Laboratories are high energy consuming environments with up to ten times greater use of energy per square foot than conventional office buildings; specialised labs such as cleanrooms can consume up to 100 times more.
Let’s explore some eco-conscious strategies that architects and engineers can adopt to design and build lab spaces that not only improve sustainability but can also lower operational costs.
Eco-responsible design is becoming a growing imperative for architects, engineers and builders who are rethinking the way they design and construct the next generation of laboratories. The challenge is to support sustainable practices while maintaining the high standards of utility, comfort, health and safety that modern labs require, with due consideration to the budget.
Let’s look at specific areas where we can implement sustainable practices in our lab construction project, and how they affect our lab planning process.
Planning an eco-conscious laboratory space
One of the biggest factors that will impact the sustainability of a lab is proper planning. That means energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy sources and materials need to be fundamental to our project goals. One of the biggest barriers architects and designers can face is justifying the high upfront costs of designing an eco-friendlier lab. To bring stakeholders over the line, they might need to set quantitative energy performance goals right at the start. These goals can be expressed in terms such as BTUs consumed, operational dollars saved, or pollution avoided over a given timeframe.
For example, typical labs have an EUI (Energy Use Intensity) in the 150-300 kBTU/sf/yr range, depending on research activity. The best-in-class eco-conscious labs have EUIs in the 90 kBTU/sf/yr range, or about half of the average, so striving for an EUI between these ranges might be a more practical goal.
Once these goals have been aligned with the key decision makers, it’s a good idea to document them in a design-intent document. This document will serve as a guiding compass for the institution and the project team during the lengthy planning/construction timeframes and personnel changes that are typical for a lab construction project.
We also need to take a holistic view of the entire building, not just the lab space within it. Many designers tend to focus exclusively on the laboratory layout and can sometimes overlook excellent opportunities to save energy in other zones of the building. For example, using natural daylight for offices, rooms, and study spaces can have a significant impact on energy consumption, while construction elements such as overhangs, window glazing, insulation, and green roofs and reflective roofs can play a large role in the facility's overall energy efficiency.
Designing for efficiency
During the design phase of a project, the criteria established in the planning phase are translated into physical outputs. Many decisions are made that have a significant impact on energy consumption, such as adjacencies, building sections, service routes, and building envelope design.
The first goal should be to keep energy-intensive processes and operations contained within their own ‘mini-environments’. That allows each area to have its own dedicated heating/cooling system that only has to control the temperature in a small space. In effect, we can use smaller, less power-hungry HVAC equipment in those spaces.
Ergonomics is another factor that is often relegated to a lower priority in lab design. Lab workers and researchers can benefit greatly from user-friendly layouts, natural light, exterior views and task-oriented lighting, all of which can have a big influence on their productivity. While energy efficiency is the goal, it shouldn’t come at the expense of human comfort or health and safety.
Engineering and equipment selection
Engineers often oversize heating and cooling equipment believing that building in a significant margin of error provides flexibility and improves reliability. And while this can be true, oversizing also increases equipment costs and energy consumption, and can impact the lifecycles of various lab functions. Rightsizing equipment selection and choosing energy-efficient, low-water-usage devices are some of the most effective ways to reduce the energy footprint of a lab.
Rightsizing understands that all of the laboratory’s equipment is unlikely to be operating at full capacity simultaneously. While single-room labs should always be sized for 100% capacity, studies and practical experience have shown that, in large laboratories with many fume hoods for example, about 30% to 70% of the hoods are either closed or only partially in use at any given time. Fume hoods tend to be energy-hungry; some of them can use as much energy as an entire house. Carefully consider their number, size, location and type, but also make allowances for the lab’s possible future needs. The same goes for autoclaves and sterilisation devices, though the newer generations of these devices are usually more energy-efficient.
Chillers also use large amounts of energy. However, some chillers have significantly higher efficiencies when operating at or near peak output than when operating at partial output. As a sizing strategy, instead of specifying two identical chillers, we can install two chillers of different sizes, which would provide more flexibility in matching variable loads. It’s particularly cost-effective to specify chillers with low kW/ton profiles and efficient motors and pumps.
While labs have always been energy-intensive buildings, modern labs may hold data centres or large IT infrastructures, which have significant power demands of their own. While renewable energy can’t replace all the lab’s energy needs, it can go a long way in reducing its carbon footprint.
Consider using solar thermal collectors at sites for domestic water heating or process heat. Preheating water with solar can yield significant energy savings for heated water applications. Install solar panels for low-power applications such as outdoor lighting.
To ensure cost-effectiveness, we should first aim to reduce loads through energy-efficient equipment and conventional sustainability measures, before investing in renewable energy options. Another way to reduce a lab’s carbon footprint is to purchase ‘green power’ from local utility providers.
Energy is just one part of sustainability
It is important to understand that energy efficiency is just one piece of a larger commitment to sustainable lab design, which includes site optimisation, water conservation, use of environmentally preferable materials, eco-friendly waste management practices and more. All laboratory design decisions should be evaluated against the mantra of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’, which should be the guiding principle of any lab design and construction project.
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