Climate Impact December 20, 2023

As climate change continues, how can energy-intensive laboratories be designed more sustainably?

Laboratories consume more energy per square foot than a typical office building, due in large part to the equipment required to conduct research projects and the heating, air conditioning, and ventilation systems that keep technicians safe and comfortable.

Yet scientists have been concerned about climate change for decades, and campaigns like Million Advocates for Sustainable Science show that many of them want to work in labs that are part of the solution, not part of the problem. The new Life Sciences Building (LSB) at the University of Washington tackles this issue head-on. Designed for energy efficiency, it won a COTE® Top Ten award from the American Institute of Architects and is a model for academic life science labs.

The building consists of four floors of biology labs and offices; a greenhouse; a first floor with common areas, undergraduate teaching labs, and an active learning classroom; and two basement floors for growth chambers and other equipment. “Some of the researchers in the LSB study the impact of climate change on many types of organisms,” says Stephen Majeski, the senior associate dean for research and infrastructure at the UW College of Arts and Sciences.

“From the start, we knew we wanted to make this building as efficient as possible. And because of the hard work of the design/build team, we were able to do more than I ever anticipated.”
Stephen Majeski, the senior associate dean for research and infrastructure at the UW College of Arts and Sciences
Committing to sustainability

An early commitment to sustainability was crucial because substantial energy-saving measures need to be considered even before design work begins. Strong institutional support is essential, and the client was all in. “The University of Washington is a leader across higher education in terms of trying to decarbonize,” Majeski says, adding that the university requires all new buildings and major renovations to be designed to LEED Gold standards at a minimum and to be 15% more energy-efficient than required by city codes.

Early in the pre-design process, the design team held intensive sustainability work sessions called “eco-charettes” with representatives from faculty, student groups, campus facilities, and other stakeholders. Participants explored energy conservation strategies and defined broad principles that would guide design decisions as the project progressed. “We focused explicitly on how to make this as energy efficient as we possibly could, given our financial constraints,” Majeski says.

Solar power

One early decision centered on harnessing solar power, and the project includes a traditional rooftop array that generates 110,000 kWh. But students were determined to push the envelope, and they played a crucial role in designing and raising funds for a first-of-its-kind solar solution. Amorphous silicon photovoltaics laminated within glass fins were mounted vertically on the building’s southwest face and positioned to optimize solar energy capture. The semi-transparent fins produce enough electricity to light all 12,400 square feet of open and private offices along the perimeter of levels 2-5 throughout the year. They also shade the interior, reducing glare and unwanted solar heat gain, and they preserve views and allow natural light into the interior.

Members of the UW Solar student group participated in eco-design charettes, presented research findings to the design team, and wrote funding grants for the fins. The cost to manufacture and install them probably would have been prohibitive without the students’ involvement, Majeski says: “Our undergraduates got energized and won a grant to help us defray the costs significantly.”

Passive ventilation

Codes require more frequent air exchanges in labs than in offices or commercial space. The number of exchanges per hour is determined by the chemicals used in the facility, the experiments being performed, and other factors. As a result, heating, cooling, and air exchange is a major energy draw in most lab buildings.

That’s true in the LSB, too, so the design team zoned the lab areas to be ventilated conventionally. But they could get more creative, and more sustainable, in the common areas and offices. They considered the local climate and sun angles throughout the year, chose operable windows to facilitate natural ventilation, and incorporated radiant floors and chilled waves. The systems work together to create a comfortable interior environment.

David Perkel, who chairs the biology department and works in the LSB, was skeptical when he first heard that offices with no forced-air circulation would be located on the building’s south side. But after working in the building, he’s a believer. “With the combination of the chilled waves and the solar fins that act as shades, and the fact that the sun is higher during the summer, it actually works great,” he says.

Sharing space and equipment

The energy that the LSB and other buildings use to operate, called operational carbon, is only part of a building’s sustainability story. Embodied carbon, or the energy that’s consumed in producing and transporting materials to construct and furnish a building, is also an important consideration. One way to minimize embodied carbon is to design more efficient spaces, reducing the quantity of materials required for the same program.

In addition to cutting down on embodied carbon, smaller buildings also require less energy to operate over their lifetimes. And researchers who share space and equipment need to buy and operate less equipment, and thus less energy is expended producing, transporting, and operating it.

It all adds up to substantial savings. In the case of the LSB, it also resulted in a gain in capacity. When planning began for the LSB, the team expected the building to house 20 principal investigators. But by committing to sharing lab space and equipment, they were able to accommodate 40 lead researchers and their staff in the same square footage. “For a building of this size, we got double the capacity that we originally intended,” Majeski says. “And it’s due in large part to flexible space and shared equipment.”

A study at the University of Colorado–Boulder determined that a cell culture research lab with shared equipment could have a 30% smaller footprint than a lab in which each research group had its own cell culture setups.
‘Doing our part’

Other strategies for decreasing embodied carbon in labs include renovating existing buildings, choosing high-efficiency fume hoods and other fixtures, and specifying low-carbon building materials. To help evaluate the options, architects and designers are developing ways to quantify embodied carbon in building materials, fixtures, and finishes. This includes support of free and open access tools like the tally Climate Action Tool (tallyCAT) and Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator (the EC3 tool) to help designers prioritize low-carbon products and make environmentally responsible decisions through design and specifications.

Perkel acknowledges that laboratories will always require energy, but he appreciates the opportunity to work in a lab that is minimizing its environmental impacts. “The fact that the building conserves energy and generates some of its own power has a big impact,” he says. “It makes people who work here feel like we’re doing our part.”