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A European View of Sustainability in Lab Design

Mike Dockery, United Kingdom Health and Safety Laboratory

In Europe during the last decade there has been an increasing trend towards what we may regard as 'greener' labs. This movement has been three-pronged, focusing on:

  • The reduction of laboratory energy consumption by challenging 'traditional' air change rate/volume flow norms. This has been achieved by means of the rationalisation of containment device designs and the use of situation/activity analysis to make face velocity selections (rather than taking a single, 'one size fits all' number; the rejection of design by rote). In order to guarantee that safety is not being sacrificed on the altar of energy efficiency, these changes have been supported by a combination of ergonomic studies and the use of new and more rigorous methods for the testing of containment performance.
  • The adoption of a decoupled design philosophy. Until recently lab design has involved a sequence of predetermined, indivisibly-linked decisions, from fume hood selection, through module size and structural arrangement, to the external aesthetic. This has restricted innovation and inhibited the necessary achievement of flexibility and adaptability (which is often required by the 'new' sciences) and has regularly lead to the first refurbishment starting on the day of handover. A solution is to adopt building concepts which 'decouple' strategic and tactical areas of design, enabling faster progress at the early stages of the project definition yet avoiding the trap of the scientists being 'painted into a corner'. The consequent availability of the 're-use rather than replace' option (via the use of the 'plug-in' principle) means that some of the central objectives of the Sustainable Design Agenda are addressed, particularly in any subsequent refurbishments. Some of the main elements are:
    • Benches and casework which are packaged, pre-wired and piped, requiring only positioning, levelling, and connecting (via quick-correct devices) to be ready for use.
    • Fume hoods manufactured in a similar way, being completely packaged and including integral Variable-Air-Volume (VAV) air flow control. Such fume hoods can have inherently robust containment, making them less sensitive to external influences and giving freedom of location (or re-location).
    • Decoupled HVAC systems (supply by means of fabric air socks and exhaust by 'plug-in' connections to a common installation).
    • Piped and electrical systems which are distributed on a grid, matrix, or network basis, using prefabricated or factory-assembled sections of services spine.
    • Lightweight, demountable 'squash court wall' partitioning systems.
    • Vertical services riser towers constructed beyond the main building envelope.
  • Increased awareness of the wider environment. The obligations and concerns of the regulatory authorities, the local community, and the intent and direction of the sustainability agenda are recognised at an early stage. For instance, the central matter of airborne discharges is addressed by the use of (comparatively) large-scale site models in a wind tunnel, with quantifiable data being generated from the use of a tracer gas (SF6) methodology. This meets the concerns of:
    • Distributed concentrations of discharges to the wider environment.
    • Potential reentrainment to the building's HVAC systems (or to other buildings on/adjacent to the site).
    • Evaluation of the aerodynamic performance and impact of future building phases.

This type of structured analysis is particularly appropriate when novel or innovative design solutions are being proposed, inherently requiring a superior dispersion performance (in comparison with traditional or just-meets-the-code approaches).

Although Europe currently lacks a coherent and organised approach to sustainability in laboratories, such as is represented by Labs21, this presentation uses a selection of completed and proposed examples which demonstrate that we are addressing the key issues with, in many cases, original and/or innovative elements to the designs. In making these changes we are not paying mere lip service to the 'knit your own wallpaper brigade.' Experience has shown that the rational and measured application of the principles of sustainability also pays dividends in terms of scientific and business efficiencies, as well as demonstrating our corporate commitments to the community and the wider environment. As Kofi Annan has said, "Companies are learning that, as markets have gone global, so, too, must the concept and practice of corporate social responsibility. And they are discovering that doing the right thing, at the end of the day, is actually good for business".

Labs21 Connection:

The presentation is noteworthy from a number of aspects, including:

  • Although the UK, together with the rest of Europe, lacks a formalized and focused labs-specific approach to sustainable design, the key issues have been addressed for some time and often in an original and innovative manner. In each of my recent involvements in the design of R&D facilities for U.S.-based clients (Pfizer, GSK, Amgen, Millennium, Watson) there has been a keen interest in the techniques and technologies that are being used 'on the other side of the pond,' whether these involve engineering, equipment, layout concepts, or the application of codes.
  • The movement towards flexibility/adaptability in lab design has, perhaps, been most aggressively pursued in the UK, with sustainability benefits through the principle of 'reuse rather than replace.' These advantages are also reflected in the availability of incremental layout reconfigurations, which enable the more precise matching of scientific needs and which are less likely to adversely affect safety/functionality.
  • The drive towards lower volume flow rates and, inherently, lower face velocities for fume hoods has been an important area of interest for lab designers. There is, however, an associated and inescapable obligation to ensure that safety (containment) is not being consequently prejudiced. The new European fume hood standard EN14175 incorporates interesting testing methodologies which seek to validate the robustness of containment at reduced face velocities.


Mike Dockery, B.A. (Hons), MSc (Integrated Building Design), CEng, MIMechE. Mike is the chairman of the BSI (British Standards) Laboratory Technical Committee LBI/18 which produces standards for lab furniture, fixtures and fittings, lab taps, safety showers, HVAC, service enclosures, and hoods. He was an invited expert on the CEN (European) Fume Hoods Technical Committee and leader of the UK delegation. Mike is also a member of the UK R&D Facilities Consortium (a forum for the key UK pharmaceutical laboratory users) and chairman of its Design Study Group. He is lead consultant to the Containment Control division of the UK Health and Safety Laboratory and Consultant to lab design A&E firms in the U.S. and Italy.

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