What sustainability opportunities does COVID-19 present for the Science & Research sector?

With tightening budgets and a strong focus on revenue, CBRE’s Head of Science & Research discusses how to turn challenge into opportunity.

20 Mar 2020

By David Keenan

What sustainability opportunities does COVID-19 present for the Science & Research sector?

With tightening budgets and a strong focus on revenue, perhaps there has never been a better time to turn a challenge into an opportunity. So, what opportunities might exist for those in the Science & Research space looking to reduce operational expenditure and improve sustainability?

The conversation about whether we should improve sustainability has well and truly passed. It is now a case of how we can, and how quickly.

Notwithstanding the unknown impact of COVID-19, it may be an appropriate moment for the sector to explore opportunities to reduce operational expenditure and improve sustainability. Yes – myself and many would argue – you can have both.

I was set to discuss such topics at this week’s Tertiary Education Facilities Management Association (TEFMA) Sustainability Workshop at the University of Wollongong (UoW), however, in the interest of public safety, the event was sensibly cancelled.

The workshop was set to be held at the university’s Sustainable Building Research Centre (SBRC), which recently achieved a Living Building Challenge certification – the first in Australia and one of only 24 globally. This project was celebrated by everyone involved and I’m thrilled to count some of my CBRE colleagues as part of that project team.

For those not familiar with the SBRC project, it has achieved a very rare status of not only being sustainable in terms of energy, water and waste, it is also restorative, meaning that it provides a net positive outcome to its environment.

Achieving the Living Building Challenge status is no mean feat, and of course it is not yet practical for every project to target such sustainability success. However, the fact that it has been done here in Australia is something we should not lose sight of. Just think, a research and education facility on campus that is 100% sustainable – not a bad thing when it comes to budget planning.

So, what opportunities might exist for a client looking to tighten their budget while improving sustainability?

Laboratory buildings, and other highly controlled environments, are typically very energy intensive and expensive facilities to operate. When you look at why research/laboratory buildings are expensive to operate it is generally due to greater air conditioning (HVAC) requirements and, perhaps more importantly, the tendency to condition and then waste large amounts of ‘expensive’ clean air. While an office might have two to four air changes per hour, a laboratory can have anywhere in the four to 12 range, with even greater rates in niche facilities.

An emerging technology for consideration to both new build projects and retrofitting of existing facilities is to tackle the air change rate. In demand-based ventilation control we have an opportunity to be smarter about how much we needlessly waste ‘clean’ air in our buildings and be smart about only reacting to real events or contamination in the air. Laboratory air is clean 99% of the time (Sharp, 2010), so let’s not waste it.

For good reason, considerable thought goes into the planning and construction of laboratories to keep both the users, be it staff or students, and the wider community safe against whatever process, material or activity is occurring therein. While safety is always the primary concern, if we can be confident that safety has been addressed it makes sense to explore opportunities to reduce wastage wherever possible. Accordingly, a risk assessment must be undertaken before any initiative is implemented. However, for most teaching and ‘basic’ research laboratories, a big opportunity exists to explore replacing a fixed ‘static’ system with something dynamic, smart and potentially safer for the occupants.

By improving sustainability, we can also reduce the operational expenditure and budgets for facilities that are expensive to operate. One might argue that, at times such as these, we should carefully consider the opportunity to retrofit and improve our research and education facilities’ performance in order to gain some budget relief going forward.

Finally, I was also looking forward to updating the workshop attendees on our progress with establishing the Australian chapter of the International Institute of Sustainable Laboratories (I2SL).  It is through attending I2SL meetings (formerly known as Labs21) that I was able to learn about demand-based ventilation control and bring this best practice thinking back to Australia.

The Kinghorn Cancer Centre in Sydney was the first Australian project to embrace these technologies – a great example of global thinking that led to real sustainability benefits locally. While it’s great the project was an Australian first, the fact that there are only three in the country says we have plenty of work to do in sharing best practice thinking and opportunities for the sector.

COVID-19 is currently challenging everyone, but I hope we can continue discussions as to how we best position our built environment for a more sustainable and smarter future. Let’s ensure we keep talking and exploring our opportunities.

For more information, please contact David at [email protected] or visit the CBRE Project Management’s Science & Research hub.

Sharp, G. P. (2010). Demand-Based Control of Lab Air Change Rates. ASHRAE Journal.

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