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Hospitals are energy hogs. These clever design choices are making them greener

A new generation of hospitals is going green thanks to more thoughtful architecture.

Hospitals are energy hogs. These clever design choices are making them greener
[Source photo: Massachusetts General Hospital Ragon Building [Image: NBBJ]]

Hospitals and life sciences labs expend tremendous amounts of energy saving lives. Now, architects are devising new ways to make sure their energy usage—which represent 4.4% of the world’s total carbon emissions—is as green as possible.

With these types of buildings, owners, operators, and tenants tend to be mission-driven and science-oriented, so working in a space that cuts emissions (and the health problems they create) has become an increasingly important client demand. Two buildings now taking shape in Boston, the Massachusetts General Hospital Ragon Building designed by NBBJ and the Innovation Phase III life sciences lab near the Boston Seaport by SGA, show how architects are devising new, creative ways to alter energy-intensive building types so they can run on renewable power.

“These clients are Hippocratic at their foundation,” said Tom Sieniewicz, partner and architect at NBBJ and a designer on the Ragon project. “They see it as, ‘We have a responsibility for the health of mankind and the health of our neighborhood and the health of our community. And it would be unconscionable if our building is contributing to the well-documented health stresses that are coming out of climate change.’”

Labs and hospitals share both a wellness focus, and an incredible demand for energy. Research centers require continual air changes and temperature controls to avoid spoiling experiments, while hospitals, literal life-support systems, can’t compromise on air quality, temperature, and lighting. Both types of buildings put heating, ventilation, and cooling systems, or HVAC, to the test, with labs using 10 times more energy than comparably sized offices (and since they need so much mechanical equipment to move air around, rooftops need to be filled with machines, not solar panels).

Massachusetts General Hospital Ragon Building [Image: NBBJ]


The 1.2 million-square-foot expansion of the Massachusetts General Hospital campus, Harvard University’s teaching hospital, and a critical care center for the region, broke ground in 2023 and should begin opening in 2027. It was designed to cut emissions by 90%, be powered by 100% renewable energy, and will be fully electric when it’s finished. Part of the design challenge of achieving that for such a large, always-on environment was reducing waste heat and energy. Medical centers, typically nonprofit, operate on low margins, so any long-term energy savings constitutes a big benefit.

The design team, seeking to significantly reduce the number of windows to make the building envelope more efficient, used VR simulations to position bay windows in patient rooms to maximize lighting and views, and allowed clinicians to weigh in on window location. The effort cut the ratio of windows to wall space on the exterior by two-thirds compared to a traditional design, a big energy saver, since windows tend to insulate much worse than walls. In addition, all the patient rooms, which needed windows for patient comfort, were placed on higher floors, while those without need for outdoor views, like operating rooms, went on lower levels, to reduce light and glare on neighboring residential streets.

Innovation Phase III [Image: SGA]

Innovation Phase III, which is part of an industrial part of the city’s port, will open this year for Vertex Pharmaceuticals. It was able to achieve LEED Platinum certification and LEED Zero Carbon Certification, the first lab building in the city to do so, said Joseph Mamayek, SGA Principal. The 320,000 square foot facility, 60% of which is lab and research space, will feature a more energy-efficient, well-insulated building envelope with fewer windows and electrification of heat pumps and plumbing, as well as limited use of rooftop solar. The V-shaped structure has also been sited in a way that provides additional harbor views and maximizes natural lighting to reduce energy usage.

Innovation Phase III [Image: SGA]

“We wanted to do a lot that works passively and not create a mechanical system that overrides it,” said Mamayek. “Good planning provides wonderful spaces with additional interventions.’

There has been significant movement by industry peers: life science development leaders like Longfellow and Alexandria Real Estate Equities have been tracking and implementing new design strategies to cut carbon emissions for years, while the forthcoming Ridgeway Science & Tech project in Boulder, Colorado, aims to be 100% electric. SGA has even drawn up plans for a proposed mass timber lab building, which would help cut the embodied carbon of future research facilities.

Massachusetts General Hospital Ragon Building [Image: NBBJ]


Both new buildings in Boston fall under the new BERDO (Building Emissions Reduction and Disclosure Ordinance) regulation, which levies fines on large buildings (more than 20,000 square feet) that exceed the limit on greenhouse gasses. Despite its design interventions, the hospital still encountered challenges in overall reduction because at the end of the day, they require a lot of steam and gas. Hospitals need to keep air at a certain moisture, to sterilize equipment and encourage wound closure, and generating steam electrically proved energy-intensive. To solve this challenge, the hospital will import steam from electric boilers in Cambridge, running a pipe under the Charles River.

After all that work, there remained one stubborn source of greenhouse gas in the building; the common anesthesia gasses used in surgeries, which in some cases can be powerful greenhouse gasses. But when Sieniewicz and his team told the doctors they were now the largest source of greenhouse gasses in the building, they promptly decided to switch to an equally efficient, yet pollution-free, alternative. The doctor, like their building, did their best to do no harm.

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