Surveys of laboratory users and designers reveal the effects of budgetary belt-tightening, the true impetus for building green, and the drive to build transparency.

 R&D laboratories are supposed to be incubators for emerging technologies. So, are these lab facilities keeping up with the technology and space needs of researchers?

The editors of R&D Magazine and Laboratory Design News (LDN) went directly to lab users and lab designers to gauge the latest environmental, economic, design, workflow, and technology trends in laboratories. When surveyed, lab users and lab designers offered differing perspectives on sustainability, workflow, and design features that are either necessary or desired for an efficient, cost-effective laboratory.

By way of example, the two laboratories recognized in this year’s R&D Magazine Laboratory of the Year (LOY) competition suggest some structural, planning, functional, and aesthetic trends for future labs.


CBG Labs
Transparency was paramount in the design of the Plant Conservation Science Center at Chicago Botanic Garden. Researchers from one lab can see through the visitor’s gallery to labs on the other side of the atrium. The facility was recognized as the 2010 R&D Magazine Laboratory of the Year for its innovation in incorporating education (both public and private), transparency, and sustainability. Photo: Michelle Litvin

The players
The architects, planners, contractors, and engineers responding to the LDN survey design labs on a contract basis for clients or design internal projects for their organizations. More than 40% recommend features to lab designers. Surprisingly, almost half manage lab operations or work daily in a laboratory setting.


R&D Magazine’s audience represents a cross section of executives, lab managers, project leaders, and other lab professionals who work primarily in industrial and technology research labs, as well academic and government settings. Almost two-thirds are engaged in applied research; 58% are involved in product development and almost half conduct basic research.

More than half of the R&D readers said their present lab environment needed improvements, requiring updates to furnishings, layout, and mechanical systems. Almost 20% percent described their facility as antiquated, with major renovation or replacement required.

In spite of the need, only 20% of respondents plan facility upgrades beyond minimal renovations, such as new furnishings and housekeeping improvements. More than one-third have no plans for changes; 8% postponed plans due to economic conditions.

It’s the economy
The belt-tightening was obvious to lab designers. Most identified project delays or postponements, scaled-back plans, or even project cancellations as fallout from the economic conditions of the last few years. Government stimulus funding had little impact on lab design and construction projects.

 “The lab design industry has been affected tremendously due to the poor economy,” states Richard Rietz, PhD, a consultant in R&D lab facility use from Helena, Mont. “The capital spending has really fallen off. And, the work, or the staffing, is down around 25%.”

Like most economists and business leaders, architects and lab designers believe the economy will bounce back. The question is: When? However, lab designers do see some positives from the economic downturn.

“There is an emphasis on renovation versus new construction especially since there is so much vacant leased space in the market,” says Victoria David, AIA, VP Director Laboratory Design, Leo A Daly Architects, Denver, Colo. “Several companies with expansion needs are flowing into vacant neighboring tenant spaces for decreased rental rates.”

Green turns green
Operationally, lab owners always seek ways to maximize cost efficiencies, and renovating to reduce operational costs is one route. Still, in an era where “going green” makes sense environmentally, the lack of “green” to fund such a facility can be a roadblock.

“The economic downturn has increased demand for sustainable labs but has limited demand for labs overall,” says Mark Reed, AIA, LEED AP, principal/vice president, Tsoi/Kobus & Associates, Cambridge, Mass. “Organizations are much more in tune with cost- and energy-efficiency as a result of the new economic reality, but most are still hesitant to move ahead with new building projects.”

In existing labs, sustainability and environment-friendly features are not the norm. Nearly all of R&D Magazine’s lab users report that their facilities do not use alternate energy sources; nearly 80% are not carbon-neutral. Almost 60% do not have sustainability features; two-thirds lack high-efficiency window systems.

While high-efficiency lighting and energy-efficient HVAC systems are some of the most important features sought in a new lab, users ranked alternate energy, alternative building materials, and carbon-neutral labs as low priorities. Sustainability received a lukewarm response.

 Lab designers, however, identified alternative building materials as a positive trend in lab design in the last three years. Sustainability, including certification from LEED or other guidelines, also played a big role in lab design. Thanks to regulatory mandates, government buildings are adopting green building standards. Private industry is slower to respond.

Feigin Center Exterior Garden

Driven by site constraints—along with cost considerations—the vertical expansion of Texas Children’s Hospital Feigin Center demonstrates how creative design and planning can give new life to existing labs and accommodate additional functional space. The facility is the recipient of an R&D Magazine 2010 Lab of the Year Honorable Mention. Photo: Aker/Zvonkovic Photography

 “The reality is that well-designed, well-built, energy-efficient, and properly-oriented buildings consuming 50% less energy than so-called standard buildings tend to cost 10% to 20% more money to build,” says David. “Owners want shorter paybacks, and their building budgets are generated, justified, and expended differently than their operating budgets.”

Building monitoring and control systems have improved significantly over the last 10 years, say architects and lab designers participating in the LDN survey. While individual lab users may not be concerned with—or even aware of—building monitoring systems, those who own or manage labs are learning the value. In fact, they ranked efficiencies in operating costs as more important than higher initial capital costs.

 “The whole discipline of energy modeling has really encouraged the rethinking of standard room air change rates because so much depends on room use, configuration, hazard evaluation, risk mitigation, and chemical use, task ventilation versus whole room ventilation,” says David. “Demand control ventilation is made possible by advances in environmental control systems. There is also a trend towards making rooms controllable by the occupants according to room usage.”

For example, when planning for the expansion and renovation of the Feigin Center of the Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, air monitoring of existing labs revealed that the number of air changes could be reduced from 15 to 4 per hour during normal operation, resulting in significant savings that will be paid back in one year. The facility was recognized with an honorable mention in this year’s R&D Magazine Laboratory of the Year competition.

Space, flexibility, and contradiction
Lab managers and users want more than sustainability and cost efficiencies in their laboratory designs. In some cases, the opinions indicate a focus on individual user functions in the lab versus the overall requirements for the entire facility.

In both survey questions and open-ended comments, “more space” and “more flexibility” were popular choices. While a “flexible design” was a priority for 75% of the respondents, movable casework narrowly edged out fixed casework as the furnishings of choice. Movable wall systems and multi-use facilities were low on the priority scale, a contradiction to users’ desires for flexible labs.

Among ranked necessities for a lab, safety, communications systems, and functionality scored high. Adequate space was a major theme; storage space, adequate work space, and room for expansion were named by the majority of respondents.

Several lab design experts noted that the introduction of movable casework influenced lab design. However, many labs still lack visual openness and transparency. “Even the latest movable furniture looks cluttered and messy five minutes after the scientists move in. One obstacle to transparency is the dearth of new, innovative casework products,” says Erik Mollo-Christensen, AIA, principal, TSOI/Koubus & Associates. “We need more clever storage solutions to help mitigate clutter.

Lab Trends Chart 250Collaboration areas were a recurring theme in many entries in the 2010 LOY competition. Currently, less than half of the lab users have collaboration areas in their facilities. Almost 30% said these areas were not needed.

However, lab designers ranked collaboration areas as a one of the leading positive design trends over the last few years; more than 85% said their clients placed moderate or high priority on these areas.

The transparent lab
The question of what researchers want more—storage space or a place to share a cup of coffee with a colleague—will depend on the culture and policies of organizations, and the personal preferences of the researchers. However, design techniques can create transparency between labs, researchers, and visitors.

Design trends of open floor plans, glass walls, windows, wider corridors, bigger laboratories, interconnected floors, and open stairwells can contribute to a feeling of openness.

The Plant Conservation Science Center at Chicago Botanic Garden, the 2010 R&D Magazine Laboratory of the Year, illustrates this concept. Visitors to the building’s central atrium can view working laboratories. From the inside of the laboratory, scientists can engage not only the public, but other scientists as well; every open lab is visible to every other open lab.

Even labs not open to the public can benefit from open floor plans. But, floor and furniture layout alone will not create collaborative, multidisciplinary labs. A change in philosophy and attitudes is needed.

“Number one is for institutions to reorganize themselves and provide motivation and reward to teams and groups rather than individuals and departments,” says Mollo-Christensen. “If they can take a less hierarchical approach to space assignment, they can create more opportunities for flexibility and interdisciplinary teaming that will be reflected in the lab design.”

Additional Content
To read more about lab users and lab creators opinions on LEED certification click here.

A strategy to foster multidisciplinary studies, according to Rietz is, “to actually mix the groups inside of the laboratory. Just putting groups together in a building doesn’t really foster multi-disciplinary studies. You have to get people together in the lab, get the offices closer together, and the labs need to be open.”

While researchers may need to adjust to shared or collaborative organization in labs of the future, lab designers and owners also will be challenged with breaking old habits.

“The percentage of buildings where people actually try something new is very low,” says Reitz. “Just about every award winner for Lab of the Year had something where someone took a risk. They either experimented with the furniture, or the way the utilities were put in place, or the energy efficiency of the building, or something. That is what lacking, people willing to push the envelope.”

Published in R & D magazine: Vol. 52, No. 3, June, 2010, pp. 18-20.