Matthew G. Griffith Barge Design Solutions

Matthew G. Griffith (Headshot credit: Barge Design Solutions)

Today, U.S. hospitals are at the pivotal intersection between healthcare and environmental responsibility, actively engaging in efforts to decarbonize facilities through innovative designs such as modular solar panels that generate clean energy instead of relying on fossil fuels.

Hospitals are primary contributors to greenhouse gas emissions due to their high-energy usage and mass volume of waste production. If the healthcare sector was considered a standalone nation, it would rank as the world’s fifth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, according to data published by the National Institutes of Health (Bethesda, Md.).

This statistic underscores the pivotal role of contemporary healthcare facilities in addressing the climate crisis and emphasizes the urgent need for design innovation to safeguard patient health and contribute to the planet’s well-being.

Healthcare architects and engineers play a crucial role in tackling this crisis by devising solutions to mitigate the environmental impact of hospitals. Here are some strategies to consider:

Carbon emissions monitoring and energy harvesting

Initiating a shift toward a more sustainable future requires integrating smart building management (BMS) systems into hospitals for real-time carbon emissions monitoring and diversified energy sourcing.

These systems are equipped with sensors to monitor energy usage and are programmed to minimize energy consumption by turning off lights, regulating building temperature, and controlling ventilation. An increasing number of hospitals are implementing energy-saving predictive maintenance to align with top standards in environmental performance such as LEED certification.

Buildings that meet these sustainability requirements promote waste reduction, energy conservation, and indoor air quality, all of which can be achieved with BMS technology.

Additional ways hospitals can optimize their energy distribution include installing occupancy sensors for lighting and switching off outlets to prevent “vampire loads,” otherwise known as the power consumed by devices even while they are idle.

Consolidating patients within a specific portion of a department based on medical conditions and treatment requirements also helps reduce HVAC distribution loads since the temperature and humidity that keeps them comfortable is shared.

Rather than relying on fossil fuels, transformative hospitals are exploring power generation through renewable energy sources via energy harvesting. This process converts external energy sources, such as wind, sun, and rain, into electricity. This helps facilities reduce carbon emissions, lessen dependence on the energy grid, and potentially yield long-term cost savings.

Hospitals can make this switch by installing on-site renewable energy systems including solar panels and wind turbines, which both generate clean energy and contribute to a lower carbon footprint. Other smaller changes include energy-efficient upgrades like LED lighting and recapturing rainwater for non-potable uses.

Facility design and planning that considers this in the initial development as well as expansion in terms of physical space and infrastructure for future additions is a strategy that is gaining momentum.

Converting material waste into renewable energy

A vital part of constructing environmentally friendly hospitals is powering them with the waste that facilities produce such as discarded paper and carboard packaging, food scraps, and non-toxic biomedical waste.

According to the World Health Organization (Geneva, Switzerland), hospitals generate 6 million tons of medical waste nationwide annually. Waste gasification presents a sustainable solution by converting hospital waste into a renewable energy source while safely disposing of it.

In contrast to traditional waste management methods such as incineration, which contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions, gasification holds promise for creating clean energy.

Performing waste gasification does require either a fixed-bed gasifier or fluidized bed gasifier capable of taking the biomass and turning it into synthetic gas (syngas) that can be harvested for heat or power. It does not necessarily have to be on-site, but it must be integrated into the hospital’s energy infrastructure.

Energy recovery systems must also be implemented to use the syngas. It is primarily used to fuel a combustion engine or a gas turbine generating electricity for the hospital as well as used directly for heat.

Hospitals across the country are also having major success in decarbonization efforts with the implementation of combined heat and power systems (CHPs). These systems use a heat engine or power station to produce both electricity and heat simultaneously. CHPs convert waste heat from electricity into energy that can be used for heating and cooling the facility.

Eco-friendly furnishings and materials

In year’s past, the design of interior healthcare spaces often included furniture and decor that contains formaldehyde, volatile organic compounds, and heavy metals—all known carcinogens and environmental pollutants.

Hospitals are dedicated to rehabilitation and healing, and it is imperative to prioritize interior finishes and furniture made from non-toxic and renewable materials including bamboo, reclaimed wood, and recycled materials. Another strategy is utilizing durable, but biodegradable, furnishings like stainless steel to reduce long-term waste production.

Stainless-steel should be preferred to commonplace materials like plastic in hospital settings because it resists corrosion, is easy to disinfect, and generally considered to be non-toxic. Meanwhile, plastics are often derived from fossil fuels and release harmful endocrine disrupting compounds like bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates—chemicals which are especially detrimental to hormone health.

While current code requirements still drive most of the materials in hospital construction, outpatient and inpatient facilities, where permissible by local regulations, are increasingly taking advantage of mass timber structures as an aesthetically pleasing and eco-friendly alternative.

Mass timber structures are constructed from engineered wood products such as solid wood panels, posts, and beams. This construction method is considered eco-friendly because timber production and processing is less energy-intensive compared to building materials like concrete, and can be prefabricated for modular, quick building assembly.

Healthcare’s sustainable transformation

The healthcare sector’s considerable contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions underscores the imperative to decarbonize today’s hospitals through strategic design solutions.

By embracing approaches like these, hospitals can reduce their environmental impact and prioritize patient health, fostering a resilient and responsible healthcare infrastructure for the benefit of both current and future generations.

For more on decarbonization, read “Healthcare Takes Aim At Decarbonization.”

Matthew G. Griffith is sr. vice president and director of healthcare at architectural and engineering firm Barge Design Solutions (Nashville, Tenn.) and can be reached at