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How Laboratory Space is Changing

Tue, 02/18/2014 - 1:49pm
Bill Harris, Principal, Regional Practice Leader for Science and Technology, Perkins+Will

Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Maine achieved LEED Platinum status. The importance of transparency and windows are seen throughout the laboratory’s design. Image: Christopher BarneslA generation ago, wet laboratory space would’ve included fixed casework, dense with laboratory benches, storage cabinets and equipment, but hardly any space or capacity to hold a meeting or accommodate change. Today, laboratory space design reflects an evolution in both the methods of research and the way that scientists work—individually and with their colleagues. Those changes, combined with the need to accelerate the speed of innovation—and time to market in the pharmaceutical world—drive the design of today’s laboratory. 

Innovation depends still in part on the “aha” moment of the sole thinker, but more often also on the sharing of information and ideas, the inspiration of chance connections and encounters and the nimble adaptation to new information, technologies and discovery programs. These drivers are leading laboratories to be much more open and flexible, as well as more attractive to the brightest talent—the creative researchers on whom research is so dependent.

With that, four trends in laboratory space design are transforming outdated laboratories into work environments as compelling as any conceived for a modern office.  

Mobility is key
Gone are the days when the scientist was tethered to mechanical routines at the bench.  And gone are the days when laboratory benches were nailed to the floor surrounded by a sea of high cubicles or walls that isolated one proscribed research area from another. Driven by advances in technology, many experiments and bench processes are now automated or mechanized, with massive amounts of data generated for analysis not just at the bench, but online, wherever the scientist can plug into a network. The benches themselves are special tables on wheels and are often replaced by floor robotics or equipment—or even reconfigured from traditional parallel rows into u-shaped or corner configurations more friendly to sequences of operations. With utilities delivered overhead through flexible plug-and-play connections, laboratory benches can be as mobile as the scientists who work at them, with minimal investment of dollars or time to effect changes over time.

New work styles rule
Once liberated from the bench, the mobile scientist can select the type of workspace that is most conducive to a particular task, mood or style. Under the rubric that open space is more collaborative space, the laboratory/office has become more open—larger contiguous laboratory bench areas, fewer private offices and more open, low or no-panel workstations. 

But openness alone does not address the range of desired workspaces. Biogen Idec’s innovative new laboratory space model includes meeting spaces inside laboratories as well as a variety of traditional meeting rooms, supplemented with quiet work rooms with lounge furniture, exercise focus rooms with standup treadmill desks and social hubs where coffee and multiple seating options are available. Other companies, like Ironwood Pharmaceuticals, want to build a rock climbing wall to appeal as an alternative work space—or simply a space to quickly blow off steam, regenerate and get back to focused work.

Regardless of space type, the choice is up to the scientist—selected to suit the need.  And, more often, the needs are not for the individual, but for the group as well. The new Allen Institute for Brain Sciences in Seattle, under construction, will feature an interior multi-story atrium connecting the scientific community and activated with bridges, stairs, perches for meeting, overhanging conference rooms and plenty of visibility within and into the adjacent laboratory and laboratory office spaces. These hubs and atriums are the equivalent of the academic “common” room. Social, yes, but also the place where groups can gather for informal presentations, and chance encounters can take place to talk science and test ideas, contributing to a community culture and opportunity for innovation.

Economy and Sustainability
With the expensive investment required for today’s high-technology laboratory spaces, laboratories must find ways to reduce the consumption of energy. New technologies for linking air contaminates to the rate of air exchanges can significantly reduce energy consumption, as can the management of fume hoods and other hogs of air and power. Even the laboratory’s scientific equipment is up for economic evaluation: Many organizations are monitoring the usage of equipment and, as appropriate, instituting a model for shared equipment, reserved like a conference room. This reduces the initial quantity and cost of equipment, reduces maintenance costs for these often sensitive and carefully calibrated machines and reduces the floorspace required to house duplicate equipment.

Merrimack Pharmaceuticals has a zone of interaction spaces between the laboratory and laboratory office area to serve as a collaborative meeting space. Image: Richard Gayle PhotographyAt the same time, the overall costs of both initial construction and subsequent alterations are also targets for economy. Merrimack Pharmaceuticals combined economy, workstyles and mobility to create a zone of interaction spaces between the laboratory and laboratory office areas. This zone can host open or closed meeting rooms, or programmatic expansions to either laboratory or office space. Built with the mechanical flexibility to adapt to either laboratory or office space, this zone isn’t only a great intersection space for collaboration, but also a hedge against the unknown—whether or not the needs of the laboratory or office will expand or contract over time. By a happy coincidence, this space planning model appeals to the developer of laboratory space, the landlord who must anticipate the natural exchange of tenancies and associated needs over time.

Finally, the desire for sustainability is not limited to energy reduction, but extends to respect for the environment. Scientists are engaged in their world and care about sustainable materials that reduce the carbon footprint of construction. The Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Maine achieved LEED Platinum status not just for energy savings, but for the appropriate use of materials, daylight, water and natural resources.

Integration of different fields
In every sector of the economy laboratories are seeing the integration of fields previously considered distinct. STEM programs, integrating Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, are on every campus from the collegiate to the elementary school level. Likewise, advanced scientific research is seeing the growth of translational medicine, where bench research is connected directly with health care. The Univ. of Florida Clinical Translational Research Building is an example of the synergies between education, research and health care. Housing the NIH-funded Institute on Aging with the Clinical Translational Sciences Institute, the new facility combines clinical space, dry laboratories, research and office space for departments in the Colleges of Medicine, Nursing and Public Health and Health Professions. Such a co-mingling of disciplines requires new spaces and places for sharing information and building a culture and community of cooperation and integration.

Laboratory spaces are no longer considered technical warehouses for machines and scientific processes. They are environments that support new workstyles, evolving technologies, cultures of scientific collaboration, mobility and change. Like the modern office, laboratories are part of an integrated community of spaces and places that respond to the needs and desires of a new generation of talent.

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