Perspectives April 23, 2021

The future of labs is net positive

Labs looking to generate renewable energy face unique sets of challenges. Jacob Werner in our Boston Studio spoke with Lab Manager about the things that lab planners need to know when working on a net zero project.

This is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in Lab Manager. Click here to read the full story.

Labs are commonly known as “energy hogs,” which can be a challenge for project teams and lab managers who want to develop a more energy-efficient facility. Energy demands may differ depending on the end use of the laboratory—academic, wet or dry labs, how many fume hoods are present, etc.—so there are no universal answers on how to achieve net zero.

Lab Manager spoke with Jacob Werner, AIA, LEED AP, WELL AP, Living Future AP, PHIUS Certified Passivehouse Consultant (CPHC), senior project architect with Perkins&Will in Boston, about the things that lab planners need to know when working on a net zero project.

The Life Sciences Building at the University of Washington features custom vertical glass solar fins on its façade. The fins are expected to generate enough electricity to light more than 12,400 square feet of the building's office space each year.

Q: What is meant by “net zero” in labs?

A: A Net Zero energy building generates renewable energy equivalent to the total energy it consumes. The building may be connected to the grid, drawing power from the grid when renewable energy is unavailable, as long as the building later exports an equivalent amount of energy back to the grid to compensate. The energy balance is usually calculated on an annual basis, with an equation such as: Power Generated Annually – Power Consumed Annually > or = 0.

Some definitions of net zero buildings prohibit the direct burning of fossil fuels at the project site, excluding the use of natural gas or fuel oil for heating. The purpose of these mandates is to hasten the transition to all-electric building systems. This is thought to be essential to the widespread adoption of solar power as a primary energy source.

Q: How should a lab management team budget for a net zero project?

A: Invest in an early and comprehensive feasibility assessment, including human factors, engineering systems, and renewable energy opportunities. Studies of operational practice, like a thorough Laboratory Ventilation Risk Assessment (LVRA), can slash project energy demand by as much as half, with zero upfront cost. This is valuable for all facilities, but especially for projects with low energy or net zero goals. A feasibility study of high-performance mechanical systems incorporating fully integrated whole-building design can substantially increase efficiency. Renewable systems analysis, by qualified specialist engineers, is critical to understanding the real cost versus benefit of complex geothermal, energy storage, and renewable energy systems. Conducting an early feasibility study to align the project goals and optimize scope, schedule, and budget can dramatically increase the chance of success for any net zero project.

Q: What do you think the future of net zero will be like? Will there be major advances in technology or materials, will the majority of labs end up going net zero, etc.?

A: The future is net positive. As we learn more about operations and develop smarter practices, building energy demand is falling. As building mechanical systems gets smarter and more efficient, building energy use is trending downward. As renewable energy and battery technologies advance, energy production is increasing all the time. With the unique purpose of advancing human understanding through discovery and developing new solutions to societal challenges, laboratory projects are ideally suited to lead the way toward the net zero—or even better, the net positive future.

Completed in 2018, the UW Life Sciences Building is designed to use 153kBtu/sf/yr, a 59% energy use reduction vs. an average of similar buildings energy use (370kBtu/sf/yr)
"Laboratory projects are ideally suited to lead the way toward the net zero—or even better, the net positive future."