Sustainable Laboratory Design and Construction: LEED

Thu, 06/05/2014 - 12:12pm
Tim Studt

Updated rating system includes broader focus on sustainable technologies.


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Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) is a sustainability certification rating system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). The USGBC is a private, membership-based non-profit organization that promotes sustainability in how buildings are designed, built and operated. The USGBC partners with the Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI), offering a suite of LEED professional credentials that identify expertise in the field of green building. Those involved in the development of sustainable research labs and accredited by the USGBC often have the LEED AP (Accredited Professional) added to their title.

Developed in 2000, LEED has become the nationally accepted benchmark tool for the design, construction and operation of high-performance sustainable buildings. The rating system (see attached table) has a maximum of 100 base points with an additional six possible for Innovation in Design and four in Regional Priority areas. There are four ratings possible with 40 to 49 points yielding a Certified Award, 50 to 59 getting a Silver Certificate, 60 to 79 getting a Gold Certificate and anything over 79 getting a Platinum Certificate. Upgraded several times since its inception, the current version is LEED v4, which was released on November 20, 2013, and supersedes LEED 2009. The new LEED v4 release adds new categories that weren’t included or identified in the 2009 release. Specifically, new categories in v4 include climate change, human health, water resources, biodiversity, green economy, community and natural resources. The first LEED v4 project certification announced on November 20, 2013, was a LEED v4 Gold for the Haworth Beijing Organic Showroom, located in Beijing, China. Within each of the seven LEED credit categories, applicants must satisfy that their projects satisfy particular prerequisites and earn points. The last two categories address sustainable building expertise as well as design measures not covered under the five environmental categories.

LEED certification is applicable across a wide range of buildings including new construction and major renovations, existing buildings, commercial interiors, core and shell and even schools and private residences. There are currently over 4.5 billion ft2 of construction space involved with the LEED system, with more than 1.5 billion ft2 LEED certified to more than 7,000 projects in the U.S. and 30 countries. Many U.S. federal agencies and state and local governments now require LEED certification.

LEED Categories
The Location and Transportation category examines the programs developed to minimize the energy use and pollution created by personal vehicles, while also minimizing the building’s impact on the surrounding neighborhood/environment. A special line in this category—LEED for Neighborhood Development—looks to avoid development on inappropriate sites and to reduce the vehicle miles traveled, while enhancing livability and improving human health by encouraging daily physical activity. These projects are required to be located within the boundary of a development certified under LEED ND (Stage 2 or Stage 3 under the Pilot or 2009 rating systems, Certified Plan or Certified Project). Projects attempting this LEED credit are not eligible to earn other Location and Transportation credits.

The Sustainable Sites design criteria minimizes a research lab’s impact of ecosystems and waterways, while encouraging regionally appropriate landscaping and water management. The Water Efficiency category concerns the smart use and reduction of potable water requirements through more efficient fixtures and appliances and smarter landscaping efforts.

The large point-value (33 points) Energy and Atmosphere category involves energy strategies for commissioning; energy use monitoring; efficient design and construction; efficient appliances, systems and lighting; use of renewable and clean energy sources and other innovative strategies.


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The Materials and Resources category involves the selection of sustainably grown, harvested, produced and transported products and materials. It promotes the reduction of waste, while promoting reuse and recycling efforts.

The Indoor Environmental Quality category establishes the minimum indoor air quality (IAQ) requirements to enhance indoor air quality in research labs, thus contributing to the comfort and well-being of the researcher occupants. This particular category relies on ventilation systems meeting or exceeding the minimum outdoor air ventilation rates as described in the appropriate ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-conditioning Engineers) standard.

Other Rating Systems
There are other resources also available for rating the research lab design and construction process. The Buildings Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) was created in the U.K. in 1990 to rank building systems, components and materials based on the carbon impact of each decision. This system includes an assessment in nine different categories: Management, Health and Well-Being, Energy, Transport, Water, Materials and Waste, Land Use and Ecology, Pollution and Innovation. Each submitted project receives a score for each of these nine categories and is assigned a weighting according to the environmental impact of each category. The resulting scores reveal the project’s achievement in one of five levels—Pass, Good, Very Good, Excellent and Outstanding. While there is no specific category for research labs, applicants submitting research labs find they fit into the BREEAM Other Building section.

The International Institute for Sustainable Labs (I2SL)—formerly known as the Labs21 organization which was initiated by a partnership between the U.S. Dept. of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency—was founded to develop tools and resources for high-efficiency lab facilities. I2SL offers a Labs21 Tool Kit consisting of resources that support the design, construction and operation of high-performance labs. The Tool Kit includes design guides, case studies, a performance rating system (formerly the Environmental Performance Criteria, or EPC), a video and other products under development.

LEED and Labs
The LEED rating system doesn’t specifically identify research labs, there was a collaboration between the USGBC and the Labs21 organization to create a guideline for labs about 10 years ago, but that work wasn’t completed. The Whole Building Design Guide—a program of the private, non-profit Washington, D.C.-based National Institute of Building Sciences—has created a guide on Using LEED on Laboratory Projects that is available on their Website, This guideline was created for LEED 2009 and may need some updating for LEED v4.

When asked how lab researchers can validate the design efforts put into creating a LEED-certified research lab, they responded overwhelmingly with the energy cost reductions they see with their new labs. More than three-quarters of the survey respondents chose this as their primary response. Energy benchmarking validation and occupant satisfaction were the second highest responses, with slightly less than 50% response rates.


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Looking at the overall effects of creating a LEED-certified research lab, more than half of the survey respondents stated that increased paperwork and lower energy costs were the largest effects they saw. Other effects noted included lower operating costs (42% of the survey respondents) and increased material costs during construction (38%). About a third of the survey respondents noted having a small cost increase due the LEED certification process, while another third stated that they saw a large cost increase due to the sustainable enhancements.

While energy reductions and the resulting reductions in utility bills were the primary results of these sustainable design additions, few researchers noted that they used the enhancements as a marketing tool for their organization (29%), and fewer still stated that they received any tax credits for their efforts (19%).

Similarly, only a few researchers noted that the enhancements extended the normal construction cycle time (19%), while about a third of the researchers noted that they needed a LEED consultant to take full advantage of the sustainability enhancements.

The Cost of LEED
There are several costs involved for LEED—the cost of implementing the design changes themselves and the actual registration and certification costs paid to the GBCI. The latter costs are generally smaller, approximately $0.03 to $0.05/ft2 for new construction. There also is the documentation cost for compiling and submitting the LEED forms and managing the compliance process. There also might be the cost for an outside consultant hired specifically for the LEED submission, which could be a staff member of an architectural or design firm, the general contractor or both. The LEED process itself can introduce extra design costs for commissioning, which could amount to $0.50 to $1.00/ft2 for a complex research lab. Commissioning isn’t absolutely required, but callbacks could require it at an enhanced cost beyond the original estimate. The General Services Administration (GSA), for example, requires commissioning for all of its projects. Energy modeling costs can also be added into this mix, and are an added step for the LEED process beyond any initial modeling work. LEED modeling costs start at $5,000 to $10,000 and can go beyond that depending upon the project complexity.

These overall LEED costs are mostly based on LEED 2009 applications. The recently announced LEED v4 is moderately different than the 2009 version, and may have slightly different cost values—and likely more expensive that include additional costs for the changes noted.

The final cost add-ons are the actual construction costs of implementing the sustainable components. This can be equalized by the anticipated operating cost reductions. However, numerous studies, including our own, for the construction costs alone have resulted in a typical premium for LEED projects of 2 to 15%, with the high end including a lot of the on-site renewable energy generation components, such as rooftop-mounted photovoltaic arrays.


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