leader with Tsoi/Kobus & Associates in Cambridge, Mass. He has over 12 years of experience in retail, hospitality, higher education, healthcare, labs and commercial structures.

Extra: Can sustainable design be cost effective?