Engineering angles: Meeting new sustainability targets

Sept. 26, 2023
Sustainability in pharma is complex, but there are opportunities for drugmakers and building developers to meet green goals

In the last five years, commercial property owners and building developers have stepped up to rein in their environmental impact and promote more sustainable operations. With a federal regulatory push, they are advancing toward net-zero building emissions by 2045, with a 50% reduction by 2030.

It’s an ambitious goal, but pharma properties will be especially challenged to transform into net-zero environments, as lab spaces inherently require more robust power and water sources than traditional buildings. Sustainability in pharmaceuticals is a complex issue, but there are opportunities for pharma companies and building developers as they work to meet new standards.

Pharma considerations

Unlike typical commercial offices, pharma buildings require specialized construction buildouts and benchtop equipment supported by energy-demanding mechanical, electrical and plumbing infrastructure. Energy usage is driven by various needs, like higher equipment driving system capacities, the frequency of air changes, water usage, or the additional backup power required to operate state-of-the-art equipment.

Although not all labs are the same, all life sciences properties produce a disproportionately larger environmental footprint than a standard office building, with little flexibility to use less energy. As one report from JLL notes, although the life sciences sector accounts for just 1% of real estate, it uses 10 times the energy and four times the water of a standard commercial building.

Although stakeholders are all working to make transformative changes to upgrade traditional lab operations and systems, many companies are playing a balancing act between what is affordable and what is implementable to maintain normal lab function.

Large pharma companies are leading the way by adopting ESG and efficiency standards internally and occupying buildings that complement their goals. These companies are testing out alternatives to evolve toward the creation of standardized sustainable industry practices that don’t derail scientific progress.

Net zero vs. all-electric

While often used interchangeably, net zero and all-electric are two very different concepts. Net zero is the most comprehensive goal in building sustainability, addressing efficiencies in energy, water and waste with the goal of reducing or eliminating a building’s carbon emissions.

Net zero is a lofty goal for pharma properties, but labs have an alternative solution that still helps achieve sustainability goals. All-electric energy labs will be able to operate with a net zero energy output as soon as the electrical grid that supports the lab is operating at net zero. This takes some of the onus off the lab operator and it puts the lab in a position to meet net-zero goals as soon as the local infrastructure is updated.

It’s been reported that Longfellow Real Estate Partners is building a 315,000-square-foot all-electric lab in the Bay Area. Known as the Avia Labs at Millbrae Station, it will be the first all-electric life sciences campus in California. This is a significant accomplishment that could be a model for future sustainable life sciences development in the state.

Reaching for sustainability

Outside of aiming for the lofty goal of net zero and all-electric labs, there are smaller steps that can reduce a building’s carbon footprint.

Biofuels, which are renewable and burn cleaner than fossil fuels, offer a big win for companies that need natural gas but are aiming to increase sustainable operations. They are also a great option to support emergency generators without derailing broader environmental targets.

Sustainability can be enhanced during the building process as well. Pursuing standard green building practices, such as sourcing local materials, helps to reduce the property’s carbon footprint. The use of sustainable building materials like recycled metals, plastics and wood helps offset the environmental impact of development.

Pharma companies, whether startups or household names, are looking for spaces in which they can do groundbreaking work. Lab spaces need to support a scientific use but companies are also concerned about the environment. The bar may be high, but many building development teams and pharma companies are already pushing forward to meet regulatory green goals. 

About the Author

Devin Bertsch | Project Director, Project Management Advisors (PMA)