The advanced polymer research lab for one of India's biggest companies didn't measure up. But starting over was not option, so designers got creative.
To impress Lab of the Year judges, renovation projects don't have to be large. Case in point: Reliance Industries Limited's (RIL) Catalyst & Material Reliance Technology Centre (CMRTC), Gujarat, India, which earned a 2009 R&D Magazine Lab of the Year Special Mention Award despite adding up to just a portion of 15,000-ft2 lab building. The project stood out primarily because the design team showed they understood advanced lab design concepts and found a way to apply them despite a limited budget and small building.

RIL, one of India's largest chemical, textile, and refining firms, is among the top ten producers of polyolefins globally, making 50 million tons in 2007. Established in 1999, CMRTC contributes the R&D that is the basis for this high production level. Specifically, the lab is known for two developed polypropylene catalyst and external donor technologies that contribute to 35 grades of production polymers. Eight additional technologies are now in pilot phase. CMRTC also represents 30 patent applications, 10 scientific papers, and several innovation awards.

Unfortunately, much of this technology was developed in a building unsuitable for this type of R&D. The floor plan consisted of a simple central corridor flanked by a series of same-sized, closed rooms that effectively chopped up workflow and stifled collaboration.
2009 Lab of the Year logoA faster pace for R&D
In 2006, RIL initiated a plan to improve the building, selecting an in-house team from several departments, including engineering, health, safety, environment, finance, horticulture, and information systems. Further assistance was provided by Sheth & Sheth Architects and Interior Designers, Gujarat, India.

Together, they faced the challenge of renovating an old lab to meet new, ambitious goals, including better workflow, worker satisfaction, collaboration, and higher sustainability, safety, and health standards.

The biggest immediate dividend of the new design is a 60% increase in functional lab space. This was achieved using nearly the same building footprint, and it did wonders for workflow as well as safety. This type of R&D involves handling highly hygroscopic and corrosive chemicals.

"They realized that the rigid layout was a barrier to the critical interactions needed between the user groups," says Victoria David, AIA, Lab of the Year judge and VP/director laboratory design, Leo A Daly Architects, Denver, Colo. "Not only did they demolish the CMU walls, the walls they replaced them with are ‘temporary' glass panels, so the entire lab block is transparent and flexible."

The first, or top floor, now features two large open labs separated by a small write-up area and an analytical zone at the far end of the floor. The synthesis portion of the open zone, distinguished by large glazed wall sections separating it from other areas, includes four hoods and equipment. The analytical section has high-performance liquid and gas chromatographs and other tools. The spectroscopic lab holds sensitive equipment including an x-ray diffraction instrument, a Fourier transform infrared spectroscope and a UV-vis spectrometer.

Between the large labs and the analytical lab are small areas dedicated to a library, group discussion spaces, a documentation room, and office space. The lack of non-assigned hallway space clearly reflects the useful space reclaimed for labs.

The ground floor is half the size of the first-floor of CMRTC because of an adjoining lab belonging to a separate division. Now conforming to an open layout, this lab is used for nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy and high-pressure polymerization.
New environments inside and out
Barren areas directly outside the buildings were restored to a lush, natural state, forming an attractive "green belt". In addition to many new plantings, the lab was repositioned so that the entrance lay along a major road. Judges were also impressed by the innovations gallery and evident pride taken in the work at the lab. Richard Johnson, Lab of the Year judge and director, strategic marketing, corporate alliances, Thermo Fisher Scientific, Two Rivers, Wis., felt that the project team "was focused on worker safety, health, and the environment."

David agrees with this assessment, particularly after seeing what passes for standard practice at nearby science buildings in Gujarat.

"Renovation projects are always the most interesting to review because they don't have the luxury of a green field—most of the time, they are lemons and the design team must make lemonade," she says.

The team, she continues, was able to successful execute the concept of ‘collaboratories', in which related labs are placed close together to foster quality interaction and results.

Johnson also saw lab best practices being applied to emerging country standards. It is, he says, "a good laboratory renovation project that maximized the return on investment with limited funding but a lot of heart."