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Managing the Sustainable Lab Project: Avoiding the Pitfalls

Article by Gregory Muth

Sustainability in lab projects is a relatively new concept, requiring new ways of thinking and working. Once considered unachievable, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification for labs is now within reach through careful planning and management. Clear, measurable goals need to be established and included in the program from the outset, with buy-in from all stakeholders. As with any initiative, the project team should be held accountable for meeting milestones toward sustainability goals at the beginning, middle and end of the project.

Evaluating projects that have fallen short of expectations reveals several common pitfalls in managing a sustainable lab project.

Sustainability Pitfalls

  1. We’re not pursuing a LEED certification for this project.
    Don’t give up on your sustainability aspirations just because you aren’t pursuing LEED certification. LEED happens to be a handy set of predefined targets, but can be a grab bag of initiatives that may not be appropriate measures for every project. Organizations should develop their own goals based on the issues that are important to them (e.g. energy conservation, water use reduction, resource conservation, etc.). Whether pursuing LEED or not, set goals that are a stretch. Don’t settle for business-as-usual by reaching for low hanging fruit, as in, the points that can be easily collected without modifying the design.
  2. We want a project that’s as sustainable as possible.
    A successful project needs to have clearly defined, measurable goals. Achieving an EUI under 100 is measurable, being “as sustainable as possible” is not. Throughout the project the team, ideally with a third party, needs to monitor progress toward meeting the established sustainability targets and determine how to get back on track if milestones are missed.
  3. Labs use a lot of energy, it is what it is.
    Lab buildings use a lot more energy than office buildings and other commercial buildings, but don’t accept this as an excuse not to push the envelope. When establishing your goals, don’t settle for benchmarking against “typical” lab buildings. How do you define “typical” when you are dealing with specialized facilities like cleanrooms or vivarium’s, not to mention buildings that may have been built 10 – 20 years ago? To make an analogy, the Motor Trend car of the year in 2013 was the Tesla Model S, in 2001 it was the Chrysler PT Cruiser. Utilizing baseline data from past projects is like trying to build a better PT Cruiser rather than building a Tesla. See above about setting stretch goals and don’t accept poor results just because they’re in line with your earlier projects.
  4. We’re using a prescriptive approach, so we don’t need an energy model.
    Simply utilizing energy efficient equipment won’t guarantee an energy efficient project. It requires an understanding of building systems and how they interact. Consider commissioning an independent energy model. One such model recently revealed an energy cut of almost 50% compared to what was specified in the prescriptive design. In addition, a model becomes a valuable tool for the owner to tweak operating parameters and schedules to optimize efficiency over time. The effort spent in designing a model pays off year after year in operational savings. Just make sure you hire an experienced modeler who is using the appropriate software.
  5. I’m a LEED AP.
    Don’t be overly confident that a LEED AP designation indicates expertise in sustainability. While in theory many firms can design a sustainable lab, make sure your team includes professionals who are experienced with your specific project type, as well as the latest version of energy codes, LEED and other sustainability programs. Sustainability touches all aspects of a project. It’s more than just picking bamboo floors for the lobby or LED lights for the office, you’ll need expertise across multiple disciplines, not just a specialist in one area.
  6. That’s the owner’s responsibility.
    Admittedly, many sustainability issues fall under the purview of the owner’s operations. However, to inform a holistic design the project team should have a thorough understanding of building operations. They will need to plan for solutions to questions like: how will recyclables be collected? How much space will be needed to store them? How frequent will pickups be? In addition, materials that were once non-compliant, such as Styrofoam and biobags, can now be recycled; make sure these changes are accounted for in the design. The responsibility for planning operations shouldn’t lie solely with the owner.

At the end of the day, achieving a sustainable lab project starts with setting measurable goals and keeping them alive through all stages of the project: planning and design, construction and into operations. The project will be as sustainable as you strive for.  If you set ambitious targets, you can meet them. Goals need to be planned for, talked about, and tracked with the same diligence as the schedule and budget.

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