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Smart Labs Program at University of Virginia

In 2021, UVA released a strategic Sustainability Plan for 2020-2030 that outlined energy and emissions targets for the university; laboratory spaces were identified as one of the most advantageous opportunities to contribute to reaching the university-wide goals. 

In 2008, UVA funded energy efficiency upgrades in one of the University’s lab buildings. Savings from that upgrade were used as seed money to fund future projects, evolving into the Building Efficiency Program (BEP) as interest in sustainability increased from leadership and demonstrated return on investment. The Sustainable Labs Program, in turn, grew out of the BEP and all project expenditures are charged to that fund. Staff positions for the Sustainable Labs team are funded in various combinations of BEP funding and Office for Sustainability overhead funding. 

Sustainable Labs projects are charged to the BEP fund, but those costs are recovered through energy savings. Once 125% of the project costs are recouped to the BEP fund, persisting savings go directly to the building owners. 

Like other organizations and universities with significant research lab space, UVA has experienced the outsized impacts of resource use intensity in these specially designed buildings. Labs can use up to 10 times as much energy as standard office buildings due to prescribed ventilation requirements intended to maintain air quality and various large pieces of equipment such as ultra-low temperature lab freezers, ducted chemical fume hoods, and more. 

Sustainable Labs is the overarching program that houses two complementary initiatives, Smart Labs and Green Labs.  UVA Green Labs was officially launched in 2016 and worked to engage directly with researchers to encourage more sustainable research practices.  By 2019, the sibling initiative, Smart Labs, had evolved out of a need to address the building-specific opportunities for conservation of energy in laboratory buildings. It was apparent that Green and Smart Labs reinforce each other and, by 2022, the combined program was retitled Sustainable Labs.  This multifaceted approach to lab sustainability ensures that each building receives tailored outreach and interventions that speak to research needs and our institutional sustainability goals effectively.

The Sustainable Labs program provides an extensive package that is adapted to each unique building. This generally includes targeted outreach and education for each lab, retrocommissioning, and detailed lab ventilation risk assessments (LVRAs) of every individual lab, which created an opportunity for smarter ventilation and higher-impact engagement in energy-intensive lab buildings.

The Sustainable Labs Program relies on the collaboration and engagement with other key university staff and stakeholders on campus such as students, lab staff and researchers, the Buildings and Operations team, the Environmental Health and Safety team, and Management Maintenance personnel. Many of these stakeholders are active participants in the Green Labs Working Group, a subset of the university’s Committee on Sustainability that meets monthly.

By partnering with key stakeholders such as the University’s Environmental Health and Safety team, the team was able to create tailored ventilation programs for each individual lab. Ventilation risk assessments were performed in every individual lab room to create customized ventilation plans, allowing the University to avoid over- or under-ventilating critical research spaces. 

The UVA team allocated full-time staff to oversee projects and change management while implementing the programs in their sensitive labs, which was key to the program’s success. UVA dedicates three full-time Sustainable Labs positions within the Office for Sustainability. The Program Manager leads project management of building efficiency renovations with support from the Project Associate. The Green Labs Specialist creates specially designed outreach initiatives tailored to each building undergoing retrocommissioning. The University also relies on a growing team of student employees, who were critical to the success of the program, carrying out building freezer inventories, spotlighting labs on our social media platforms, applying “Shut the Sash” stickers to chemical fume hoods, and more. Collaborating with groups across campus like the Environmental Health and Safety, Space Management, and Facilities teams ensures successful implementation across grounds. These groups drive engagement with Green Labs initiatives, bringing together researchers, staff, students, professors, and other members of the university community around this initiative.

The UVA team believes that every institution with research space that addresses lab sustainability from floor to deck, researcher by researcher, and building by building, can benefit from a similar holistic model. 

The UVA team designed and implemented specialized outreach programs that created an opportunity for significant energy savings and fostered fundamental messaging that created lasting sustainable behavioral changes in lab users.

  1. Green Lab Certification: This certification is an incentive-based program that labs can receive if action is taken to reduce their environmental impact in areas such as cold storage, chemicals and reagents, materials and reuse, electronics and appliances, and engagement. 
  2. Shut the Sash Challenge: The university created this campus-wide challenge to promote safe and sustainable chemical fume hood management. In one month and in one building alone, an estimated $7,600 in energy savings was recouped through this effort. 
  3. International Laboratory Freezer Challenge: My Green Labs and the Institute for Sustainable Laboratories (I2SL) introduced an international challenge for participating laboratories to achieve energy savings through improved cold storage management practices. In 2022, UVA won the Top Academic Organization award from I2SL and saved over 14 average American households worth of daily energy consumption through this initiative.  

The Green Labs Program and associated Green Labs Working Group also support the integration of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives and community engagement with Sustainable Labs programming, improving the accessibility and communication of tools that support UVA’s researchers equitably. This includes events such as the Green Labs Resource Fair, the International Freezer Challenge Celebration, Lunch & Learn events, and more.

UVA quantifies its success by measuring the following components: metric tons of carbon dioxide usage, energy usage, changes in operational costs, and behavioral changes resulting from engagement with students, staff, and the community. To optimize safety and efficiency in laboratories across campus, detailed ventilation risk assessments are performed in tandem with full building infrastructure assessments. Between 2020 and 2021 there were 148 Sustainable Labs LVRAs performed in research labs. To date, over 200 labs have been engaged with Sustainable Labs programming through a variety of channels. 

The Sustainable Labs Program already has a myriad of positive documented outcomes such as increased community engagement, community-building, enhanced safety, research, and educational outcomes. To date, the University has fully implemented the Sustainable Labs program in two research buildings, with an additional four buildings in progress. The combined energy savings for the two buildings in which Sustainable Labs has been fully implemented exceed $2.7 million. One building in particular, Medical Research Building 4, has saved $1.8 million in energy costs since January 2021, paying back the original project investment two years sooner than anticipated. 

By reducing energy consumption in intensive lab buildings, the University cut utility costs, reducing emissions, and enhancing safety for the people working in lab spaces. In Fiscal Year 2023 the program has reduced CO₂e emissions and energy use by 22%, resulting in more than $930,000 of energy savings in both Sustainable Labs Buildings. Additionally, outreach and engagement efforts such as the Shut the Sash Challenge were responsible for $7,600 in energy savings in one month. UVA was also recognized as the Top Academic Organization in the International Freezer Challenge, saving an estimated 441.6-kilowatt hours per day through cold storage maintenance. The Sustainable Labs Program estimates an avoided energy cost of $5 million per year once fully implemented.