Laboratory Design Newsletter 2012 Selected Abstract

Fact or Fiction: Water Conservation Strategies in the Southwestern U.S. Reveal a Glimmer of Hope

Mara Baum, AIA, LEED AP® BD+C, and Gabriel Cervantes, LEED AP, HOK


The Scripps Institute of Oceanography has reported that the lifeline for the Southwest—the Colorado River and Lake Meade water distribution systems—will "soon teeter at the brink of failure." In an effort to discover and outline the current trends in laboratory water conservation in the extremely dry southwestern U.S., the presenters developed a series of questions and surveyed a range of laboratory stakeholders in southern California, Nevada, and Arizona. They then produced an in-depth study of the responses and presented them at the Labs21 2012 Annual Conference.

Because laboratory facilities' cooling and process loads require a significant amount of water, compared with other building types, they are at a higher risk in a future of uncertain water supply and increasing water rates. Despite this, anecdotal evidence suggests that recent and currently planned laboratory projects in the Lower Basin incorporate only minimal water conservation measures.

Based on interviews with laboratory personnel representing public university, private university, corporate, and government facilities, the presenters were able to acquire an understanding of how these water issues are being addressed by laboratories relative to facility type and ownership (public vs. private).

The questions that presenters sought to answer included:

  • Are most laboratories pursuing water conservation?
  • What are motivations behind the decision to pursue or not pursue water conservation?
  • Do trends in water conservation approaches vary by owner?
  • What are the strategies being used for water conservation?

As a result of the study, the presenters were able to establish the trends that show which water conservation technologies and strategies are common to the region, as well as the underlying motivational factors behind their use, and noteworthy facility examples.

The trends that they were able to identify suggested that all facilities work to conserve water, and that 75 percent of those surveyed indicated that conservation is "very important" in decision making. Further, they established that retrofits are very common in facilities in this region.

One of the discovered trends was that government-owned facilities, above all other ownership types, were more likely mandated by regulations to conserve water. In contrast, non-government-owned facilities, such as commercial laboratories, were not driven by regulations to conserve water, and were conserving water on a voluntary basis.

Another trend recognized was that money and LEED were not major factors for water conservation among those surveyed; rather, environmental stewardship was the primary goal. To quote one of the survey participants, "Water is cheap!" In other words, some conservation measures, such as power conservation, for example, can be quantified with real financial savings. Many of the facilities surveyed recognize that water is a precious resource in the Southwest and conserving now has long-term benefits.

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Two projects in the Southwest were found to be visionary, using forward-thinking conservation methods to prepare for a projected diminishing water supply: the National Exposure Research Laboratory and Indoor Environments National Laboratory (an EPA facility with landscape maintained by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas) and the Los Alamos National Laboratory Nicholas Metropolitan Center. The Los Alamos laboratory, for instance, includes a Sanitation Effluent Reclamation Facility (SERF) that treats up to 300,000 gallons of water per day.

The results of this study suggest a number of conclusions. Even in complex lab facilities, non-laboratory-specific conservation measures are the most common. Additionally, most facilities use very little "once-through" cooling water. Beyond that, there were not many consistent trends in strategy selection for water conservation in the region, other than the almost nonexistent use of rainwater harvesting given low precipitation. Ultimately, water conservation is a significant issue and one that is top of mind in all laboratory facilities; unfortunately the solutions are not simple, and there is a long way to go to finding consistent techniques that will conserve water.


Mara Baum is HOK's firm-wide healthcare sustainable design leader. Ms. Baum oversees sustainability implementation, research, and education across HOK's global healthcare market sector, also providing support to science and technology projects. A thought leader and researcher in the sustainable design field, Ms. Baum speaks regularly at regional, national, and international conferences, including the American Institute of Architects Convention, Greenbuild, the California Higher Education Sustainability Conference, Living Future, and others. She is also on the faculty of Boston Architectural College and recently co-authored the Advanced Energy Design Guide for Large Hospitals: Achieving 50 Percent Energy Savings Toward a Net Zero Energy Building. She holds a Masters of Architecture and a Masters of City and Regional Planning from the University of California, Berkeley. A LEED AP since 2001, her experience with LEED® and Green Guide for Healthcare projects covers tens of millions of square feet.

Gabriel Cervantes is a project manager, laboratory planner, and project architect, as well as a California-registered architect with HOK who offers more than 20 years of professional experience with an emphasis on research facilities. His involvement in projects of high complexity, such as the new William Eckhart Research facility at the University of Chicago, or the Convergence of Molecular Science and Engineering Research Building at the University of Southern California, gives him a depth of technical expertise that he brings to each project. Mr. Cervantes is committed to collaboration and open communication, particularly given the complex requirements of research facilities. Whereas all projects he undertakes are designed for highest levels of sustainability, he is ultimately in pursuit of creating net zero energy buildings. Mr. Cervantes received a Bachelor of Arts in architecture from the University of California, Berkeley, and a Masters of Architecture from the University of California, Los Angeles.