An efficient lab plan, bold use of colors, and airy open spaces become the inspiring backdrop for the Schepens Eye Research Institute’s research vision.

This view of an open lab, looking toward the lab entrance, shows how the use of floor colors can map circulation paths and serve as a subtle key to understanding the layout. Within the context of the Schepens' mission, color is more than a mere design device. (Photo: © Warren Jagger)

“The use of color and lighting, added to the designers’ acceptance of the existing structure and their sophisticated design, all represent a breathtaking transformation of what was once routine, anonymous space.” This observation, from competition judge Stanley Stark, managing partner, HLW International LLP, New York, N.Y., succinctly sums up why the Schepens Eye Research Institute, Boston, Mass., has been given R&D Magazine’s Renovated Lab of the Year Award for 2005.

As the nation’s largest independent eye research institute, Schepens has the responsibility to be more than a mere container of cutting edge research. Its lab environment plays a significant role in reaching its daunting mission: curing blindness.

Previously, the center was split into two areas, with space in its own building and an adjacent building. Some space in the primary building was also leased to another tenant. So, in 1998, Schepens decided to expand, consolidate, and reorganize its research space. With architects Payette Associates, Boston, Mass., a plan was made to reclaim the entire building, making space for all of their wet labs, as well as prepare for future growth.

Competition judge Victoria David, a partner at Maynard-David Partnership, Inc., Arvada, Colo., was impressed by their commitment to modernize the building rather than abandon it and start over. “It’s a much harder process to renovate because you’re forced to work with what exists,” she says. “It takes a lot of self discipline on the part of the designers to prioritize what to change and how to change it.”

“This research environment is also about retinal stimulation and the creation of a comfortable, yet exciting, place to work,” says Stark.

Renovation strategy
The desire to renovate presented the opportunity to upgrade old mechanical systems, bring the space up to current code and standards, improve safety, and most importantly, rethink the organization of the research. After discussions with the architects, Schepens researchers established four distinct design goals: clarity, efficiency, flexibility, and interdisciplinary collaboration.

“The planners clearly thought about and understood the nature of working in a laboratory from the user’s perspective. The renovation created an extremely humane, inspirational environment that clarified the circulation, defined flexible suite arrangements, and reintroduced planning efficiency. The designers paid equal attention to the labs as well as the public spaces,” says competition judge Peter Van Vechten, associate partner, Skidmore, Owing & Merrill, LLP, Chicago.

Construction was phased to allow work to occur in an orderly sequence as funding became available and without subjecting occupants to double moves. Phase I included the complete overhaul of core mechanical, electrical, and life safety systems throughout the building. In addition, lobby work was done to revamp the way the building interacted with the street and the city.

Phase II was a complete renovation of all lab and lab support areas. The sequence of this work involved logistically feasible phasing and realignment of research groupings to ensure minimal disruption to ongoing research. The new scheme increased available lab area by 120% and more than doubled the ratio of support space to lab space.

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Two suites were created on each floor, each featuring an equipment pass-through room that enhances interaction among scientists. Between the two suites is the vertical circulation core and public function areas for each floor. (Images: Payette Associates)

New floor plan, new approach
Built in 1962, the Institute had undergone four decades of incremental changes and renovations, resulting in inefficient and confusing floor plans. This affected the culture of the institute and its ability to flexibly assign space. The plan also discouraged the sharing of research support resources. Architects devised a new open floor plan lab design using visual transparency to create a more dynamic and flexible open lab design. The new plan reunites compatible science groups and presents a common social and cultural core for each floor, while also providing shared support resources to encourage collaboration.

Lab modules, with a structural grid of 3.15 m, run in both directions, allowing for a simple and repetitive bench module to ensure consistency and flexibility in assigning lab space. With modular and flexible casework systems, users can easily transform seating and standing sections of the bench. Casework is hung from the frame of the bench structure and can be moved along a rail or removed from the bench to make room for equipment needs.

“The organizing device of the racetrack circulation system has been restored to give each floor a clear, consistent organizational pattern,” says Stark. “The clever use of the Lab-flex casework system is almost residential in fashion, with the open labs having the visual feel of big loft apartments. Exposed, painted ceilings and suspended lights, together with extensive daylight, create a bright, yet calm, environment. This is all appropriate for an institute dealing with vision and sight.”

Changing their image—within budget

Vital Stats

Project: Schepens Eye Research Institute
Size: 5,950 m2
Budget: $19.7 million
Architect/Engineer: Mass.-based Payette Associates, Boston.; AHA Consulting Engineers, Lexington.; Labflex Inc., Brookline (casework and fume hoods); Fluor Enterprises, Inc., Rumford. R.I
Completion Date: Phased occupancy 2002-2004

The overall renovation also announces the revamping of Schepens’ image. This is achieved by the materials, forms, and layers that expand the visual field in this limited space. The elevator and stair lobby—a previously small, dark, and unremarkable space in the original building design—is now the social and cultural heart of each research floor. Materials and colors change to mark special functions, such as informal lounge, kitchenette, and conference room. Wood is used to define the circulation core that runs vertically through the building. Beyond its basic function as a circulation core, this zone provides opportunities for informal collaboration between scientists within a limited available space.

“At Schepens, the finishes were smartly done. The architects also created suites of labs that allowed outside lighting into the center of the building. They let the casework delineate the space, instead of the interior corridor walls. The fact that the Schepens project was able to achieve the results that they did for the budgets they had is an example of award-winning design,” says competition judge David.

—Lorraine Joyce