What color is your lab?

Oct. 1, 2011

During the past decade, the public health laboratory community has witnessed a spate of new construction, with antiquated government buildings replaced by sleek, modern facilities incorporating state-of-the-art designs: versatile, open floor plans; dedicated specimen receipt areas; and more. But one design trend stands out: the greening of the laboratory in both an eco-friendly and literal sense.The brand new Unified Utah State Laboratories: Public Health (UUSL:PH), for example, sports solar panels, reduced-flow toilets, a heat-recovery wheel on its single-pass air exhaust system, and automated lighting that turns itself off when the last person leaves the room.

Connecticut’s Dr. Katherine A. Kelley Public Health Laboratory—slated for completion next year—will optimize “daylight harvesting” with an east-west orientation and tall, insulated windows allowing light penetration deep into the building. Chosen interior materials boast a high recycled content or utilize renewable resources such as the bamboo and cork flooring that will grace public areas. Carpeting, paints, wood finishes, laboratory casework, and ceilings will be PVC-free, with no volatile organic compounds and no added urea formaldehyde. A pre-cast, concrete exterior shell will function much like a tea cozy to maintain interior temperatures.

Several state public health laboratories—including those in Utah, Connecticut and Maryland—meet or will meet the criteria for silver-level certification under the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system.

Increasingly, however, the new generation of public health laboratories is not only green on the inside, but green on the outside too. The UUSL:PH is quite literally green, with seven species of sedum covering a 3,000-square-foot second-story roof. Patrick Luedtke, MD, outgoing head of the laboratory, said before the sedum was planted, the roof’s surface temperature reached 130°^0F in the spring and reflected heat up into an adjacent third story. Now, the temperature never exceeds 80°^0F, even in summer. “It’s delightful,” he says.

UUSL:PH employees are growing vegetables in a quarter-acre garden on the laboratory campus and have access to a running trail encircling the building.

In Connecticut, construction of the new public health laboratory is extremely site-sensitive, with preservation of existing wetlands and woodlands; landscaping with native flora requiring minimal maintenance; and plantings of meadow grasses and wildflowers with deep root systems to prevent soil erosion on slopes. All soil and gravel removed from the site is being saved for later use as fill. And the overall design maintains natural patterns of stormwater runoff (e.g., by eliminating curbs in some areas) and incorporates features such as grassed biofiltration swales to remove pollutants from roadway runoff.

Why are public health labs going green?

Luedtke cites energy efficiency as “the biggest reason by far.” Laboratories are extremely energy intensive facilities, he says, “so any small amount of savings gets magnified.” Luedtke’s annual electric bill, for example, runs to more than $500,000. A mere 10% savings—$50,000—would fund the yearly salary of a junior chemist.

Thanks to a host of energy-saving features, the Connecticut laboratory will be at least 65% more energy-efficient than a typical U.S. lab. Designers went so far as to create a computer model of the building to simulate prevailing wind patterns and establish the location of fresh air intakes and exhausts for optimum performance and safety.

But energy efficiency is not the only benefit to be gained from “greening.”

Gregg Herriford, chief of administrative and scientific support services at the Connecticut public health laboratory, says green enhancements “increase staff satisfaction in their work environment and support the broad mission of public health in improving the life of all people by making the world’s resources available to everyone.”

Says Luedtke, succinctly, “It’s the right thing to do.”

Nancy Maddox, MPH, is a public health communications specialist located in Alexandria, VA.