Can labs go green?

Sustainable solutions may involve trade-offs, but proponents say research facilities with an environmental sensibility can be affordable and effective.

By Bob Grant

Interactive Q&A: Need advice on making your lab green?

Howard Beittenmiller's pale blue eyes light up as he points to a coaster-size, perforated metal disk embedded in the walkway under our feet. We're standing above the vast atrium at the center of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Missouri. Sunlight floods the expanse that stretches from the ground floor to the high ceiling, and Beittenmiller invites me to stand over what looks like a shower drain planted in the middle of the hallway. I feel a whisper of coolness blowing from the vent as I look down at it.

"That's a low velocity swirl diffuser," Beittenmiller says.

Seeing the befuddled look on my...

From its energy efficient ventilation and electrical lighting systems to its emphasis on natural lighting and recycled construction materials, the 15,300-square meter center is one of the labs on the leading edge of a movement toward environmentally conscious design and operation aiming to supplant the energy inefficiency, dusty corridors, and dimly lit work areas of traditionally designed labs.

Green labs, however, are still rare among the nation's research facilities. Dan Amon, national energy manager for the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), estimates that currently only about "one to three percent of labs are being designed green." According to Bill Odell, an architect at the Saint Louis architectural firm of Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum (HOK), the green building design movement is scarcely a decade old.

Odell, who was part of the design team that planned the Danforth Center, attributes this turn to three factors: a profusion of conferences discussing green building tactics, a general awakening to the environmental degradation that large buildings such as labs wreak, and an acknowledgement that building green can save money. Odell says that this last point was driven home when institutions such as big pharmaceutical companies were forced to tighten their belts and become more economically efficient. "It didn't hurt that many big research organizations were hurting for money," he says.

Amon, who is also a program manager for a cooperative project co-sponsored by the EPA and the Department of Energy called Labs for the 21st Century (Labs21), sees the green building trend, particularly applied to laboratories, rapidly gaining momentum and significance. "It's like a freight train coming down the tracks," Amon says, "and you've got to get on board."

Courtesy of HOK, Photographer: Tim Hursley

Though labs make up a relatively small chunk of the commercial building stock in the United States, their unique needs for high-performance ventilation systems, 24/7 operation, and specialized appliances (e.g., fume hoods, centrifuges, and ultra-cold freezers) make them notorious energy hogs. According to the latest Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption (CBECS) survey, laboratories constitute less than one percent of the total floor space occupied by the country's almost five million commercial buildings, which include malls, office buildings, hospitals, businesses, universities, and churches. But the survey, administered in 2003 by the DOE's Information Administration, also found that while commercial buildings consume an average of 14.9 kWh/sq. ft. of floor space, labs consume more than double the electricity; averaging 39 kw hr/sq. ft.

Laboratories exert other pressures on the environment, such as increased water use and a particularly nasty waste stream, but none is larger than energy use. Energy "is the big enchilada in terms of the environmental impact of labs," says Paul Matthew, staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). Thus laboratories are logical targets for energy conservation. "The opportunities in laboratory design are endless for energy efficiency and savings," says Amon.

Still, facility managers, owners, and others involved in design decisions have been hesitant to incorporate energy conservation into laboratory building plans. "There was a perception that energy efficiency and safety conflicted," says Dale Sartor, an LBNL colleague of Matthew. He also says that research facility managers have always been reluctant concerning energy efficiency because of science's overriding dependence on reliable energy supplies. "They don't want to mess with a scientist's experiment and lose 10 years of data," Sartor says.

Sartor and Matthew, who are both deeply involved in laboratory sustainability both at LBNL and Labs21, say that labs don't necessarily need to sacrifice the crucial concerns of safety or reliability for energy efficiency. Matthew even cites the energy-efficient variable air volume (VAV) fume hoods as examples of equipment that can actually improve laboratory safety. Matthew explains that by maintaining an appropriate flow of air, VAV fume hoods can reduce the turbulence that can be caused by constant air volume hoods. This makes contaminant infiltration into the general laboratory environment less likely.

The Danforth Center's road to greenness - which wasn't without obstacles - illustrates how cost considerations can also get in the way of green goals. Initially, the facility's owners aimed for the highest formal mark of environmental sustainability: A platinum rating under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) framework. LEED is the building greenness scorecard publicly launched in 2000 by the non-profit US Green Building Council, and getting a building LEED certified involves paying nominal fees for a detailed inspection and evaluation of a building, its infrastructure, and its operation.

Achieving LEED platinum status remained a key goal of the project even after initial estimates for the design overshot the building's immutable $75 million budget by $15 million. "We all had to pick ourselves up off the floor when the estimator gave us that number," recalls Beittenmiller. "It's like getting hit in the head with a sledgehammer when you go over by that much so early in the game."

"What the cathedral was to the 14th century and the office building was to the 20th century, the lab is to the 21st century."
-Don Prowler

By scaling back the gross dimensions of the facility, the design team, which included Odell, wrangled the budget closer to its target while maintaining the goal of attaining LEED platinum status. Instead, the firm reconsidered size and the materials used on the lab's external skin. "Relatively few of the energy issues or other sustainable issues were hit," says Odell.

But it wasn't enough. Even after the changes, the sustainable design elements necessary to achieve LEED platinum status kept the project over budget.

Danforth Center planners were forced to abandon their goal of LEED certification and instead focus on their overall goal of making the Danforth Center what Beittenmiller calls "a state-of-the-art plant science institute that could become the focus of plant science research in the region, in the country, and maybe even the world." Planners "decided that it was more important to have more high-quality science than it was to have LEED certification," says Beittenmiller. "But a lot of sustainable features remained very much a part of this building. And the overall program did not change with respect to the integrity, length, and breadth of the science."

The team dropped a number of superfluous design elements, while keeping those that could recoup their initial costs or reduce the recurring costs of repair, replacement, or maintenance. For example, the team decided to scrap plans for an enclosed glass entryway complete with natural ventilation and self-sustaining orange trees that came with a $750,000 price tag, but opted to keep the towering sun shade that reduces energy costs by shading the south facing entrance of the building. It also decided to stick with a lighting system using T8 fluorescent bulbs, which at the time were about 10% more expensive than traditional T12 fluorescents but are up to 40% more energy efficient.

Other acceptable costs included more expensive energy-efficient motors that operate at reduced cost and a computerized building monitoring system, which helps Beittenmiller and his team keep close tabs on lab efficiency. "We got stuff that was going to cost less to run and that's going to last longer," he says. The result was a building that has achieved its goals of sustainability. "[The Danforth Center] is an extremely efficient building," says Bill Odell. "When I was checking the bills, I was floored by how much they were saving."

That's part of the reason that cost is becoming less of a barrier to implementing green labs. Beittenmiller blames the high price of advanced sustainable technologies at the time of Danforth Center's designing for the facility's decision to scale back its green ambitions. Six years later, material costs have come down and the perception that building green is prohibitively expensive is changing, according to Mary Ann Lazarus, director of sustainable design at HOK. "You can get a LEED certified building for no extra cost," she says. Lazarus explains that long-term energy savings soon offset first costs like pricier building monitoring systems or specialized heat-blocking glass (see "Greenest of the Green"), and that "demystification and knowing how to start" incorporating sustainable design features are needed to combat the notion that greener means pricier.


Labs such as the Danforth Center incorporate architectural design features to take greenness beyond bricks and mortar and into the psyches of working scientists. Features such as extensive day lighting, open and inviting common areas, and aesthetically pleasing fa?ades combine with state-of-the art, energy efficient equipment to give green laboratories the potential to attract and retain the world's most talented scientists. David Chassin, a senior vice president at HOK, puts it this way: "A green lab is a happy lab."

Green labs may also be more productive. Sigma-Aldrich's Life Science and High Technology Building, also in St. Louis, is another green lab that HOK designed (see "Anatomy of a Green Lab"). Completed in 2001, it incorporates an array of energy saving design elements while featuring a floor plan, complete with shared coffee bars and centrally positioned meeting areas in a sunlit atrium, meant to stimulate interaction and collaboration among workers there. "What we were trying to accomplish here was to bring people out of the labs to talk to each other," says Chassin, who helped design this building as an HOK architect, "to have chance meetings and discussions of problems they're having in the lab, and to be less isolated."

Betsy Boedeker, a senior scientist in the functional genomics group at the facility, says that HOK's design strategy worked. "You get so much better results if everybody is working together instead of working against each other," she says. The design of the lab "makes a huge difference in how people approach other people or a project."

Boedeker worked in an older Sigma research facility in St. Louis prior to moving into the new lab building, and she says that there was no comparison between the two work environments. "It was very gloomy with dark labs and no windows in the labs," she remembers of her former lab. "It was definitely not the treat that we get everyday here. I love this building."

To some green lab advocates, the appearance of laboratories and the convictions they portray are as important as the science that is their lifeblood. Paul Matthew remembers the words of his former colleague, the late Don Prowler, who was the chair of the Sustainable Buildings Industry Council: "Labs embody the spirit, culture, and energy of our age," Prowler once wrote, "What the cathedral was to the 14th century and the office building was to the 20th century, the lab is to the 21st century."


One of the first US research facilities to "go green" was the Nidus Center for Scientific Enterprise, a not-for-profit plant biotechnology and life sciences incubator located on the Monsanto corporate campus just across the road from the Danforth Center. A major reason for the cluster of green labs in and around St. Louis is the fact that HOK, the architectural firm that played roles in designing Sigma's research building and the Danforth and Nidus Centers is headquartered in St. Louis.

"It's so atypical of so many lab buildings," says Susan Pais, the Nidus Center's director of operations, standing beneath the building's central stairway, amidst a tangle of plants basking in abundant sunshine. "Everybody feels like it's a warm environment, which is not a typical word you would associate with a lab."

Michelle Hresko, who works for Nidus tenant Divergence Inc, agrees with Pais that the center's design makes for a comfortable work environment. "The things that most of us like about the Nidus center are the windows," says Hresko, who has worked at the Nidus Center for almost six years as Divergence's senior director of protein engineering. "They're huge, and there's a lot of sunlight that comes in." Hresko says that they even had to install blinds on one of the windows in her lab because the abundant sunshine was glaring off her microscopes. Hresko also says that the sunlight means that the lights in the lab are seldom turned on during the summer months.

Outside the lab walls, cisterns that collect rainwater (for irrigating the native plants used in landscaping) sit below windows crowned by protruding external sun shades for blocking direct sunlight while allowing sky views from inside. "Even our lawn furniture is made from recycled plastic," says Pais, pointing out the cluster of sturdy tables and chairs sitting on a patio outside the building's centralized kitchen.

Just inside the Nidus Center's gracefully curving stone front wall hangs a plaque declaring the facility's LEED Silver status. As a pilot project completed in 1999, it was the first lab in the country to receive the LEED stamp of approval. These outward displays of sustainability take on special importance at Nidus because, as an incubator facility, part of its mission is to attract, support, and retain biotech and life science researchers and entrepreneurs. Currently, nine early-stage companies and more than 50 researchers call Nidus home. The companies include biotech and pharmaceutical startups working on everything from hepatitis treatments to biofuel cells to molecular technologies for controlling agricultural parasites.

Beyond the sunlit atrium, other green aspects of Nidus become apparent, including the energy-efficient showers for those who cycle to work, and low volatile organic compound interior paints. According to Labs21, the facility uses about 38% less energy than a similarly-sized conventional building.

The technologies driving this energy conservation sit in the basement and behind laboratory doors. Each of the Nidus Center's 24 laboratories contains VAV fume hoods that are equipped with motion sensors. These apparatuses, with their ability to precisely modulate the amount of ventilation a hood is receiving based on the position of the sash and the occupancy of the room, afford vast improvements in energy conservation over conventional fume hoods. Hresko, the Divergence researcher, uses these VAV fume hoods in her lab and says that the system functions seamlessly, even when she's dealing with noxious chemicals. "When we work with Beta-Mercaptoethanol, I can't even smell it in the lab. So [the VAV fume hoods] must be working," she says.

This is significant because non-VAV hoods are the among the biggest energy drains in conventional laboratories. According to Dale Sartor, "the average fume hood uses the same amount of energy as three houses." This means that a fully occupied lab building with dozens of fume hoods operating together can drain as much electricity from the grid as a whole neighborhood.

Other energy intensive lab equipment, such as autoclaves and blast washers, are shared by different labs, also help reduce electricity use at Nidus. Servicing these labs are high-efficiency chillers, boilers, and air handlers that whir in the basement while a giant energy recovery wheel churns silently but deliberately. These wheels are relatively new gadgets, and the one spinning at Nidus is able to recover as much as 80% of the energy from air being exhausted from labs, transferring it back to heating or cooling the incoming air stream. "So that allows smaller chillers, smaller boilers, smaller pumps, and smaller piping systems," all resulting in further energy savings, says HOK's Chassin.

"A green lab is a happy lab"
-David Chassin

The energy savings from the design of the $10.2 million Nidus Center have added up to considerable savings for the building's owners and tenants. The 38% energy savings translate to a cost savings of about $60,000 per year at current energy rates. Other labs are also saving: Bren Hall at the University of California, Santa Barbara, for example, features premium-efficiency appliances, VAV fume hoods, flooring made from recycled tires, natural ventilation, and irrigation using reclaimed water from the local utility.

According to a 2004 Labs21 case study, Bren Hall has surpassed California's rigorous Title 24 energy efficiency standards by 50%. Because of its thorough incorporation of sustainable design elements, Bren Hall, which was completed in 2002, was the first laboratory to receive a LEED platinum rating.

Similarly, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) was able to reduce its overall energy use by 40% per square foot primarily through ten year's of retrofitting from 1985 to 1995. Sartor, at that time the energy manager at LBNL, and his facilities management team made changes such as installing VAV fume hoods, implementing direct digital controls and automated energy management systems, and upgrading ventilation and lighting systems in 100 of the facility's buildings. The energy savings that Sartor and his team accomplished translated into a savings of about $4 million per year.


Efforts to improve sustainability are always adapting, and the process of greening the Danforth Center didn't stop with its completion in 2001. Beittenmiller - who treats sustainability as less of a goal and more of an ongoing process - has incorporated sustainable elements and practices while managing to save the center money. By installing high efficiency boilers and making changes to the building's ventilation system, for example, Beittenmiller and his team decreased gas use by about 45% from 2005 to 2006, saving about $100,000 per year. Beittenmiller also added rheostatic controls to electrical equipment to cut back on the energy demands of what he calls "slam-bang on-off" operation and outfitted the lab's lighting system with motion sensors to optimize safety and energy consumption. "We have been 'efficientizing' the management of this building from day one," says Beittenmiller. "We never stop looking. We never stop talking."

All this looking and talking has resulted in about 50 energy saving actions over the past three years at the Danforth Center. For Beittenmiller, this process is driven by practical concerns such as safety and cost effectiveness in addition to environmental sensitivity. "When it comes right down to it," Beittenmiller says, "being green is the ultimate pragmatism. If you can put things in that make you last longer and be healthier, what makes more sense than that?"

Beittenmiller's eyes light up again as we stand on the roof of the Danforth Center surveying the land surrounding the building. He points to a strip of green ringing the property where the project team decided to plant perennial wildflower seeds around the center's perimeter. A couple of weeks before my visit to the Danforth Center, the flowers were in bloom. "The entire site was just a riot of colors," Beittenmiller says. "It was so pretty and sustainable."

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