CMU Scott Hall; CMU Scott Hall;

Low-energy laboratories

Energy consumption in laboratories has been a significant challenge for designers and operators alike over the past decade. Laboratories are major energy consumers due to high-volume, all-air systems and process loads that drive high electrical and cooling demands. A laboratory will often consume 3–5 times the energy of an equivalent-sized office building, with more specialized facilities far exceeding that.

Over the years, various improvements in engineering system design have been made to reduce energy demand — variable volume systems, improved lighting controls, implementing night set-back, and auto-closers on fume hoods, to name a few. These interventions have been most effective when undertaken as part of a holistic approach to low-energy design, something that Arup has always championed.

There are significant limitations to the savings that can be made through engineering interventions alone. In the coming years, the drive to reduce energy demand will only increase, stemming from several sources. Legislative changes will increase the demand on building owners to reduce carbon. Research into climate change and the depletion of natural resources will increase and the buildings supporting this research will need to reflect that mission. Utility costs will detract from research grants for many academic institutions. Finally, showing strong leadership on green issues will be a key factor in talent attraction and retention for corporate research organizations.

Continuing to make significant strides in energy reduction within this sector will require designers to step away from a singular reliance on engineering systems and take a more innovative and holistic approach. There are three key areas to consider — dynamic, real-time feedback and control systems, better modeling of operational energy, and increased consideration of how user behavior and building interaction impacts energy consumption.

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Capturing real-time feedback

Monitoring energy usage in real-time should be standard in all new developments, but simply logging energy usage at our primary energy meters doesn’t generate much insight. Consideration should be given to the appropriate level of metering — for example, breaking out lab demand from non-lab demand, differentiating between original energy use and stored energy use, dedicated monitoring for process loads (the energy consumed for non-comfort-related building processes), and metering on an individual researcher basis. The greater the level of granularity required in a metering system, the more consideration is needed at an early design stage, including considerations for how utilities are provided to each lab area and how and where meters will be located. 

In addition to energy, including other forms of monitoring, such as particulate, volatile organic compound, and specific gas or element monitoring, allow for the dynamic control of systems and spaces beyond temperature and humidity. 

For real-time monitoring information to be most useful, it needs to be available to the people who can assimilate and act on it; information should be displayed graphically through a dashboard to allow for quick comparisons between recent datasets.

Implementing operational energy modeling

In the United Kingdom, United States, and elsewhere, there has been a noted performance gap between "low-energy" lab design and actual performance — as seen through utility bills. A major challenge with low-energy laboratory design is that many of the industry-standard energy modeling tools do not make adequate provision for process loads, the loads used for manufacturing and industrial processes, which dominate lab energy demands. Because process energy demands in research environments vary greatly, benchmarks are of limited value. Impactful change can only be made through detailed assessments of predicted operational energy on a facility-by-facility basis.

On a recent new build, state-of-the-art research facility in the UK, Arup was able to bring operational energy modeling to the forefront of the design process by using it as part of the overall decision-making process. We conducted detailed assessments as part of the design process using the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers Technical Memorandum 54 operational energy performance guidelines, which provides informed recommendations on how to evaluate operational energy use more fully during design.

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Arup has conducted detailed assessments as part of the design process using the CIBSE TM54 operational energy performance guidelines, the aims of which are:

  • To provide an indication of likely energy use, carbon emissions, and running costs for the building

  • To understand where and how energy is used

  • To understand measures that will have the greatest impact on energy use

  • To ensure occupiers do not have unrealistic expectations of the building’s performance

Focusing on a typical research floor, a baseline energy model was built, which accounted for laboratory process energy, accurate operational hours, and allowances for management factors. With the baseline established, the impact of design changes on operational energy could be assessed quickly. 

This not only provided both the design and client teams with a sound basis for decision-making, but also highlighted the limitations of relying on code-compliance software for energy assessments in this type of facility. The baseline TM54 results for the facility were five times higher than the required code assessment figure. 

This more holistic approach to energy modeling also ensures clients understand their facility from day one, rather than waiting a full operational year to assess utility costs and look at energy optimization.


Anticipating behavioral impacts

How people interact with buildings and their systems is fundamental to efficient building operation. We often design control systems to optimize performance and minimize energy consumption, but in practice we find these overridden or disabled by users who either don’t understand how the system works, or simply find the systems frustrating (daylight linking and blind control being prime examples).

By impacting people’s behavior in laboratory environments, we can make significant step-changes in energy consumption. Specifically, there are two main behavioral impact areas to consider in a research environment. The first is relevant to all buildings and relates to providing real-time feedback and trends to users, possibly with associated cost data to help them better understand the systems as well as the implications of their behavior.

The second is related to laboratory services and equipment. It goes without saying that functionality is key in a research environment, and the science should not be restricted by inadequate utility infrastructure intended to minimize energy usage. Historically, this has meant zero consideration is given to wasteful set-ups and behaviors, such as direct water-cooled equipment that is connected to a local tap and discharged straight to a drain, fume hoods with the sash left permanently open, and close control environments that are maintained when not in operation.

Designing buildings that work with users, and that help change behaviors, should be far more effective than simply limiting these kinds of behaviors with control systems that can be overridden. A very basic example that has often been shared is around fume hood management. Simple signage — “Shut the sash!” — can provide significant improvements in awareness and energy savings.

By considering users and implementing more holistic approaches from the outset of a project, we can create significantly higher-performing buildings that move well beyond what is possible with engineering alone. Operational consultants and designers who can bring together stakeholder engagement, organizational change, people management, and accessibility have the power to transform the research environments of the future.

Images of Carnegie Mellon University's Scott Hall courtesy of Bitterman Photography.