Set back from a busy road in Wageningen, the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO) may not catch the eye of casual passersby. But across that 90-foot-long timber walkway spanning a pond full of reeds and frogs — and behind all those greenhouses and research pavilions clad with solar panels — lies a truly innovative green laboratory.

NIOO director Louise Vet told Greensource, ”Ecologists are often typecast as idealists who run after butterflies. But in fact, we do high-level research on genomes and biodiversity, and I wanted the building to express this….” As a consequence, she chose Claus en Kaan Architecten, a mainstream Dutch architectural practice with a track record in laboratory design, rather than one devoted to green building. She also challenged the architects to design a building that embodied cradle-to-cradle principles.

Netherlands Institute of Ecology

image via Greensource / Christian Richters

Claua en Kaan rose to the challenge with a variety of sustainable strategies designed to meet the Institute’s needs in an earth-friendly way. The architects chose a linear shape for the building, 335 feet long by almost 100 feet deep, with west-facing, sealed laboratories overlooking the road. Heat due to solar gain is managed here via a 8-foot-by-10-inch deep-timber brise-soleil, and in the offices by adjustable blinds.

And while those labs on the west side require a sealed environment, Vet was clear that on the east side of the building, she wanted staff members to be able to control fresh air and daylighting for themselves. Toward that end, windows on the east side are operable, allowing birdsong from the surrounding natural environment (populated with native plants, of course) to become part of the soundtrack of the staff member’s workday, as weather allows. (Which seems only fitting for a building dedicated to the natural environment.)

Vertical light-wells span the building’s two floors; a core of support labs not requiring daylight occupies the center of the building and is separated from the perimeter labs and offices by a double-loaded corridor. The building’s columns were spaced in such a way as to allow for flexibility in future renovation, which is likely to prove a key factor in its longevity. On top, a green roof shares space with a roof deck and a smaller top floor that houses a conference room and canteen.

Netherlands Institute of Ecology

image via Greensource / Christian Richters

After a detailed life-cycle analysis (using the Dutch GreenCalc method) was conducted, steel, glass, and timber were chosen as the primary materials for the building. The Norwegian spruce used in the project came courtesy of Dutch manufacturer Plato (which, incidentally, pioneered the thermal treatment of FSC-certified softwoods for increased durability, as an alternative to loading them up with chemicals). This wood contrasts nicely with the structure’s high-tech steel and glazing, creating a look that reflects the Institute’s high-tech mission in service of the natural environment.

But finding a suitable material for the laboratory floor proved a challenge, as the standard epoxy-resin finish applied over a concrete screed in most laboratories can’t be separated from one another at the end of the building’s natural life — hence, it would not meet the buidling’s cradle-to-cradle requirements. The architects went with a polished-concrete floor slab, which eliminated the need for the screed and also resulted in a richer finish.

Heating and cooling is handled via underground inter seasonal storage. This method — common in the Netherlands, due to its many aquifers — makes use of deep vertical pipes that store heat from the solar thermal arrays and excess heat from the building and greenhouses at 300 meters (around 984 feet) below ground. A radiant, in-floor system circulates water warmed in this way through the concrete floors, which take up that heat quite nicely, due to their thermal mass.

The building treats all of its own greywater on site, and releases it into the surrounding landscape. Only wastewater from the toilet gets sent to the sewer system.

The architects here are to be commended on this design, as green laboratories are notoriously hard to design. By embodying cradle-to-cradle principles — as well as tailored green build strategies — the Netherlands Institute of Ecology raises the bar.