Does a lab make a good laboratory for sustainable design? – Not So Much Newsletter

It’s Russell Fortmeyer, Global Sustainability Leader at Woods Bagot, with another Not So Much. This month I have been thinking about one of the building sectors that seems to be heating up everywhere – life sciences. And if you happen to be in Washington, D.C. the week of September 25 for Greenbuild, say hello!


Many years ago, an architect told me that people who work in laboratories do not like to look out the window. No, seriously, that is what he said.

I was just a lowly sustainability consultant – a necessary evil? – but I was inquiring, perhaps naively inquiring while the owner’s representative was sitting in the room, why the building we were working so hard to make lively, welcoming, efficient, and healthy was entirely shrouded in a metal mesh screen. There were certainly easier and cheaper ways to reduce solar heat gain, but more importantly, I thought the connection to the sky, to the horizon, and the position of the sun, not to mention the quality of daylight we let through the glazing, were good arguments for eliminating the mesh.

The mesh stayed. The building? Not one of my favorites, but the work that occurs in the building is critical for public health. I am sure the people conducting the research are motivated by more than the ability to see birds flying outside. But what would they say if I asked them what they thought of the mesh today and how it permanently darkens and blurs their outward visibility?

Lab buildings make good laboratories for these kinds of questions because researchers appreciate research, or so I would suspect. They also make good laboratories because they often have massive process energy loads that make any minor improvement in efficiency, especially those you can continuously measure and improve, a slam dunk payback financially. It is hard to think of many building types where the specification of a single technology – like a low-velocity fume hood – can lead to such dramatic energy savings. Labs are up there with fast-food restaurants in terms of energy demand density. According to Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory’s building performance dataset, a lab building may have an Energy Use Intensity of 200 to 500 kBtu/sf-year (compared to an office, at between 30 to 60).

And labs are often institutional or owner-occupied, so demonstrating the potential benefits of a new technology in terms of the operational energy bottom line is an easier case to make, often with ancillary benefits like healthier, more productive spaces for people. This is one reason air quality testing systems, which takes micro-samples from a room as a basis for fluctuating the volume of air supplies, first gained traction in lab buildings.

Labs are among the few building types where occupants do not always have the option of working from home, so what post-pandemic lessons could be carried into those spaces to make them more flexible, environmentally responsive, and, well, less like an office? For starters, of course, we should ban exterior metal mesh scrims as an architectural shading device (my only exception would be parking structures).

The biggest lesson that applies to most commercial and institutional projects but aligns especially well with labs is that outdoor space is the new indoor space. While actual laboratory space in a lab building could account for half or more of the floor area, the rest of the building that is not plant rooms tends to be either write-up or collaboration space or just typical offices, open or otherwise. Integrating terraces for break-outs or exterior circulation for those chance meetings is a way to domesticate the day for researchers who may, by necessity, be glued to a lab with electric lights and overly chilled air.

We do not always have the opportunity with a site or project brief to include outdoor space, but we can deliver those benefits in other ways, such as with an atrium. Atrium spaces on the east and west of the LEED Gold-certified South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI, pictured below) in Adelaide play different roles – wayfinding, circulation, meeting space, environmental mediator, and, perhaps most important, social connector to inspire collaborative research.

Currently, we are working on a competition for a research precinct in a hot and relatively humid climate, so the question of outdoor space has a bit more nuance – how do you extend the comfortable seasons of the year beyond four or five months? Of course, there are many strategies you could consider, including large outdoor fans and canopies being the most climatically appropriate.

But when I am asked about precedents, I cannot help but think of the Social Sciences Building at Arizona State University in Tempe. Designed by the late architect Ralph Haver and completed in 1960, this academic building includes a central courtyard partially covered with a canvas roof for shading and filtered light, a water fountain, and the smart use of exhaust louvers from the mechanical system to “dump” cooled air at the ground level to stratify air and push heat out. Integrating landscape into the courtyard adds biophilic cues to the experience, reinforcing our psychological response to the respite the courtyard provides from the desert’s punishing extremes.  

In either SAHMRI or Haver’s building in Arizona, these environmental moves rely largely on smart planning, which can be “cost neutral” (if we have to go there!) and only if the design team has the right conversations at the earliest stages of design. Getting the core right at SAHMRI or locating the exhaust ducts adjacent to the courtyard in the Arizona example enabled the design to support their respective organizations’ social and environmental aspirations. My diagnosis? If you are not willing to experiment in design, results may vary in operation.


As I start up my Fall semester of teaching, I always revisit one of my favorite books to assign my students— architect Kiel Moe’s Thermally Active Surfaces in Architecture, from 2010. It is one of the more accessible books in architecture about mechanical systems and persuasively argues for a focus on hydronic systems for heat transfer over the less efficient and somewhat clumsy all-air approach that is the prevailing strategy in the U.S. As a longtime proponent of chilled beams in buildings, it is heartening to see so many wonderfully illustrated case studies that ingeniously integrate radiant systems into architecture.

We have been researching carbon policy across our studios at Woods Bagot in the last two months, trying to understand where regulatory agencies are focusing as they increasingly ask design teams to account for operational and embodied carbon. Although it is a few years old now, the Embodied Carbon Benchmark Study published in 2017 by the Carbon Leadership Forum (CLF), remains such a good resource for thinking through the lifecycles of our buildings. RIBA’s Embodied and whole life carbon assessment for architects, also from 2017, is also a helpful way to frame the conversation and how it relates to design stages.

I am also a huge fan of early, scrappy books about sustainable design, usually associated with off-grid or alternative living in the 1960s and 1970s. Over the summer, I picked up a copy of Other Homes and Garbage, from 1975 and by Jim Leckie, Gil Masters, Harry Whitehouse, and Lily Young, which gets into surprisingly detailed and helpful guidance for designing and constructing many building systems for thermal control or water reuse for a house that would score many LEED points today. I love the illustrations in books like these, it seems like a lost art. And the main point of the book still resonates—first principles thinking and basic physics are as relevant as ever, come to find out.