New Orleans BioInnovation Center: New Orleans, LA

Undeniably New Orleans



Tim Hursley

Recognizing that the most important product of a research lab is not chemicals, but insights and innovation, designers of the New Orleans BioInnovation Center sought to maximize human performance with daylight, views to nature, and places for reflection and collaboration. This urban biotech incubator weaves classic New Orleans architecture with sustainable systems and technologies, proving just how far lab energy use can be reduced even in a hot–humid climate.

This non-profit lab/office exists to help ideas conceived locally to become local jobs and industries. NOBIC is a four-story, 64,500 ft2 structure adjacent to New Orleans’s historic French Quarter, downtown university campuses, and the Treme neighborhood.

Built on a brownfield site, this LEED Gold research facility includes labs, offices, a 100-person conference center, breakout spaces and a café. The design reinterprets vernacular regional climate-responsive strategies—the slatted shutter, the landscaped courtyard water feature, and the sheltered porch—to provide a facility that is modern but undeniably New Orleans.

This project also helps local innovators develop new businesses in a very New Orleans way—with a spatial organization that promotes chance meeting, social interaction, and improvisational collaboration, inviting busy people to linger centered on the porch or the garden.

 

Climate, Site, Envelope

The New Orleans climate alternately delights and exasperates: mild winters, hot–humid summers with little wind, abundant sunshine punctuated by periods of intense rainfall and the occasional hurricane.

Less than 1% of the hours in a typical year fall in the range of temperature and humidity required by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for biotechnology labs, and 68% of the hours are too hot or too humid (Figure 1). High air-change rates and once-through ventilation air with tight temperature and humidity control dominate lab building energy use, dwarfing skin loads.

The building form provides a protected courtyard following French Quarter precedents. The glazing choices allow a strong connection to the city and the landscaped courtyard while limiting solar gain. While the building has a window/wall ratio of 33%, glass is deployed to maximum effect on the primary street façade and lobby atrium that opens to social areas on each floor.

The site, selected for its proximity to university research and its urban prominence on the city’s main thoroughfare (Canal Street), came with a built-in orientation challenge: the primary façade, where one might like the greatest degree of transparency, faces southwest, exposed to the afternoon sun during the hottest part of the day.
The ground floor is recessed from the property line, allowing sun and rain protection to be provided by the overhanging floors above. Horizontal louvers of varying depth and spacing protect the glazing on the upper floors (opposite page photo, Figure 3). In fact, these shading strategies allow a southwest façade that is 63% glass to have the summer solar gain of a façade with only 20% glass.

The opaque portions of the building envelope provide good thermal isolation and inhibit infiltration. The minimum R-25 high reflectance and high emissivity cool roof keeps conduction and solar gain down. The wall systems, a hybrid thin concrete pre-cast panel supported by light gauge steel framing, is insulated after installation with a continuous R-19 closed cell spray foam, minimizing thermal bridging.

 

Staff enjoys a break on the stacked porches looking out on the emerging BioDistrict.

 

HVAC

The HVAC strategy could be described as “all the ventilation you need, but only where and when you need it.” Labs use a lot of energy for two main reasons: the power draw of the scientific equipment, and the use of high ventilation rates intended to protect the safety of staff working with dangerous chemicals—at fume hoods and via bulk exhaust of the lab room volume.

Conditioning all of the air that is subsequently being exhausted can take substantial amounts of energy. Design teams have little control over the equipment loads—although designs that make it easier to share equipment can lead to lower overall energy use. For example, configuring the plan to allow a shared freezer can result in less energy use than each researcher operating multiple separate freezers.

But ventilation strategies offer huge opportunities for energy savings. The energy cost of providing conditioned air in hot–humid climates is dominated by dehumidification and cooling air, characterized by the Ventilation Load Index (VLI) as proposed by Harriman, et al. in “Dehumidification and cooling loads from ventilation air,” published in the November 1997 issue of ASHRAE Journal. The load generated by one cubic foot per minute of fresh air brought from the weather to space-neutral conditions over the course of one year. Among major cities, the VLI for New Orleans is the second highest in the nation.

The NOBIC uses well-known strategies for reducing this impact (use of office return air as a dilutant for lab supply air, low-flow fume hoods, enthalpy recovery ventilation systems). But it gains most of its savings by allowing ventilation to be targeted strategically.

Not every type of research being performed needs a high ventilation rate. At NOBIC, each cellular lab is provided with independent control of airflow and temperature, allowing each lab to be set to the ventilation level appropriate to their kind of research (2/6/10 air changes per hour [ach]), and ventilation rates can be set back when labs are unoccupied.

A “panic” button is provided, which maximizes room flush-out and fume hood exhaust rates. Careful design and modeling of the air distribution system allows for lower air change rates without compromising safety.

The impact can be huge: in the New Orleans climate, the site EUI (energy use intensity) of an individual lab at 2 ach was modeled at 120 kBtu/ft2 · yr, while one operated at 12 ach was modeled to consume twice as much energy (Figure 4). In a facility like NOBIC with diverse users, the building’s EUI will depend on the mix of ventilation policies. Over the life of the building, as the tenant mix changes, so will the EUI.

 

Energy Performance

Laboratory buildings are among the highest users of energy per square foot of any common building type. Since the average source EUI values for labs (from the Labs21 dataset) is four times that of office buildings, making a lab building that is just 25% better than average can save as much energy as a net-zero office building the same size.

This project uses less energy per square foot than 89% of the buildings in the Labs21 Benchmarking Tool database of almost 600 lab/office buildings nationally. The actual utility bills for the initial 12 month period (120 kBtu/ft2 · yr) closely track that projected by computer simulation (Figure 2). This savings of 223 kBtu/ft2 · yr (compared to the median site EUI for labs) is like making a net zero building of almost
any other building type (Table 1).

Source EUI tells a similar story: The measured source EUI is better than 87% of labs, and is essentially half that of the median lab source EUI.

This level of verified performance is reinforced at the operations level by fine-grained energy and comfort monitoring. Each ~1,000 ft2 lab plus support area unit is individually metered using a multi-channel submetering system with up to 160 circuits, enabling the building owner to track and compare lighting and plug load consumption, identifying best-practice high performers. Green power purchase agreements are used to reduce the carbon impact of the electricity consumed.

 

Living With Water

Located in a city that owes its existence to a river and its near destruction due to flooding, it was essential that the design embrace the theme of living with water. All phases of the water cycle were treated as a design opportunity, from dealing with the moisture that hangs heavy in the air on a summer day, to the frequent, intense rains, to the flow of surface water and its percolation into the city’s heavy soils.

The project feeds all rainfall from the roof into a prominent water feature, which fluctuates in depth with the rains, allowing for biofiltration through water plants such as papyrus. Then it flows into a vegetated swale, on to detention in the parking lot subbase, and percolates back into the soils (Figure 5).

This is the regional water/plant/soil ecosystem in microcosm, connecting people back to place. Simulations project that storm water will leave the site only a few times every 20 years. The water feature is also fed by the AC condensate, which provides all landscape irrigation.

Low-flow plumbing fixtures are designed to reduce consumption of municipal water in the facility’s washrooms by 40%. However, over 90% of the water used in the facility is the water evaporated by the cooling towers.

Reuse of rainwater for cooling tower makeup represents a huge opportunity for water savings. (The state plumbing code in force at the time of the facility’s design required the use of municipal water for this application; in 2016, the state moves to the International Plumbing Code.)

 

Materials

The first strategy in reducing materials impacts of any project is to construct only as much building as is needed. The design team developed strategies for shared use between tenants to increase collaboration while decreasing building area. This produced spaces that serve multiple program needs and multiple users, resulting in a smaller building and reduced material use.

The building is designed to promote and thrive on change. Plan layout includes a mix of dedicated lab and office spaces and an almost equal area of flex spaces with infrastructure to accommodate lab use, but which can be alternatively built out to offices according to the needs of the tenants.

Some 79% of on-site construction waste was diverted from landfill, in part thanks to innovative relationships with waste handling firms, including one that began new diversion programs as part of the project.

Every lab aisle enjoys a view to the outdoors.

 

Indoor Environment

The standard NOBIC lab unit provides daylight and views, while also providing lower-light entry zone for locating light-sensitive equipment such as microscopes. Seventy-five percent of regularly occupied spaces achieve daylight levels that would allow lights to be off during daylight hours, and 77% of spaces have views to the outdoors.

 

Project Economics

A tenet of integrated design is that sustainable design choices have more impact and less cost when incorporated early. But this project’s path to high performance was more circuitous.

Construction documents were initially completed during the height of the post-Hurricane Katrina construction cost bubble, and the design team was directed to use code-minimum levels of insulation and building systems. Then the project went on hold for over a year as financing was being arranged.

When the project was restarted, bidding conditions were more favorable, and the owner asked the design team to recommend measures that might lower the long-term operating costs, “and could you do that LEEDs thing?”

The team explored opportunities for further enhancements in environmental impact and performance, identifying 21 possibilities for investigation.

Constraints were that the building’s overall appearance could not change, and items that would have substantial schedule impact (e.g., major changes to the plan or structure) were not allowed. Computer modeling helped identify two kinds of items to pursue: items with good payback and low-cost items with big impact even if payback was negligible. Measures adopted included:

  • Water-cooled chiller replacing air-cooled chiller;
  • High-efficiency condensing boilers;
  • Lab-by-lab VAV controls for airflow and temperature;
  • High-efficiency power transformer;
  • Improved glazing system (low-emissivity, low solar heat gain coefficient, high visible transmittance glazing in a thermally broken framing system);
  • High reflectance high emissivity roofing;
  • Insulation R-values increased to 25% to 40% over code;
  • Demand-controlled ventilation for conference room;
  • Low-flow domestic plumbing fixtures;
  • Enhanced energy metering at the level of individual labs;
  • Bi-level light switching in labs; daylight dimming in other areas; and
  • High-efficacy direct-indirect suspended linear fluorescent fixtures in labs.

The cost of these upgrades was equivalent to less than 2% of the project cost, but the simple payback was less than three years. It shows how much you can do with just a little more money.

 

Conclusion

The NOBIC demonstrates the energy savings that can be achieved despite the demands of a laboratory and the hot–humid climate. Sustainable strategies combine beauty and function, creating a more enjoyable, collaborative environment to encourage innovation. •

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