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Designing Green Labs: Embracing Sustainability in Laboratory Design

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The unique equipment used and work conducted in labs means they’re often some of the largest energy consumers in work environments. But it’s not just energy consumption that defines laboratories as eco-offenders. Materials, waste, and resource use contribute to a larger environmental footprint.

While sustainable lab design practices may look like they lead to a more expensive project, the opposite is generally the case. A sustainable lab is not just a financial investment but one that enriches the lives of those who work in and around the lab too.

We’ve come a long way from the labs of the past. However, the education of lab owners and staff, as well as wider stakeholders, is still ultimately at the forefront of any successful sustainably-driven project. Let’s delve in.

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The Importance of Sustainability in Lab Design

Truly effective sustainability starts at the beginning of the lab’s creation. If sustainable practices can be observed in the initial design and planning stages, they pave the way for a real positive impact. A lab should be built sustainably from the ground up. Materials should be reclaimed, reused, and sourced ethically. The use of lighting, water, and air should be considered at the concept design stage to minimise unnecessary energy use.

Considerable energy savings can be made at the design stage, which has a positive impact not only on the environment but on the overall cost of the project, too. Many lab owners are hesitant to adopt sustainable practices in favour of seemingly cheaper alternatives that bring the overall cost of their project down. What these clients don’t realise is that long-term savings ultimately outweigh the costs of the initial design. Moreover, the positive impacts on employee wellbeing and brand reputation further strengthen the organisation’s position in the industry.

Standards for Sustainability


Green building rating systems are useful in setting out guidelines and metrics by which designers can set and attain sustainability goals.

Framework

Details

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)

The Green Building Council operates LEED as one of the most internationally recognised certification programmes for cost-saving, efficient green buildings promoting health and wellbeing.

Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM)

The international BREEAM scheme provides third-party certification of the sustainability assessment of buildings and infrastructure projects.

WELL Building Standard

A standard that supports the health and wellbeing of occupants through sustainable design and policy interventions in buildings.

ASHRAE, BISREA, CIBSE

These standards set out the standards for designing energy-efficient buildings.

Energy Star

US & Canada biased but sector-specific certification.

LEAF - Laboratory efficiency assessment framework

Originating from the world of academia, LEAF involves laboratories making small, achievable actions to cut down their environmental impact.

SKA Rating

Environmental assessment tool for non-domestic buildings run by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS).


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Practical Ways to Implement Sustainable Designs

We need to think pragmatically in lab design to incorporate sustainable design principles. We know that any decision we make will impact other important factors in the overall project. How will sustainable choices in materials affect hygiene and safety? How will layout and lighting affect ergonomics and accessibility? We need to be able to navigate this delicate balancing system, taking each lab's unique functions and risks into consideration too.

Staying on the cusp of modern lab design is paramount so we can take advantage of new and innovative lab technology and engineering. It’s vital as designers that we retain the tried and trusted elements of traditional lab design whilst exploring and harnessing lab design trends of the future.

Energy Use & Operational Carbon

As common areas of high energy consumption, labs use more electricity than other work environments. In this particular balancing act, health and safety take precedence. Buildings must be adequately ventilated, and lab lighting and temperature controls must adhere to sensitive requirements

So, how do we work to reduce unnecessary use so that only the energy that is required is used?

  • Centralised monitoring systems capable of monitoring energy use should assist with reducing unneeded use and identifying areas of continuous improvement.

  • Demand-responsive, or smart, HVAC systems are sensitive to chemical vapours, pressure changes, temperature changes, and air quality. They can respond accordingly to minimise energy consumption and also respond to occupancy in the space to minimise energy use.

  • Rainwater harvesting and greywater recycling for non-potable and non-sensitive use can help conserve water and reduce water demand in labs.

  • Energy-efficient and LED lightbulbs should be used in sustainable labs with proper shutdown procedures made easy. The use of natural light, where possible, can also be optimised.

  • Insulation of the building and various areas should be considered to provide heating and cooling with minimal energy demands.

  • Designing for remodelling and adaptation in the future will allow the incorporation of new energy-efficient solutions without the carbon footprint of a full rebuild of the lab. Incorporating adaptable features like modular lab interiors will also offer flexibility in lab working space.

  • As holders of verified science-based targets (SBTs), Area can advise on how energy performance can contribute towards wider corporate carbon reduction goals.

Materials, Embodied Carbon & Circularity

In updating old lab space and creating new labs, there’s an opportunity to make sustainable materials choices. For example, reusing and repurposing materials is an excellent way to embed circularity while lowering the project's environmental impact, provided these decisions are safe for the intended purpose.

Where are the opportunities to make sustainable design choices regarding materials in labs?

  • Choose recycled or sustainably sourced materials wherever possible. Consult the table of frameworks under ‘Standards for Sustainability’ in this article for certifications suppliers may bear to demonstrate their ethical or natural material sourcing procedures.

  • Reusing and repurposing material lessens the demand for new resources.

  • Selecting based on quality and longevity rather than cheaper options can lead to energy-saving benefits like better insulation and longer equipment and furniture lifespans.

  • Optimising the use of natural light in the lab by incorporating light shelves, solar tubes, and transparent panelling diminishes the need for artificial light.

  • Choosing VOC-free or low-VOC paints, sealants, and adhesives will improve air quality and minimise overall environmental impact.

  • A construction waste management plan must be drawn up to handle waste generated throughout the project in the most sustainable way, including recycling, salvaging, and responsibly disposing of waste.

Water Usage in Labs


Labs generally use significantly more water than traditional office spaces both for heating and cooling. Additionally, ample access to fresh water is essential for emergency points like eyewash stations and safety showers.

  • Regular maintenance and repairs will prevent unwanted leaks.

  • Water monitoring with associated monitoring and control.

  • Training.

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Case Studies of Successful Sustainable Labs

Today, myriad inspiring sustainable lab projects show us what we’re capable of with intelligent and creative lab design. Let’s look at two examples of labs that work with the plant instead of against it.

HJ Andrews Experimental Forest Headquarters and Lab, Blue River, Oregon, USA

HJ Andrews Experimental Forest Headquarters and Lab

Image source: andrewsforest.oregonstate.edu

Though not often thought of first when the idea of a sustainable lab comes to mind, location can have a significant impact on the environmental footprint of the facility. Construction of a lab should not destroy natural environments and never put species of plant and animal life at risk.

While not a comparatively weighted issue for smaller laboratories, larger lab complexes may face this problem when looking for land to build on.

The HJ Andrews Experimental Forest HQ and lab, which is cooperatively managed by Oregon State University, Willamette National Forest, and the USDA Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station, is a long-term ecological research site and biosphere reserve situated in a 16,000-acre forest deep in the Oregon Cascades.

Dedicated to conservation and scientific research, the living laboratory holds LEED Gold certification thanks to a recent renovation project which updated existing structures under sustainable principles. The goals: to conserve natural resources and minimise the project’s environmental impact.

The project saw the use of sustainably harvested wood, the installation of passive solar heating and cooling, natural lighting, and stormwater management to reduce runoff and its impact on the surrounding terrain. The site was also landscaped with native and local plants to reduce water consumption.

The buildings preserved the surrounding area, protecting trees, plants, and animal life. Thanks to this sustainably-driven project, the new lab can further ecological research while protecting the ecosystem it sits upon.

The Living Planet Centre, Woking, UK

The Living Planet Centre Woking UK

Image source: www.wwf.org.uk

The Living Plant Centre is one of the greenest buildings in the UK, having won several awards for its sustainable construction and design. It has a BREEAM Oustanding rating, the highest available. As such, it is one of the most sustainable buildings in the world.

The Learning Zone, situated in the Living Plant Centre, is a lab specialising in the discovery and research of ecological and environmental subjects and serves to inspire and educate younger generations on issues of sustainability, conservation, and environmental protection.

The site was designed and constructed with sustainable solutions at every stage, including:

  • 100% renewable energy via rooftop solar panels, LED lighting, natural ventilation, and insulation.

  • Rainwater used for toilet flushing and irrigation.

  • Low-flow taps and showers to minimise the usage of water.

  • Buildings constructed with FSC-certified timber.

  • Native plants in the surrounding landscape to protect the ecosystem and neighbouring Basingstoke Canal, a site of special scientific interest.

  • Close proximity to public transport links to reduce car emissions from driving to and from the site.

At Area, we put sustainability first in everything we do and forge a path of eco-conscious design for every one of our clients, marrying sustainability with efficiency, cost-saving, and innovation. Get in touch to find out how we can make your lab sustainable.

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