Environmental Sustainability Spotlight

Sustainable Design of Zebrafish Facilities: Austin Bailey

Austin Bailey is an architect with Rowell Brokaw Architects, based in Eugene, Oregon (USA). He has worked extensively on the design and renovation of research laboratories and large aquatics facilities. He has placed a critical focus on sustainability in his projects. Sunandan Dhar, Viviana Vedder and Maximilian Breuer from the IZFS Environmental Sustainability Committee spoke to him about his experiences and advice for sustainable lab design.


What has been your experience with designing zebrafish research facilities and how did you get into this field?

I have been an architect for a little over a decade here. We deal with a variety of projects, from institutional projects to private ones, but do have a focus on lab design. In particular, we have developed a niche with animal facilities and aquatic research facilities. Part of the reason for that is before I was in architecture, I was in science, and I got my undergraduate degree in biology in University of Oregon. I was embedded in the zebrafish community since I was a freshman, siphoning fish tanks and working in the facility. After I graduated, I got onboard with the Zebrafish International Resource Center (ZIRC) when it was first built in Eugene. I was hired on to help start up that facility and work on the operations. That job evolved into facility-based project coordinator. Over the first decade, the facility had a lot of unique problems that I had to deal with on a daily basis, alongside the operations work. It piqued my interest in some other career opportunities, and I ended up going back to architecture school and spinning off in that direction. I kept a presence for a while with ZIRC and was involved with speaking opportunities and publications related to facility design. Then, at the firm, we started getting involved in various aquatic projects. We were involved in the expansion of the Huestis facility, which is a large core facility for zebrafish at the University of Oregon. Right now, we are involved in a significant expansion of the ZIRC. In between that, I have been doing some consulting for a variety of institutions that are tackling aquatics projects, which is a very interesting niche of the industry.


Why focus on sustainability in your design approach?

I think we live in a world right now where we are understanding the resources that we consume in a better way and the impact it has on the world around us. We are also understanding the technology and approaches that can do something about that. A lot of these are not that hard! Some of the approaches are challenging and are going to require future technologies to implement, but a lot of the things we can just do now. It is making sense for us to do these and to reduce those resources, reduce that consumption, reduce the footprint that we are making on our surroundings.


Walk us through some of the considerations for sustainable design of zebrafish facilities. Are there any simple changes that pre-existing facilities can implement?

There are different categories to consider. The central idea is in resource consumption and waste, anything that goes in and comes out. The challenge with aquatics facilities is that they are very heavy users in terms of energy, water, and consumables, just like other animal facilities. Consumables are actually a big piece for some small facilities. Sometimes it might be as simple as not having access to autoclaves to sterilize nets. There might not be access to proper wash facilities to deal with tanks and glassware. There may be consumables in the mix that are just going into the trash. There are easy opportunities there to assess consumption and figure out ways to scale back on that wastage in the long-term.

Things get more complicated when dealing with energy and water consumption. One thing we deal with in zebrafish facilities is the environmental control. The water needs to be kept at a certain temperature for the fish. Often, that is done through the water system itself, but the fish racks are like big radiators leaking heat. So, you are either going to be fighting against that temperature or you need to look at heating these rooms to the same temperature that the fish are at. Depending on your locale, you probably also need to control humidity in the environment. We usually need to cool the air down to drive down humidity, and then heat it back up to the temperature that the zebrafish want. Also, if it is a modern facility embedded within a laboratory or science complex, you may be in a 100% outside air system. That means we are just ejecting that air back outside and losing that heat. In those situations, we look closely at heat exchange systems that are available and can retrofitted into existing facilities. Simple changes can be made to reduce the loss of energy and drive down consumption. At the same time, we know that for the most part, these are rooms where chemical use is quite low. These are not wet labs. So, in many cases we can successfully argue that these holding rooms themselves, as opposed to procedure rooms or lab spaces, do not need to be treated as wet laboratories in the mechanical code sense. So, then we can explore not doing 100% outside air, and to recirculate the air in that space instead. Of course, we must be careful to make sure not to pull that air into other spaces. This is less of an issue with aquatics than with other animal facilities, since there are fewer particulates ejected into the air. If the air is recirculated within each aquatic room, it can significantly reduce the energy usage. We have also explored humidity thresholds in these facilities. Regulatory bodies often recommend a high humidity level in these spaces, which requires us to add moisture back into that air after we condition it. This is often excessive and, of course, requires more energy. We have been in discussion with regulatory entities and users because we believe there is a better balance that we can strive towards, that hits a better energy point. On the building side, it is about having those conversations with the institutions to figure out how does that room tie into the rest of the air system in the building. Are there modifications that can be made that reduces wastage of energy?

Let’s talk more about the most obvious factor in aquatics facilities: water. We see small facilities that only have a couple of racks and they are doing flow-through water. It’s filtered and conditioned and it is sent to the fish and then down the drain. There might be various reasons for that. There may be a pathogen-control issue, specific requirements for a certain type of facility, or it might just be the way they have been doing it for the last three decades! Even there, you start to look at the inputs, where is that water coming from, is there a way to modulate that? Some facilities do a dosed water supply from a reservoir being fed by a reverse osmosis system. There are opportunities to try to optimize the system. With reverse-osmosis filtration, you have the effluent discharge that does not make it through the filter. If that system is not tuned, you can discharge up to 80% of your incoming water, and it just goes down the drain. You can make little modifications to boost the efficiency of these existing systems. For example, if you add a bit of hot water and bring the temperature of the incoming water up to about 77°F (25°C), you can optimize the filter and reduce the percentage of effluent that goes down the drain. You can also work with the vendors to make sure that the filtration kit that you are getting is already optimized. There is quite a range in that as well and older systems tend to suffer.

For larger facilities, you can look at ways to make more use of that incoming water. For example, the Huestis facility had a rather large demand for RO replacement water, even with its recirculated system. So, we looked at that and knew that it was a waste product that we wanted to reduce. The first thing we did was to optimize the RO systems and had incoming water at the right temperature, but that also meant that the effluent was at that higher temperature, and we were basically dumping that heat down the drain. We wanted to capture that heat again on its way out. So, we did a heat exchange with the incoming water to pre-heat the water coming into the filters and grab some of that heat back. At the same time, the water going out is also pretty good water, it just has some extra minerals in it. Yet, it is usually classified as “grey water”. You can reuse that for different purposes, and that depends on the restrictions in your area. For the Huestis project, we were able to store it and use it to satisfy the flush fixture demands in an entire science complex nearby. This is possible because of the large volume of water associated with larger facilities, even with optimized systems.

It is also worth looking at how much makeup water you actually need. That relates to protocols and pathogen control on the operations side, and the priority for facility staff is of course to make sure the water is healthy for the fish. Sometimes, though, it is just overkill. We might be doing a 10% water exchange when all we really need is 5%. That is twice the water, and we are just dumping it down the drain! There is a way to optimize those calculations based on what you really need in the facility. Similarly, we see a lot of older facilities that are using constant volume pumps and recirculation systems. They are often not modulated to suit how many tanks are in a facility at a time, and a lot of it is just overflow. So, you are basically circulating a ton of water through the filtration systems, but up to half or even two-thirds of it is just being dumped back into the system. There are better ways to do that. Nowadays, we use variable speed drives on pumps and fan systems all the time in our industry. We can modulate the water being circulated to suit the requirement at a given time, to reduce the wastage. The technology is already there, and it just requires some electrical changes and some pump changes.
Of course, we need to keep in mind that, by far, most aquatics facilities across the world are smaller facilities. They might just have a few benchtop racks in a small room. So, they are likely just getting their aquatics systems as ready-made products. It just comes from the manufacturer, plugs into the wall, and has a discharge. There might not be a lot of customization that you can do. But we can still have these conversations with those manufacturers and push to find the opportunities to reduce consumption.


Speaking of “grey water”, we had a discussion on twitter to see what zebrafish facilities do with this water coming out of their systems. About 16% of people say they are reusing it, but all the others say it either went down the drain or they did not know what happens to it. Clearly, it is crucial to make people aware that there are options that can be explored. In terms of reusing grey water, is this something that an architecture firm would usually propose to the client on their own or are users expected to be aware about it already?

It’s going to depend on your architect! If you, as a user, are aware that this is an option, you should definitely be pushing for it. You should be asking your facility about it and talking to the design professionals that are engaged in the project. Typically, the person who will know the most about the options and the reuse of water is your plumbing engineer or the mechanical engineer, not necessarily the architect. If you get the right architect, they should know and they should also be engaged in that discussion and bringing up those things. However, it is the institutions and user who need to be made more aware about these options and to make it a clear that it is a priority. In terms of grey water reuse, it has gotten better over time, but in the US we have run into challenges in terms of what it is classified as, what it can be used as, and also the impression that people have of it. For example, for the Huestis project at Oregon, we originally wanted to use the extra water for irrigation in the surrounding grounds. However, the irrigation staff at the university did not feel comfortable with that idea. We tried to explain to them what the source of the grey water was in this particular instance and that there is not much risk at all, but we were not able to provide enough hard data for them to be confident about it. We managed to find another use, to flush the fixtures in water closets and urinals, but that was probably not the optimal use for that water. So, while there is a lot of progress what jurisdictions are allowing for grey water reuse, there are still hurdles with how it is perceived.


This is a major issue that we have realised as well. In some countries, there are also issues about fear of genetic modifications. Not only are we not able to reuse the grey water, but we also have to heat it to 200°C before discarding. It is such a waste of water and energy!

We have seen that as well with a couple of projects where we had to accommodate future treatment of the effluent in case there was some issue later on. In many situations these decisions are based on a fear of an unknown. I would say that part of the education we need to be doing there as we talk about these facilities and these jurisdictions is that there are differences in the type of water we are talking about. We have noticed that over time that building officials have started to understand what grey water is and how we want to use it. If we only talk about RO effluent and fish water discharge, in their minds, all of that is just water being discharged from a research facility and it is classified in a certain way. It might just be labelled as grey water or black water, without actually knowing what is in it. Helping them to understand that these facilities have different types of water is a key piece. We need to figure out ways for our systems to separate those types of water in a way that will help us reuse them. We can explain that this particular type of grey water is actually really great for irrigation and here is the data to support that. These details are going to help this industry to deal with this issue moving forward. Building officials just do not have that level of detail in front of them at the moment.


Would you say that there is hope for improvement in the near future once we have more of this information?

I do believe so. There are two different components to it, one is the code requirements and the other is the impression. We have to look at both fronts and continue the conversation with the facility and administrative side, as well as with the users to make them aware of what we are proposing. We also need to keep in mind that building and design codes are constantly evolving. It will be about plugging into those conversations and making sure that those codes are being modified in ways that help these situations, such as water reuse. In general, I would say they are evolving in that direction, and we need to keep abreast of that progress.


Assuming funding exists and regulatory requirements are met, is it worth renovating existing fish facility to make use of the grey water?

When considering modifications that make sense, it will really depend on the specifics of the facility. For a large facility, you are going to have a lot of water being discharged, maybe thousands of gallons a day. It makes sense to build the infrastructure to store and distribute this water for flush fixture demands or for irrigation of the courtyard nearby. For smaller facilities, there is not enough water to reliably use it, and it needs to be supplemented with other sources. The focus would be to take the grey water and pull it into another system that makes sense in the bigger picture for the whole building or complex. Maybe there is a rainwater collection system that does irrigation, for example. If we can combine those sources, it would be a very sensible thing to do. Of course, this is based on the premise that you are also optimizing your RO filtration. If you are dumping 90% of your water down the drain, you should first optimize your system and not produce so much grey water in the first place. The other piece is the geographical considerations of the area your facility is. Water and energy are more scarce and valuable resources in some parts of the world than others. You need to look at that when deciding on the cost-benefit of the infrastructure upgrades and pitching it to your institution.


Would you say that sustainable design a one-off or more of a standard that most research institutions are trying to reach now?

Sustainable design is a standard that people are moving towards. It is embedded in the projects that we deal with and will inevitably up come up when talking to clients as one of the pieces that they are concerned about. At the same time, there is still a belief that sustainable design, and certification that you need to have, carries with it extra cost. So, a lot of these projects are challenged by figuring out how to get the most out of the funding without spending extra money on sustainable design. Unfortunately, a lot of projects like the aquatic facilities do not have the additional funds, especially in terms of upfront capital. In most of the projects that we deal with, the upfront capital requirement is often what drives the decision-making, as opposed to the long-term operating costs. The operating expenses usually come out of an entirely different fund, so driving down the energy costs or water consumption might not even be on the radar for one of these projects. Pursuing sustainable choices will be present as an abstract idea for the people involved in the project, but there are other concerns when making financial decisions. When deciding to spend money on this or on more fish racks or a larger facility, it becomes a challenge for the design team to keep sustainability embedded in the project. It is a constant struggle in this niche to find cost-effective ways to incorporate sustainable design when there are these other unique demands on the project.


Should something like LEED certification become a norm when designing future research facilities?

It is important for people in the construction and design industries, as well as people outside, to understand that sustainable design and LEED certification are not necessarily the same. They are related, LEED certification has been developed over the past two decades as a platform to follow sustainable design and to get acknowledgment for it, but it is merely a tool. The certification itself means that there is a commitment to sustainability. However, you can do everything you want to do on the sustainable front and be just as committed to sustainable design without getting certified. Often, we encounter projects that pursue the structure of LEED to tackle certain attributes of a project, but they don’t necessarily need to get certified. For example, we know here in Oregon that energy and water consumption are aspects of the projects that we want to focus on. The other aspects are great, we are doing some of that anyway, but we do not need to track all of that to know that we are on the right path. There are some other rating systems like the Living Building Challenge, where you can look at some other specific areas that you want to focus on. Again, these are only tools or a structure that people can start with to follow sustainable design as a path.


Modern design trends can sometimes ignore the working experience of the actual users. Is this a necessary compromise to make with sustainable design?

It is a topic of discussion in the design industry right now. There are some other certification standards being developed for sustainability that are more focussed on human experience and human health. One issue is transparency of walls and dividers which is a current trend in laboratory design. It has to do with the concept of “science on display” that institutions are asking for and designers are enamoured with. The administration officials get to walk through and see all this research happening, and the glass and shiny surfaces makes it look impressive and the funding comes! However, the flip side is that the users can feel like they are constantly on display, and it makes them uncomfortable. There are aspects about these design moves that are not working in terms of the work experience. The design priorities are not integrating the user experience in the way that it should. I think it is very important to acknowledge and for those user groups to voice their concerns about those design moves, otherwise it just gets lost. Design teams need to hear these voices and incorporate that into their plans moving forward.


What is the outlook for sustainable design of zebrafish facilities in the future? What should we be doing to keep moving in the right direction?

We are in a state in the zebrafish research industry that the predominant renovations are still going to be smaller projects. At the edge of that is going to be the development of core aquatic facilities, but even those are going to be moderately sized. That is why a lot of the discussion for the zebrafish industry is to be aware of the opportunities and to have those conversations with the bigger institution, the bigger building. We can then look for the opportunities to synergize with another aspect about that building or another sustainable design intent. It does not mean that we cannot make the same level of gains as with a bigger facility, it just means that the conversation is at a higher level than just your own facility.

At the same time, if it is a new build, there are a lot of aspects that should be taken into consideration. It is financially more straightforward to integrate those things into the project if it is done from the beginning. I would say that there is a responsibility on the part of these institutions to look at those aspects when they are building a new core facility. It would be irresponsible to dismiss all of that. It does bring me to one more point worth touching on. There is going to continue to be a discussion about core facilities and larger aquatic facilities in the context of the evolution of research and laboratory design. Over the last couple of years, modular lab design, movable furnishings and highly flexible laboratory environments have become more of the norm. The exception to this trend has been highly specialized facilities such as aquatics. You have hard-piped systems and heavy equipment that cannot be moved very easily. There have been two schools of thought to deal with that. One is to just have a core facility that is expandible and will not need to be rebuilt in the near future. We know that takes up a lot of space and funding and is a huge investment for an institution. We also know that research is moving so fast that what you think your fish population requirements will be and what your research focus will be is going to change. That is going to affect how you deliver water to the fish and how you separate fish populations and other aspects of the design. What is being implemented as an alternative is a reversion back to very small fish rooms that are completely modular. It is integrated into the lab module and could be converted into another small facility as research requirements change. There are some reductions in efficiency there, but they are betting on the long-term sustainable gains of not having to retrofit these facilities in the future. What you are talking about is a small modular lab versus a large core facility. Whenever these projects come up with institutions nowadays, we are having this conversation upfront and trying to get to the bottom of what they think their future needs are. That has a huge effect on all the other decisions. If you talk about water consumption and reclamation of RO systems, it is a completely different thing with a large core facility versus one researcher wanting to reclaim their water. It goes back to looking at the larger building system and focussing on the aquatics being one piece of that puzzle.

I will say that there are discussions ongoing right now in the design industry about laboratory efficiencies and vivarium design. Aquatics is a smaller part of all that area, so it does not receive the required amount of attention. It is very unique in some of its consumption patterns. Understanding, itemizing and cataloguing those inputs and outputs of these facilities, both large and small, is critical. Understanding those metrics is the first step, because when we talk to building officials, design professionals and facility staff, that is the information we need. We need to have these metrics on hand so we can have productive discussions about the specific pieces that make sense for a project on that scale. I have some of that information, you guys have some of that information, but nobody has put together a comprehensive list of those things that are unique to the aquatic research facilities. Until we have that, it is only a lot of general discussion. When we have that, we can bring that to the next level and to really implement the opportunities available. We can look at the governing bodies that are guiding design decisions based on other facility types, and can then say, well it’s a little different for aquatics facilities. We can raise those specific points and think about how to integrate them into sustainable labs as a whole. I think that is a big piece of the puzzle and the next major challenge.


We would like to thank Austin Bailey for this incredibly insightful interview and for taking the time to discuss with us! We hope this interview will start new discussions about implementing sustainable approaches in our zebrafish facilities.

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