With private funding in place and sustainability becoming one of the University of California’s priorities, UC Davis had a window of opportunity to do something bold: build one of the greenest facilities on a UC campus.

“The time was right,” said Roger Boulton, the Stephen Sinclair Scott Professor in the Department of Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis. “If you’re going to make a statement about a program, the building [had] better be part of the story.”

The Mondavi Institute’s food, brewing and wine sciences labs are LEED-Platinum certified for sustainability, utilize captured rainwater and solar power, and will soon be self-sustaining for both water and electricity. The new wave labs use some of the latest technologies to cut energy use, conserve water, capture carbon dioxide emissions from wine fermentation and leave as small a carbon footprint as possible.

Research laboratories, with their specialized equipment and ventilation systems, can use four to five times more energy than a similarly sized classroom or office and can account for as much as two-thirds of a university campus’s energy consumption.

Making labs more efficient presents an opportunity for UC campuses to strive to achieve systemwide sustainability goals, which include maximizing energy efficiency, cutting water use and reducing greenhouse gas emissions to year 2000 levels by 2014 and to 1990 levels by 2020. Sustainable labs also have contributed to the $21 million in annual savings resulting from an energy efficiency plan instituted by the UC system in 2004.

Labs are “the biggest piece of the energy pie, and if you need to make substantial energy savings, go to the biggest piece and look for the best opportunities,” said Allen Doyle, the campus sustainability manager at UC Davis who became a nationally known expert on green research methods when he was a lab manager at UC Santa Barbara.

Advanced technologies and building practices are helping new and retrofitted labs become more efficient and sustainable. These facilities have features such as high-efficiency fume hoods, low-energy lighting and energy-recovery ventilation systems as well as recycled construction materials.

New facilities such as the August A. Busch III Brewing and Food Science Laboratory and Department of Viticulture and Enology Teaching and Research Winery at the Mondavi Institute, UC Irvine’s Sue and Bill Gross Hall Stem Cell Research Center and the Ray and Dagmar Dolby Regeneration Medicine Building at UC San Francisco have won accolades for their design and sustainability.

The Busch labs and research winery at UC Davis, the Tahoe Center for the Environmental Sciences and Bren Hall at UC Santa Barbara are the only three UC facilities to earn LEED Platinum status, the highest level from the U.S. Green Building Council’s sustainability ratings. At UC Berkeley’s Morgan Hall, a floor of renovated and new labs that opened in August 2010 earned a LEED Gold rating, the second highest level.

When planning the labs at the Mondavi Institute, UC Davis had a window of opportunity to build a state-of-the-art, sustainable facility, Boulton said, adding that the private donors who funded the construction also advocated for a green approach.

In the past, the belief might have been that labs are too complicated to make sustainable without posing a risk to researcher safety or research results.

“We’ve found that for most of the challenges there are solutions,” said Katie Maynard, a sustainability coordinator at UC Santa Barbara who with Doyle and a team of student interns co-founded LabRATS, a campus program that assesses the sustainability of labs and offers advice to make them greener. “Our highest priority is supporting laboratories in the pursuit of high quality research. We are careful to make recommendations that meet both research and sustainability objectives.”

Often, sustainability efforts can save time for researchers, reduce costs for laboratories and identify needed resources, such as used equipment, while improving communication, Maynard said. For instance, recyclers were reluctant to take plastics from labs for fear of chemical or medical contamination. At UC Santa Barbara, LabRATS worked with a waste hauler and labs to work out a system to separate plastics free of contaminants for recycling.

UC Irvine is taking an approach for new and retrofitted facilities that it calls Smart Labs, which re-thinks a laboratory building’s mechanical and electrical systems with the goal of cutting energy consumption in half.

“It’s an ensemble of things that have to be done in a holistic way,” said Wendell Brase, UC Irvine’s vice chancellor for administrative and business services, who oversees campus sustainability initiatives.

At most research universities, labs use about two-thirds of a campus’s energy, Brase said. This is because all of the air that is cooled, filtered, heated, dehumidified and distributed in a lab building is exhausted as a safety measure. Typically, laboratory buildings exhaust their entire air volume six to 12 times per hour, 24 hours a day, regardless of occupancy or air quality. 

Gross Hall uses motion sensors that lowers the rate of ventilation to two to four air changes per hour when there are no people sensed in a lab. Detectors also ratchet up the ventilation when particulates or volatile solvents are detected and sound an alarm if dangerous levels are reached. In a smart lab, air changes vary from two to 10 per hour based on sensed conditions and occupancy.

To attain 50 percent energy savings, which Gross Hall has achieved, Brase said complementary measures such as high-efficiency lighting with daylight controls and reduced exhaust stack discharge airspeeds (when conditions are safe) need to be deployed.

At UC Davis, surveys of researchers found that labs are 90 percent empty for 12 hours of the day, “yet we were running them as though they were completely occupied,” Doyle said.

Dialing down energy use when rooms are not being used is a key part of a sustainable lab. Bren Hall, Gross Hall, Morgan Hall and the Dolby Building have controls for ventilation that are optimized for efficiency and use motion sensors shut lights off when rooms are unoccupied. The buildings are also designed to utilize as much daylight as possible for illumination.

Many common pieces of equipment in labs were designed long before conserving energy was a priority and many labs are still using them. Fume hoods and ultra-low temperature freezers are some of the most common and individually can use more energy than a house. Updating them to the latest high-efficiency models is another major component of greening a lab.

Fume hoods are ubiquitous in labs and can be a big energy drain if not used properly. In the worst cases, a hood can use three times the energy of a house. The hoods enclose lab workbenches and are designed to protect researchers from fires, dusts and vapors. Some hoods run at constant rate all the time, even when not being used. The same hood used in a variable-air-volume building slows the flow of air when the sash, or face of the hood, is closed, resulting in energy savings. But if a user fails to close a sash when a hood isn’t being used, any potential savings are lost.

Many lab freezers run at temperatures down to -80 degrees Celsius. A single freezer can use as much electricity as a typical house, and at UC Davis alone there are about 1,000 of them, according to Doyle. Some frozen items don’t need the deepest freeze, and Doyle said lab managers estimate that up to 30 percent of the things in freezers are expired or obsolete. He is working on a national Freezer Week contest to promote and incentivize good sample management.

Installing energy-saving equipment helps but it takes people to operate them. Educating, encouraging and collaborating with researchers to make recycling, conservation and reuse a part of lab culture can be the biggest challenge and have the biggest payoff. Scientists are understandably focused on their research, and getting them to make sustainability a priority takes a partnership, Doyle said.

After outreach and education about the amount of energy a lab uses and the potential for conservation, scientists are usually eager to help, said Doyle, who is developing a green labs program at UC Davis. 

“They want to do the right thing,” he said. “Doors just fly open sometimes when they find out what we’re doing.”