Three Keys to Sustainable Lab Design to Improve Health and Safety

Environmental Building
Designing a laboratory for sustainability not only provides lab users with a healthier workspace, but reduces energy use and pollution, contributing to a healthier environment.

It might seem that every day, a university or other research institution announces their goal to reduce their carbon footprint and become more sustainable, especially as the threat of climate change increases.

But how do organizations actually meet these goals? One major way is to ensure laboratories are designed sustainably, which can significantly reduce energy and pollution.

“Labs are very high energy consumers, but with some effort in design, there can be considerable energy savings,” says Janet Baum, AIA, MArch, Program Co-Director of Guidelines for Laboratory Design and Instructor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health Executive and Continuing Professional Education Program.

Here are three of the keys to implementing sustainable lab design, whether you’re designing a new lab or redoing an existing one:

1. Involve a wide range of stakeholders in designing a sustainable lab.

To successfully achieve an effective sustainable laboratory design, the lab owners, whether they’re from the government, a university, or other organization, begin the process by setting their vision for sustainability. In hopes of achieving these goals, the design team can guide the owners through the many pre-existing industry standards for sustainability.

“Education of the client and lab owner is an integral part of the job of the architect or sustainability consultant,” says Baum. “Because there are so many strategies and approaches to sustainable lab design, they often need guidance on what’s possible.”

It is important for additional stakeholders to be involved in deciding on standards to ensure that lab will function properly. This includes health and safety professionals who protect the safety of those who work in the lab.

If possible, lab users should also be involved in the design process, as architects, engineers and EHS professionals need to understand the purpose and anticipated projects that will be happening in the space. Involving lab users early in the process will also help them understand how the building will operate and ways they may need to adapt their work. This process should also involve the staff who will be responsible for maintaining the building’s heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) and other systems and therefore need to understand these systems.

Labs are quite complex and diverse, so there are many ways to design what would be called a sustainable lab.

2. Ensure your sustainability standards fit your lab.

Labs vary widely in terms of the activities that happen within them, and the risks of those activities. Therefore, there’s not one sustainable solution that fits all labs.

“Labs are quite complex and diverse, so there are many ways to design what would be called a sustainable lab,” says Louis DiBerandinis, MS, CIH, CSP, Program Co-Director of Guidelines for Laboratory Design, Instructor in Industrial Hygiene at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and Director of Environment, Health, and Safety at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

There are many standards for sustainability that can be followed. While Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) is one of the more common options, there is a range of credentialing systems, which can have very different standards and may better suit your needs.

“You need to apply the highest standards you can where it makes sense,” says Baum. “For example, if you have a synthetic chemistry lab, it’s hard to achieve the highest levels of sustainability by nature of the work they’re doing.”

There are many factors that go into ensuring a lab is sustainable. In general, this means a design that aims for a low carbon footprint and low pollution. This applies whether you are renovating an old lab space or building, building a new lab space, or a new building to house labs.

Many organizations have existing labs that have not been designed for sustainability and consequently have high energy uses. In these cases, it is recommended to renovate the current space, as reusing existing materials often has a lower environmental footprint than creating a new building.

 Renovating an existing lab space or building starts with assessing a lab’s function, how it may have changed over the years, and the energy that both the lab and entire building use. The architects and owners can then target areas where there are opportunities for energy savings. According to DiBerandinis, ventilation is the most common area for savings, but other common areas include water use, electricity use, and equipment.

For a new lab, the starting point is determining site development and lab use. This guides exactly which standards can be incorporated into the design.

Energy use is a key tenet of sustainable design for both new and existing labs. There are many components of a building with sustainable energy use. One is energy efficiency – buildings should use as little energy as possible to keep the building running. Another is pollution – the building should use energy sources that do not pollute the surrounding environment.

When creating a new space or building, one way to conserve energy is to reuse materials from other buildings when possible. This reduces the pollution and carbon use that would come from creating new materials, and reduces waste. If reusing materials is not possible, using materials with low carbon footprints is best. This includes materials such as recycled steel, which has a low carbon footprint due to the fact that its production process releases less CO2 than that of new steel. In older buildings, adding insulation may be one way to reduce the energy requirements of the building.

In addition, construction of a new lab space should not destroy any natural environments. Labs should also not pollute the environment, including the natural water sources nearby.

Water use in the lab is another area to consider. Many types of labs use large amounts of water in their processes. Sustainable lab design should take this into account, and build in systems to reuse water whenever possible so as not to waste water.

Ventilation is often the largest portion of energy use in labs, and one of the most important aspects of environmental health and safety.

3. Balance sustainability with health and safety.

A main goal of sustainable lab design is to balance sustainability with the health and safety of the people who work in the lab. Certain experiments require specific materials that may not be reusable or recyclable, but are necessary to keep workers safe.

One important example is the balance between safety and sustainability that is considered when designing a building’s ventilation system.

“Ventilation is often the largest portion of energy use in labs, and one of the most important aspects of environmental health and safety,” explains DiBerardinis. “Indoor air quality needs to be conducive to health, safety, and comfort.” Health and Safety is an integral part of most Sustainability rating systems.

There are many ways to optimize ventilation systems including, substitution of less volatile and toxic materials, using closed systems, the use of variable air volume systems, use of ductless hoods where applicable, implementing off hours setbacks, use of chilled beams for supply air and temperature control and many more.

 One worry about sustainable buildings is that they can lead to burdensome costs for owners. But the long-term cost savings have been found to outweigh this initial cost. These three keys can serve as a simple starting point to have a successful return on investment.

Furthermore, the long-term consequences of ignoring sustainable lab design negatively impact not only the organization, but by the world as a whole. With the increasing threat of climate change, sustainable buildings are the necessary future of construction. Given the large energy footprint of labs, they must be an integral part of this change.

The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health offers Guidelines for Laboratory Design, an applied program focusing on the needs of diverse stakeholders to ensure safe laboratories.