Towards sustainable net zero wet labs from an architectural perspective

Towards sustainable net zero wet labs from an architectural perspective Sustainable Architecture

Towards sustainable net zero wet labs from an architectural perspective

The carbon footprint of a typical laboratory (especially wet labs) is significant, second only to data centres. Every year, labs consume up to 100 kilowatt-hours of electricity and 800 BTu of natural gas per square foot.

So, how do we get from where we are now to net zero? Better still, how can we get to a net positive future? Architecture plays a crucial role in both the construction of new facilities and the retrofitting of older ones.

WindsorPatania’s Architect Director spoke to Martin Farley, director of Green Lab Associates and Europe’s first full-time sustainable laboratory specialist at the University of Edinburgh. Martin is also the founder of the Laboratory Efficiency Assessment Framework (LEAF) program which attempts to set global standards for sustainable lab operations.

We explored the concepts of net zero and sustainability and considered what equipment modern labs required to operate.


The definition of net zero and sustainability

Trade website Lab Manager spoke to Jacob Werner, a senior project architect with Perkins&Will in Boston, responsible for the UW Life Sciences Building, a highly energy-efficient lab facility, completed in 2018. It uses 59% less energy than similar buildings, a significant achievement.

His definition of a net zero energy building is one that generates enough renewable energy to offset completely the energy it consumes including drawing power from the mains. Achieving this goal includes moving to all-electric building systems thereby eliminating the need to burn fossil fuels like gas. The Life Sciences Building features prominent solar fins on its façade with the target of lighting over 12,000ft2 office space in a year, consistent with his belief that the future is solar power.

Net zero versus sustainability

Although net-zero labs do exist here in the UK like at the GSK building in Nottingham and UCL’s Pearl Building, it’s hard to achieve.

Where it can not be designed into the construction or operation of a lab, achieving maximum levels of sustainability should be the driving goal. Lab operators and scientists need to continually interrogate their own energy use to identify efficiencies, for example replacing existing high-quality equipment be replaced with something low-energy that doesn’t compromise scientific outcomes. How many fume hoods, water baths and thermocyclers are really required?

To target net zero or sustainability, every lab, whether new or retrofitted, needs its own approach and solution.

Towards sustainable net zero wet labs from an architectural perspective

Designing the ideal lab for optimal scientific outcomes

When designing a net zero or sustainable lab facility (whether wet, dry or clean), project planners need to balance environmental impacts with scientific outcomes.

On this point, Martin brought up the current “crisis of reproducibility” issue in science. The ability to verify, repeat and reproduce the work of others is an essential part of the process of scientific discovery. Described as a ticking time bomb by Frontline Genomics, lack of reproducibility costs the public and private sectors up to $28bn per annum. 65% of researchers have failed at reproducing results from their own experiments.

While net-zero goals must be aimed for, it can’t be at the cost of discovery. Scientists have posited many theories for the current crisis from a lack of transparency and low sample sizes. A theory around which many unite is that inconsistent laboratory conditions affecting lighting, humidity, temperature and other issues are also major factors.

Inside laboratory spaces

To provide the best possible scientific research conditions, the following characteristics must be designed into a laboratory from the outset:

  • Enough space for workstations, equipment, supplies, personnel and storage space.
  • Properly equipped workstations suitable for the proposed use cases with fume hoods, sinks and other equipment.
  • Work equipment like chromatography systems, spectrometers, centrifuges, autoclaves and analytical devices.
  • Efficient layout minimising unnecessary additional travel within and between labs.
  • Easy access to supplies within close proximity to workstations to increase efficiency and reduce accident risks.
  • Adequate ventilation especially for web labs to ensure good air quality and prevent the build-up of hazardous dust or fumes.
  • The right lighting for individual workstations and the lab as a whole.
  • Safety features like eyewash stations, fire extinguishers and spill containment systems.
  • IT network. for easy access to and manipulation of centralised data from in-terminal laboratories.

Proper zoning

In modern laboratory facilities, different kinds of research are undertaken. To enable efficient workflows and to cut the risk of contamination, especially from wet labs, buildings are zoned. So, wet labs occupy one zone, dry labs another and clean labs the remaining space.

Centrally located mechanical systems power each zone and laboratory to provide the type of research environment required. This solution works well and can save energy by ensuring that environmental factors within each type of lab space are as required.

Retrofitting laboratories in existing buildings

Zoning is difficult in historic buildings. In fact, so is making sure that there is enough room for people and equipment within zones. Historic buildings, although often beautiful, are not configured correctly to meet the demands of modern laboratory facilities from the perspective of reducing building energy demand.

Martin told us that most of the interventions he is asked to consult on where the goal is a more energy-efficient facility are in historical buildings. Lab spacing and zoning is nearly always the main issue followed by a lack of room to house the anticipated ancillary and support services researchers need.

Towards sustainable net zero wet labs from an architectural perspective

Building a laboratory with energy efficiency at its core

So, we know what labs need. How can we offer researchers direct and efficient access to the facilities they need while protecting the environment?

Martin has spearheaded this drive for years. His vision pre-empted in many ways the current UN Sustainable Development Goals and the RIBA 2030 Net Zero Climate and Bio-Diversity Challenge.

When planning a new facility, how should a lab management team budget for a net zero project? What should they ask of their architectural and construction partners?

Key requests should include:

  • Multi-user labs. The Zayed Centre for Research into Rare Disease in Children, designed by Stanton Williams, is a prime example of how labs can reduce their energy demand. The Centre has 140 workbenches for researchers with shared facilities. This design has delivered carbon emissions 35% lower than Building Regulations require.
  • Make the labs south-facing. In climates like the UK, south-facing buildings make better use of solar gain during winter when the sun is lower in the sky, reducing the need for electric lighting. This can reduce heating costs and provide warmth to labs.
  • Build in modularity. Demands on labs change. Having a degree of overcapacity in workspace provision is useful to cope with peaks in work. Over the longer term, the ability to reconfigure the broader internal workspaces with the ability to convert areas from one lab type to another would extend the lifespan of the building.
  • Incorporate renewable energy technology. Architects can incorporate wind turbines, heat pumps and passive solar features which maximise energy production from the sun to meet energy demands. Other alternatives to consider include thermal mass materials that store and absorb heat and shading devices to cool down indoor spaces by blocking sunlight. As well as being aesthetically very appealing, green roofs and walls also improve energy efficiency and air quality, reduce stormwater run-off and encourage biodiversity.
  • Install wind speed measurement devices. To reduce energy consumption from equipment like fume hoods and cupboards, wind speed measurement devices optimise the amount of air to be extracted from a controlled area while fully maintaining health and safety.
  • Conduct a regular Laboratory Ventilation Risk Assessment. The assessments identify how efficiently ventilation systems perform in managing in-lab air-based hazards. Many operators now install variable air volume systems that adjust the volume of air provided to different parts of a lab or building depending on their cooling and heating needs. These two steps, according to some sources, could slash project energy demand by 50% for zero upfront cost other than a risk assessment.
  • Install heat recapturing tech. Another opportunity to reduce energy use is by capturing waste heat from lab equipment and transferring it for use in other processes. Care should be taken not to locate the areas in which air intake occurs with air outtake locations.
  • Purchase efficient cold storage equipment. Cold storage equipment used in clinical and biology labs can consume as much energy as a house. Recent alternatives to cut energy usage developed by Nordic Systems use a mixture of cooling technologies and advanced insulation materials to significantly reduce energy consumption.
  • Hire qualified specialist engineers in renewable systems analysis. Get a real cost versus benefit perspective on potential renewable energy systems you may be considering for your facility. This helps you determine value across a range of renewable energy opportunities so you choose one that makes economic and operational sense as well as environmental sense.
  • Investigate energy storage opportunities. As battery technologies advance, this offers an opportunity to reduce dependence on mains supply if you’re aiming for your primary energy source to be renewables. You also make better use of power generated annually by such equipment.
  • Install high-performance mechanical systems at the outset. Modern advanced building mechanical systems monitor the internal environment adjusting its performance to improve efficiency without lab operations.
  • Build in water conservation measures. Many mechanical systems now feature water conservation measures like rainwater harvesting and low-flow fixtures to reduce the amount of water used. You may also wish to consider water recycling options and technology that reduces the need for water like aerators on tap
  • Gain a competitive advantage by embracing green chemistry. Green chemistry aims to reduce or remove the use and creation of hazardous substances during the scientific process. This intersects well with growing consumer and corporate demand for greener solutions and may prove attractive to both private and public sector funders.

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Architectural considerations for sustainable wet labs

From the outset, web labs require specialist ventilation systems to prevent the release of hazardous biological or chemical materials into the environment and to protect lab workers. The systems themselves and the technology required in wet labs are energy intensive.

Given this, the ability to monitor and manage lighting and temperature using advanced mechanical systems is a greater priority if you need to address sustainability issues.

You also need to find ways to make more efficient the special plumbing systems required for equipment like autoclaves and for cleaning purposes. Strategically positioned drainage points are also a key consideration.

Special thought needs to be given to wet lab waste disposal. If waste is to be disposed of off-site, space will be needed for a custom waste disposal solution needs to be in the architectural planning. Alternatively, you may wish to build on-site treatment centres to reduce or eliminate environmental threats before ultimate disposal.

Improving lab sustainability further following completion

Martin encourages labs to consider the energy balance in their daily use. Lab operators should look to develop smarter practices across the board from procurement to recycling options as they journey to achieve net zero.

Labs could substantially increase efficiency over time by:

  • “Greenifying” the procurement process. From switching to alternative energy production processes to the carbon footprint of your waste disposal provider, make sustainability a goal in procurement. When purchasing lab equipment and materials, ask researchers and team leaders whether greener alternatives exist.
  • Constantly calibrating mechanical systems. Monitor regularly the performance of internal environment control systems to ensure performance at optimal capacity.
  • Derisk experiment by-products. Introduce less hazardous reagents and solvents in lab operations to using more selective catalysis to reduce waste generation.
  • Launch a proactive maintenance program. Where possible, install sensors on lab and mechanical equipment to monitor readings for faults. By regularly servicing equipment and fixing smaller errors, you improve their life cycles.

Human factored designs to the net zero buildings of the future

Green labs offer an exciting future vision on how we can protect the environment while advancing human understanding. The UK life science space, home to some of the world’s most exciting research, is prioritising decarbonisation in common with the rest of the sector.

Start by approaching your project budget as a long-term calculation based on building and operational costs over a 30-year period. Consider what is affordable laboratory space from this perspective.

Work with architects that question why you need what you need. Educate architects on the workflow of research projects and show them what scientists need around them to perform their work safely, efficiently and correctly. Create a communication framework that encourages the exchange of ideas for lab use cases and sustainability between projects teams on both sides.

Sustainability is at the core of WindsorPatania and we’re keen advocates of the green labs movement. To discuss the creation of a new or retrofitted laboratory, please get in touch. We look forward to hearing from you.

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