Selected Highlights of the Labs21 2010 Annual Conference


Six Planning Strategies that Save Energy

Christie Coffin, NCARB, LEED AP, The Design Partnership, LLP


The two most commonly studied strategies to save energy in laboratories are: 

  • Design with climate, and
  • Use of mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) equipment (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning [HVAC] and energy generating devices like solar panels).

Durable, energy-conscious planning is recommended as an additional strategy. The six planning strategies suggested here can reduce energy costs and capital costs as well.

1)  Small is green. Reduce overall building size without reducing scientific capacity. 

Decrease gross to net factor: By carefully deploying space, we can eliminate space that does not support science. At the University of California (UC), San Francisco, and UC Merced, recent laboratory remodels have all but eliminated unused spaces such as corridors. Most corridors are uninhabited and do little to support science. How much energy do we save if we eliminate 50 percent of the corridors?

Question spatial standards: 11-foot bays are frequently used for open biomedical bench work, but 10-foot bays also work. Eleven feet may be more adaptable and more compatible with equipment corridors, but is it necessary? Subtracting 10 percent from these spaces means 10 percent less volume to heat, cool, and ventilate.

Ironically, compact planning may increase the energy use per square foot, while decreasing the overall energy consumed per linear foot of laboratory space.

2)  Zone building 24/7: Plan the building so that the whole building does not have to run at 100 percent to support times of limited or no research use. We have all experienced buildings turned on for one user. Good zoning makes setbacks—which are commonly used to save major quantities of energy each week—more effective. 

3)  Zone functions laboratory and non-laboratory: We usually try to zone so that offices, conferences, and break rooms can take advantage of natural ventilation, fewer air changes, recirculated air, and other lower energy systems. Where this can be accomplished without compromising scientific functionality, major savings in energy use and capital costs for these functions can be achieved. At UC Santa Barbara, we structured offices to use tall, double-hung windows, under-window radiators, and ceiling paddle fans. No air conditioning was needed.

4)  Share, don't duplicate: Many laboratory features and special equipment rooms can be shared. While not always practical, sharing saves both energy and capital costs. It may also give research teams access to a richer blend of resources.

5)  Concentrated spaciousness: Being frugal does not mean forgetting the importance of making a special place that can act as a crossroads or a heart for collaboration. A notable shared splurge may be more valuable than a little extra space spread thin.

6)  Use outdoor spaces: Outdoor spaces are certainly less expensive than indoor spaces and provide valuable daylight; fresh air; and visual, aural, and thermal variety. Research shows that these factors can contribute to alertness, productivity, and job satisfaction. Not all circulation or social interaction needs enclosed conditioned space. At UC Santa Barbara and UC San Diego, we have used outdoor veranda corridors. Even in continental climates with extreme summers and winters, two-season use (spring and fall) is both practical and desirable. At UC Merced, operable windows in offices have been used to advantage.

In summary, our enthusiasm for new technology often makes us forget that there are low-cost ways to make energy budgets stretch to support more and safer science environments. Appropriate planning strategies can result in significant construction cost and energy savings. Think what a five to 10 percent reduction in capital costs can do toward implementing advanced energy conservation and sustainability measures or increasing the linear feet of usable laboratory space.


Christie Coffin is a senior architect planner with The Design Partnership in San Francisco. She is a licensed architect in California and Oregon, a LEED Accredited Professional, and holds a National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) certificate.

Ms. Coffin has concentrated her career on understanding the relationships between behavior and place and putting this understanding into practice in the design of public facilities.

Ms. Coffin's professional work has included planning and designing laboratories for the University of Oregon; Yang Ming National University; Veterans General Hospital, Taiwan; UC Davis, UC Santa Barbara, UC San Diego, UC Merced, and UC San Francisco; the Department of Veterans Affairs at Palo Alto and Seattle; and Chiron Corporation.

In addition, Ms. Coffin has worked extensively planning and designing healthcare and mental healthcare facilities and places for children including an award-winning grade school and children's shelter. The Grossmont Intensive Care Units won the top national prize given by intensive-care doctors and nurses for support of effective intensive medical treatment. Rosa Parks School won the top national prize for social design in 2000.

Ms. Coffin has taught architecture at UC Berkeley, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Oregon.