Better Building through Green Chemistry

Visitors to Regents Hall, the new science building on the campus of St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, are impressed by the by the green roof, reliance on passive solar lighting, and the use of recycled building materials—features that have put the building on track for a LEED Platinum rating. They’re less likely to notice a feature that the chemistry department and facilities management are equally proud of: the labs use about two-thirds the number of fume hoods in an older building of equivalent size and complexity.

In a conventional chemistry lab, fume hoods capture toxic or hazardous fumes and use a fan to pull them through the hood and vent them out of the building. Chemical labs with fume hoods are heavy energy users. To vent the fumes, the fans need to run constantly, and to refresh the air in the lab, the HVAC system needs to bring in 100% of its air from outside, which puts an additional burden to dehumidify and heat or cool the air, depending on the outside temperature.

Regents Hall has only 55 fume hoods, down from 88 in the previous science building. They’re more energy-efficient, too. Pete Sandberg, Director of Facilities Management at St. Olaf, says, “The newest generation of fume hoods are low-flow. There are only a few fans pulling through all these hoods. Fewer fans are called on as needed, and only the amount of air needed at any one time is being pulled through.” According to Sandberg, the result so far has been greatly reduced energy use and lowered operating cost.

But the real innovation in the design of Regents’ Hall goes beyond fume hoods. It’s the result of new thinking in chemical practice and education: green chemistry. Paul Jackson, associate professor of chemistry at St. Olaf and a champion for green chemistry throughout the building’s design process, explains that “The goals of green chemistry are to design chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate waste or hazardous materials. It’s predicated on the idea that there are two ways to reduce risk—through the hazard itself and through exposure. Green chemistry is about reducing hazardous materials or levels to the level where exposure becomes trivial.”

Using green chemistry techniques meant a big difference in the building’s design. Fewer fume hoods—and lowered energy demand—meant that the HVAC system could be sized and designed for the human load, not the fume hoods. Greatly reducing the amount of hazardous or corrosive substances in the labs meant that resistant materials, which cost more to install and maintain, could be used only where they were needed.

The interior space could be different too. Jackson says, “The counter space at the perimeter, or the counter room space, becomes much more flexible. You can have movable furniture, not fixed benches. There’s a daylighting opportunity around the perimeter—you can have windows, since you don’t have hoods.” Regents Hall labs move easily between functioning as labs and as classrooms.

Regents Hall didn’t have to look like a conventional science building, and that’s been an education for everyone—architects, students, and visitors. Jackson says, “The building re-engages other campus users, non-scientists, because it’s not a stereotypical ‘lab.’ The building interacts with users as much as users interact with the building. It’s a teaching tool for everyone who walks into it.”


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