Buildings require a lot of energy to construct and maintain. And while the holistic approach to sustainability is intended to capture the impact of a project on the occupants and environment, it is still typically perceived as being focused on energy usage. The ultimate objective of achieving zero carbon will not be realized until we seriously consider the operation of research buildings.

For AECOM buildings to be successfully “sustainable” – they need to be “operated, maintained and monitored effectively”. The right amount of metering, monitoring, and performance testing must be offered in order to do this. When a sustainable building’s controls and monitoring have been successfully established and an ongoing commitment for measuring and monitoring is in place, it can only go from the construction stage to the operational stage.

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The Building _©Martine Hamilton-Knight –

The carbon-neutral laboratory facility, located in the University’s award-winning innovation Park, provides unrivalled chemistry facilities and is the very first carbon-neutral lab in the UK.  The emphasis on sustainability is reflected in the building itself, which combines cutting-edge technologies to achieve carbon neutrality over its lifetime.

The laboratory is made of natural materials, and the energy needed to run it is provided by renewable sources such as solar power and sustainable biomass. Excess energy generated by the building generates enough carbon credits over a 25-year period to repay the carbon used in its construction.

A carbon model was developed early in the project design process to guide product specification and construction to focus on low environmental effect over the building’s entire life cycle. This early-stage method assisted the project team in obtaining all credits under the materials area. The structure is distinctive in that timber is heavily featured in the design. The timber utilised for the frame, walls, and floors was acquired responsibly.

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UK’s first carbon-neutral lab_©

The Design

The project exhibits an uncompromising commitment to sustainability and puts every part of the design and construction process to the test. The unusual volumetric form arose from the need for a highly serviced laboratory room that could also be naturally ventilated. The curved roof then integrates the most beneficial angle for photovoltaic panels as well as a series of wide windows that drive natural light deep into the planar form – both ideas further decrease energy consumption.

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The roof form compliments the spaces inside lab_©

As a result, the undulating roof form is a direct representation of sustainable design drivers. The already hardworking roof embraces biodiversity by including a natural environment and aiding in rainwater attenuation. Both the timber frame and the wall panelling are visible without any additional finishing materials, emphasizing the dedication to sustainable and accountable design decisions.

Internally, the volume exposes itself as an unexpected and one-of-a-kind laboratory setting in which the building processes and services are fully expressed, allowing a clear appreciation of the design approach. Carbon reduction is also the main factor in the selection of construction materials, and the use of timber technology is fully visualized in a manner similar to the building form and services.

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To reduce the building’s carbon footprint, the curved roof line includes a grass roof_©Michael Thomas –

Ecological Conservation

GKS was built on land that had previously been home to the Raleigh plant. When a specialist discovered some polluted land, AECOM was advised of a remediation strategy that included a clean capping layer for asbestos contamination, restriction of penetration through contaminated source regions, and ground gas protection measures. This would revive the land that otherwise would have remained poisoned and undeveloped.

For the commencement, the project team hired an ecologist to examine site conditions and make ideas for monitoring and improving biodiversity through development. The ecologist also devised a strategy to improve the site’s ecology. The project’s bird boxes and ecologically diversified green roof provide a hospitable environment for local species, resulting in a +3.83 change in ecological value. Site clearance work was planned to minimize disrupting the avian breeding season. 

A five-year landscape management plan was implemented, which includes the management of protected habitats on site as well as recommendations on how to continue to maximize the building’s positive ecological consequences. All major water uses are independently metered within the building, allowing building management to identify high-use activities. A leak detection system was built to monitor water usage and warn building managers of any problems during operation so that they could be remedied.

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Entrance to the Lab_©Michael Thomas –

User-Friendly performance 

The team created technologies to assist the building’s continuing performance and operation during construction, handover, and in-use. A building user guide covering all functions and uses of the building was created and made available to all building users. This will ensure that the innovative building systems function as intended in order to maximize their benefits. 

A display panel in the entryway displays real-time statistics on energy consumption and generation, and monthly energy reports will be generated and distributed to employees both internally and at GSK. 

Giving building users this information gives them the skills they need to control energy consumption and focus their efforts to save energy in the most beneficial areas, with the ultimate goal of closing the “performance gap” between the building as intended and in operation.

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View of the indoor space_©Martine Hamilton-Knight

Energy Consumption 

GKS includes new energy-saving measures aimed at achieving the carbon-neutral target. Renewable and low-carbon energy sources, such as the PV array spanning 45% of the roof area and sustainable biofuel CHP, are used to power the laboratory. Thermal modelling was used to ensure the building’s users’ internal comfort. The university will also conduct a post-occupancy satisfaction survey to ensure that these objectives are realized in practice.  

Excess energy generated by the building will offset the embodied carbon of construction during a 25-year payback period and will be utilized to heat the adjoining campus office development. The design of the project also included energy-efficient equipment and laboratory systems. 

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The project focuses on the life cycle embodied carbon emissions of products_©Martine Hamilton-Knight

Promoting Health and Wellbeing

Each laboratory is equipped with its own mechanical ventilation system. Connections to fume cupboards, ventilated cabinets, and ventilated storage are offered to extract from the lab spaces. At a high level, supply is provided by fabric ductwork. Further, taking care of comfort and airflow, natural ventilation and passive design models are incorporated into the design. To help reduce fan energy, heating and cooling needs, ventilation air flows are typically modified to fit the real space requirements. 

Natural ventilation strategies, in conjunction with mechanical ventilation systems, are incorporated into the design. The carbon-neutral laboratory is naturally ventilated, which is unusual and unique for a laboratory this size. The roof-mounted wind catchers, which are important visual aspects of the project, supply and control fresh air intake and exhaust air outflow. The initiative encouraged innovation by developing a carbon assessment tool that focused on the life cycle embodied carbon emissions of products.


AECOM (2019). When zero is more than nothing [online]. (Last updated 2019). [Accessed 20th October 2022].

AECOM (2019). AECOM launches Sustainable Legacies, a transformative ESG strategy to advance sustainability initiatives that deliver positive impact (Last updated 26th April, 2021) [Accessed 20th October 2022].

BREEAM (2021) GlaxoSmithKline’s Carbon Neutral Laboratory for Sustainable Chemistry achieves BREEAM Outstanding (Last updated 2021) [Accessed 21st October 2022].

University of Nottingham (2019) The Carbon Neutral Laboratory  (Last updated 2019) [Accessed 20th October 2022].

USGBC (2017) Centre for Sustainable Chemistry (Last updated 2017) [Accessed 23rd October 2022].


Ayadi is an architect at NUDES, and the Policy Lead for YOUNGO’s Nature WG. Her most notable role is with the EAY as an Advocate, and as a UN negotiator at SPP, OEWG 1.1, Standing Committee of Finance, UNFCCC Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture, UNFCCC Global Stocktake SB56, the Stockholm+50 Youth TF with UN MGCY, and PolicyConsultations towards the UNEA 5.2 & UNEP@50.