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TOP SUSTAINABLE LAB DESIGN STRATEGIES

By DANIEL MADRU, Principal


Sustainability in building design and construction has been a major focus in the A/E/C industry for many years, and laboratories are no exception. As conscious design and environmental, social, and governance (ESG) have become more important in the workplace and for the world, lab designers are faced with the challenge of designing spaces that are both functional and sustainable.




In order to reduce the environmental impact and improve the sustainability of a lab, it is important to consider strategies such as conscious design, LEED certification, and WELL requirements. However, obstacles such as production process requirements, material sensitivity, and budget constraints can make sustainable practices especially challenging to achieve in a lab setting.


COMPARISON OF LEED AND WELL


Some of the most well-known components of conscious design are LEED and WELL. In a simple comparison, LEED is focused on the sustainability of a building and its components, whereas WELL is centered on creating an environment where a building’s users can thrive. For example, LEED is concerned with how much water a building uses, whereas WELL standards consider the quality of the water being consumed.



Another key difference in LEED and WELL guidelines is that LEED is focused on the United States and follows American building regulations, while WELL has global implications.


Both LEED and WELL offer guidance on building location, water, air, materials, and indoor environmental quality. LEED is also focused on a building’s energy consumption, whereas WELL has standards for nourishment, mind, and community.


ENERGY USAGE


One of the biggest challenges in achieving a sustainability rating in a lab is its energy requirements. Laboratories use a significant amount of energy, making it difficult to reach lower energy use thresholds.


A solution for improving energy performance is incorporating alternative energy generation methods into the facility. These could include photovoltaic, wind, geothermal, and solar-thermal energies, which allow buildings to function more independently and are more sustainable than traditional energy types. Although a true net-zero energy source may not be feasible in most situations, alternative energy solutions can be great choices for stand-by power.


These alternative energy generation techniques do, however, come with a cost. In addition to adding to the bottom line of a project, they require additional space—internally and externally—to accommodate them. For example, a designer must plan where a solar or wind farm can be located on a site and allocate appropriate interior space for power storage, equipment, and related gear.


In conjunction with incorporating alternative energy generation into a facility, it is important to consider how internal practices can affect energy usage. Occupancy and vacancy sensors can be installed to control air, lighting, and even power outlets. Similarly, Building Management Systems (BMS) can also monitor and adjust power throughout a facility.


Finally, facility managers can be some of the best resources for building energy management. To ensure that sustainable measures can be successfully implemented, facility managers should be interviewed early and involved throughout the design process.


AIR


A building’s energy consumption can also be affected by the way in which air is conditioned. Laboratories require very specific environmental conditions, which, when implemented, can increase energy demand. Using heat exchangers, filtering geothermal-conditioned air, and incorporating outside air are all solutions to reducing energy consumption in HVAC systems.



Ventilation strategies are important to WELL standards. In most settings, installing sensors inside and out can assist facility managers in selecting ventilation options that optimize air quality and energy efficiency. However, because a lab is a controlled environment and air quality changes can affect results, natural ventilation is often impossible to implement in a lab setting. Lab designers should pay close attention to this balance and strategically locate laboratory areas and office seating areas to meet sustainable standards.


WATER


Meeting water usage standards for sustainability can be more easily achieved. From a WELL perspective, labs are already paying attention to the quality of water and usually trying to minimize pollutants to avoid contaminating sterile products and materials.


Water consumption can also be reduced by selecting fixtures that limit or use less water. Some companies even repurpose treated water as gray water, which might then be used to water landscaping, fill toilets, feed chillers, etc. before being discharged.


SITE


When selecting or designing a site, it is important to consider the needs of the tenants and their employees. With conscious design in mind, a site should be accessible by road, public transportation, and bicycles. It should also provide adequate parking for its users and take precautions to reduce light and noise pollution. This could mean limiting the use of parking lot lights or using special fixtures that do not emit light over lot lines.



From an ESG perspective, architects are often incorporating more health-related items—such as walking paths, fitness equipment and obstacles, and green space—into the site design.


Furthermore, to separate chillers and compressors from the surroundings, fencing and screens can be used as visual barriers, and sound-blocking materials can be incorporated to limit noise pollution.


MATERIALS


Lab designers are well-versed in managing numerous layers of information and requirements. When selecting building materials and striving for sustainability, it is important to be mindful of what materials consist of and the possible effects they have, especially if potentially hazardous. Designers often review each building material’s Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) to understand its environmental and sustainable attributes before making their selections.




Another way to make conscious material choices is to select locally sourced materials or incorporate recycled content into the building.


Lab designers consider a large range of factors in the design process; even if they initially specify the use of certain sustainable materials, these selections might get altered throughout subsequent design phases. A good designer will ensure that the final material selection is consistent with—if not the same as—the original intent.


LIGHT AND ACOUSTICS


When considering the design of a lab facility, it is important to make conscious decisions about light placement and acoustics early on in the design process. Natural light, although often desirable in office spaces, frequently needs to be avoided in a controlled lab setting. Similarly, noise and vibrations can impact animals housed in a lab. A lab designer might therefore choose to place the labs on the interior of a building and reserve exterior-facing spaces—which have more natural light and noise— for functions such as offices, conference rooms, cafeterias, and other communal spaces.


MOVEMENT


WELL standards for movement encourage designers to provide opportunities for facility users to move around. A plan for movement should be considered early in the design process as it can affect everything from siting to interior circulation, desk type, and seating arrangements.


On the interior, designing the facility so that the stairs are more visible than the elevators encourages people to use the stairs more often. Designers can also provide adjustable sit-stand desks or varied seating types for employees. On the exterior, there should be access to bike trails, hiking paths, or other spaces for movement.


Another major concept related to movement is WELL’s “free address,” which outlines a standard for no assigned seats for employees. This allows individuals to move freely and choose where to sit based on any criteria, including preferred temperature, breezes from air vents, lighting (natural vs. artificial), noise, etc. With its flexibility and efficiency, free address integrates with many post-COVID workplace design trends and work-from-home policies.


THE WRAP-UP

While the controlled environment and power needs of labs can often make it challenging for a facility to achieve WELL or LEED status, designers can use these standards to take a more sustainable approach to facility design.


WELL also outlines additional standards for policies relating to mental health and leave. Facility managers can learn about these standards to help create an environment where employees will thrive.


Finally, as more investors are interested in businesses who support environmental and social initiatives, architects and facility managers are increasingly considering other conscious design principles such as ESG in the design of their facilities.




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