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Renovate and Reuse to Reduce

Updated: Sep 6, 2023

It’s said the building with the lowest carbon footprint is the one that never gets built. And, to the extent that renovation, retrofit, or reuse of an existing building—whether it’s a lab, office, or other facility—can be conducted with energy efficiency and embedded carbon emissions in mind, that’s true. But with additional overhead costs built into many research grants and recruitment of principal investigators often tied to the creation of dedicated, new lab space, how can lab managers, designers, and planners make the case for owners, administrators, and researchers to support adaptive reuse and renovation?


As we celebrate Earth Day this month, take a moment to consider how to apply the principles of “reuse, reduce, recycle” to the labs you manage, design, or support. Beyond the products purchased and waste created, how can the space, building materials, and equipment best be utilized to reduce their carbon footprint? Following are some ideas to get you started:

  • Reuse: Adaptive reuse of buildings that have served their useful purpose reduce the need for new construction materials, systems, and equipment. When converting former office buildings, malls, or other facility types to labs, however, there are many systematic and structural aspects to take into account. Check out a previous Sustainability Scoop on repurposing real estate for the life sciences and an article on factors to consider during lab conversions.

  • Reduce: If more lab space truly is needed, have you considered combining space, sharing resources/equipment, creating “stock centers” for storing shared samples or materials, or designing a “core facility” that can serve a variety of research purposes or departments? Check out this Sustainability Scoop on shared resources that improve efficiency in research.

  • Recycle: Whether furnishing a new lab or dismantling an old one, are you considering ways to recycle furniture, equipment, and materials, as well as specify recycled building materials with lower embodied carbon? Check out local donation centers, school systems, or organizations like Seeding Labsthat link those with equipment to spare to organizations that can use it most.

Finally, if your organization is committed to the principles of using resources efficiently and lowering the environmental impact of research, considering signing the Million Advocates for Sustainable Science letter calling for grant funding to support these principles as well!


Want to learn more while reducing your own carbon footprint? Join the International Institute for Sustainable Laboratories’ (I2SL’s) first-ever virtual, international Education Week April 25-27. A session dedicated to lab renovation, reuse, and retrofits April 27 will feature award-winning projects from the United Kingdom, University of Illinois, and a talk on the future of lab space. During Earth Week only, take an additional $50 off the fee with the promotional code 50OFF2023 when you register. What’s more, any university or government employees who register get a special code to bring a colleague for just $99, so you can show a researcher or campus planner other ways to decarbonize labs.


Know someone who’s new to the lab sustainability community or studying lab design? I2SL’s Northern California Chapter is hosting a three-part webinar series to engage university students and young professionals in sustainable lab design and operations. Part 1: Lab Planning on April 19 at 5:00 p.m. Pacific/8:00 p.m. Eastern will explore the fundamentals of lab design and planning. Part 2 on May 31 will cover design and construction, and Part 3 on June 28 will discuss lab operations and maintenance.


Planning a new lab? Get inspired to incorporate recovery and reuse. I2SL’s Great Lakes Chapter is offering a virtual tour of the Kornberg Center at Promega in Fitchburg, Wisconsin, the evening of May 10. The 280,000-square-foot life science research lab features energy recovery, water reuse, and renewable energy, and uses 65 percent less energy than comparable biochemistry facilities.


Have a great adaptive reuse or lab retrofit story to tell? Apply for a Sustainable Laboratory Award! I2SL recognized several renovation projects last year, why not yours? Applications are due May 12, 2023.

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