The world of R&D is constantly changing and innovating. That means today’s laboratory designers must meet the needs of research teams today, while also anticipating what the requirements of a lab might be in the future. It’s inevitable that in any research facility, the science, techniques, equipment, and working group arrangements will shift over time. As well, limited funds and shorter research deadlines are impacting trends in lab design, creating demand for more flexibility in interior spaces and in building infrastructure.
Multi-disciplinary research is becoming the norm in R&D labs, so lab design needs to accommodate the requirements of various teams within a project, and also plan for how those needs will change over time. Current lab design has embraced open, team-oriented spaces that encourage collaborative work. Meanwhile, incorporating modular furniture enables easy reconfigurations and room set-ups as research needs to evolve or change. Lab set-up may also feature breakaway areas for meetings with various teams working on a project.
Research facilities as a whole are also adopting “in-between” areas. These informal spaces take their lead from recent office trends and are meant to create an atmosphere that encourages collaboration as well as impromptu meetings. These design trends help foster synergy and creative partnerships between various research teams as they meet casually in lounge areas, café spaces, reading areas or meeting rooms.
Agile, reconfigurable labs also help meet today’s standards for sustainability. In addition to modular/reusable furniture, designers are incorporating more natural light into labs and, most importantly, are focussing on ways to cut energy usage. A laboratory can use up to 5 times as much energy as a typical office does. This is in part because the labs tend to be accessible 24/7, and they have energy-intense safety requirements.
For instance, clean airflow is an important safety element for wet labs, so large fume hoods and air exchanges are constantly in use, bringing in clean air that needs to be heated/cooled and humidified, only to be pushed back out immediately. With current lab designs, huge amounts of energy are wasted cooling/heating clean air that is never used. However, with a well-thought-out approach to the mechanical and control systems, designers can help minimize the amount of energy used while maintaining safe air quality levels. Smart systems can constantly monitor the air in the lab for the ambient quantities of oxygen, CO2 and other toxins. If the system determines the O2 levels are below the base level, more ventilation fans are activated to clear the air; otherwise, the lab gets only the amount it needs.
Designing for the future
To facilitate the possible requirements of a lab facility in the future, architects have to think from the ground up—and possibly the sky down. A new building’s skeleton needs to be a combination of long spans to accommodate the large open labs that are trending today, along with short spans that can support heavy equipment, or any new construction that may be necessary to adapt interior spaces in the future.
Technical needs will inevitably change frequently, so mechanical infrastructure needs to be able to deliver new services to every area of the building. This requires vertical, horizontal and accessible mechanical and electrical shafts, in which new services for previously unimagined gases or power or glass fibre data cables can be fed without interfering with the research underway.