Sustainable Laboratory Development

Sustainable Laboratory Development

20.06.2023 | By Jonathan Burroughs


New metrics for assessing how green your lab is

We’ll shortly have the UK Net Zero Carbon Buildings Standard emerging for wet laboratories – the first time that we’ll see an approach to sustainability in the built environment specifically covering the Life Sciences sector.  It will provide very welcome guidance and a great pointer towards the metrics that will help tackle this important issue – covering both inbuilt carbon and carbon in use.

I don’t see the use of timber in laboratories any time soon, we’ve spent quite a bit of time looking at the issues around that, but air changes per hour and how we deliver efficient extract to air in buildings that are multi-storey requires ever more care and having some metrics that can meaningfully interpret how green a laboratory is will be fantastic.

For now a round of applause to all who’ve been involved and a big thanks to the RICS and RIBA for taking the lead here, along with partners in the work at BRE and the Carbon Trust, and all those professionals who’ve given their time to it.

Managing sustainability consideration in building design/delivery

Traditionally life science buildings have started their delivery journey with a research or academic institution, possibly a big pharma company, defining what’s needed through a detailed brief.   And sustainability targets have evolved but have often been a bit clumsy or insufficiently defined – so first iterations of what might be built take broad account of the aspiration, but the subject tends to get more air-time as detailed design decisions have to be taken. 

Today we need a whole new approach.  Far more buildings are being designed as commercial or flexible space for a variety of uses.  And sustainability is more important.  So clarity at the outset for how sustainable a building needs to be is paramount for a client and the professional team, which will lead to better answers and a smoother process.  Care will be required not to over-specify, whilst still delivering flexibility, and as much time needs to be given to what won’t be built as what will, because items may be omitted in day 1 delivery but provided for so that when needed at any date into the future the building won’t be found wanting.

We’ve been doing some work with AKT II to look at some of the issues here.  They like to  adopt a design hierarchy whereby a resilient “back bone” is constructed on day one, providing a future proofed chassis. This can then be linked to a System Build approach, whereby a primary chassis becomes a prefabricated and repeated system – possible only with the collaboration of supply chain early in the process and thus a change in mindset in real estate procurement.

Our relationship with end users is also key here, as we rely too much on passive anecdotal evidence or specific end user needs at the time, as opposed to data from test-fit models or working floors.  More work is required to enable designers to understand the actual requirements of the market and fundamentally improve the carbon attributes of design.

Can adaptive re-use of existing buildings play a part in Innovation Districts?

Working with the Innovation District panel of the NLA we’ve taken a look at this too.  When looking through the lens of sustainable development, working with existing buildings if at all possible is, of course, a crucial first step.  The many voices of the ‘retro-first’ campaign remind us that demolition should be a last resort.  However, this is a complex debate with the ‘fit for purpose’ argument defining a counter position.

In terms of Innovation Districts, this is particularly crucial, given the complexity of specification and need for resilience as explained above.  The different disciplines of science often require a geometry, structural frame, service distribution or logistical requirement that results in reinvention opportunities being dismissed, in lieu of a new resilient building. However, as specification requirements reduce there is no reason why existing buildings with the ‘right bones’ cannot be re-purposed into life science developments, and there are certain developers proving this to be the case.

Detailed studies on complex refurbishment projects are beginning to shed light on the significant amount of carbon often needed to strengthen historic frames as well as the magnitude of temporary works. Whilst complex cut and carve developments attempt to predict carbon rates, it is often not until frames are stripped back to expose the nature and condition of the historic structure that the degree of engineering invention is realised. It is again here, where data collection across the industry is crucial to continue this learning, informing more data-driven decisions.

Can stakeholders in Innovation Districts look more constructively at district wide heating and cooling?

Another important aspect that we are witnessing is the clustering of buildings in evolving Innovation Districts.  This is presenting a further opportunity.  Within a defined campus, different buildings can provide varying functions, thus creating the required resilience and breadth of specification in an eco-system.

Districts can also provide opportunity across an area of real estate for better delivery and recycling of power and heat.  The Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions has been working on projects to look at how users in an area may be able to make choices about energy exchange or storage based on economic motivation, sustainability or to support the energy grid.  Energy generated in such places might be stored locally.  Technology can be used to create ‘digital twin’ representation of what is happening and can explore better ways of managing energy.  District energy platforms may well become more common place but are a challenge to create.  Where better to start to build such opportunities than innovation districts?