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8 Considerations for Modern Laboratory Design

Life moves quickly in today’s laboratories, and modern laboratory design has to anticipate the ever-evolving requirements of research institutions. Modern laboratory design needs to be agile and easily reconfigurable while offering multi-disciplinary workspaces that encourage collaboration among researchers and other staff. Bioinformatics spaces and maker spaces are now integral requirements for many researchers. Crucially, today’s labs must be safe, accessible spaces that promote occupant wellness and environmental sustainability. A design that includes common amenities and services can also contribute to staff satisfaction and productivity.

Good laboratory design for the 21st century successfully integrates the following eight elements to deliver energy-efficient, flexible spaces that foster collaboration and innovation while offering openness and transparency to the general public.

1. Modularity: structure and infrastructure 

One of the challenges of designing a new lab today is creating a space that can accommodate an unanticipated future. Careful attention to how a lab building is planned while building in flexibility allows labs to reconfigure in the future quickly, without having to deal with costly and time-consuming renovations.

First and foremost, a lab building must provide a functional lab bench module. Planning around this basic module shapes the floor plan and structural grid. The mechanical and electrical (M&E) infrastructure distribution matrix is then applied to this grid.

Immovable laboratory elements and services, such as sinks and safety showers, are placed away from the centre, allowing larger open spaces that can be reconfigured as needed. The relationship with dry labs and placement of core servicesꟷlike freezer farms, glass washing, tissue culture, and imagingꟷare then carefully planned to support lab safety and collaboration opportunities.

The demand for optimal flexibility can be accommodated by providing a grid of accessible hubs with “plug and play” connectivity that enables quick connections and rapid reconfigurations. Combined with fully movable and adjustable bench modules, this approach allows labs to be quickly reconfigured for new equipment placement, team groupings, and teaching hubs.

Interstitial floor spaces—that is, floors that are dedicated to M&E systems, can be integrated into multi-storey laboratories to enable maintenance and upgrades without the need for maintenance personnel to enter the laboratory environment.

2. Integrating Bioinformatics 

Modern research is becoming more and more reliant on the collection, sorting and analysis of big data. Bioinformatics combines computing power, biology, and advanced mathematics to enable the compilation and comparison of big data, including data analysis from high-throughput genomics and molecular biology studies, computational biology, advanced digital imaging, and deep machine learning.

These computation needs have significant implications for infrastructure design. Elements such as fibre optic data lines and data security systems are important and require large, complex server rooms and data centres.

3. Maker Spaces 

Maker spaces are changing the landscape in research and development. These spaces are commonly large open workshop spaces, designed to support prototyping and technological testing of theories.  They are often equipped with tools like 3d printers, waterjets, and CAD-CAM machines. Some labs need room to develop robotics while others explore the 3D printing of organs, prosthetics, or surgical tools. In a research hospital setting, a maker space may include a suite of imaging equipment where researchers can investigate new methods and procedures for diagnostic imaging.

Maker spaces should foster innovation and ingenuity where ideas and concepts can be brought to life.

4. “Forced Collision” & Collaborative Spaces

Serendipity is often how great ideas and innovative solutions are born. Contemporary designs that provide the opportunity for collaboration play a key role in fostering ingenuity and novel discoveries. Multi-disciplinary collaboration enables opportunities for ideas to be generated, explored, developed, and shared. “In-between” spaces like cafes and lounges can help break down discipline silos and encourage hybrid solutions to research problems.

‘Forced collision’ spaces are designed to encourage just such serendipity. They are organized so that circulation and communal spaces are conducive for occupants to interact. The intention of forced collision is to increase the opportunities for connecting with other researchers, information sharing, and idea generation. Collision spaces, however, do not need to be limited to a physical space.  The provision of virtual social spaces for connectivity is equally important for networking and collaboration opportunities.

5. Environmentally Conscious Design 

Climate change is top-of-mind for most researchers, and major institutions are now establishing energy efficiency objectives and targets to lessen their carbon footprints and promote sustainable environments. These efforts also influence occupant comfort and wellness and improve productivity. These are considered attractive incentives for student enrolment and staff recruitment.

Contemporary strategies include the use of alternative technologies such as passive energy harvesting like solar power and green roofs for cooling. Energy-efficient equipment like chilled beams can efficiently supply air cooling while reducing energy costs. In the same vein, heat wheels use energy recovery between devices to reduce heating and cooling requirements, which leads to lower costs and less impact on the environment.

Other initiatives like water conservation and the reduction of use of hazardous and toxic chemicals can also reduce a lab’s environmental impact. Inside the lab, the use of chemical sensor systems can manage air quality so that ventilation rates are only increased when necessary.

6. Science on Display

Natural daylight also reduces energy use while providing health and wellness benefits for a building’s occupants. Open and transparent designsꟷthat take advantage of natural light to offer a connection to the outside worldꟷcreate more welcoming workspaces for staff.

Understandably, laboratories are often access-controlled environments, but there is a move toward increasing transparency and openness between public and private spaces, not just with a view to improving occupant experiences, but to project an institution’s desire for openness. This strategy seeks to demystify closed-off lab environments by allowing the public to have glimpses of scientific research on display.

7. Biophilic Design 

The design strategy that encourages science on display also plays a role in the well-being of those working inside lab spaces. Biophilic design addresses the built environment’s impact on users by increasing access to green spaces within the interior of buildings through an extension of exterior landscaping into the interior. Trees and shrubs are commonly planted to help improve air quality. Green spaces also help to absorb sound and promote productive collaboration opportunities.

Non-visual elements and features like water features can reduce stress hormones and help to improve concentration. Symbolically, biophilic design also establishes a connection with a biology research environment.

8. Access to Amenities 

Another positive approach to modern laboratory design is a recognition that the people who work in them have various needs outside the labs in which they work. Common amenities like wellness centres, workout, yoga, prayer, and relaxation spaces, along with childcare facilitiesꟷcan improve the work-life balance for staff. Quality amenities are important and attractive features for institutions interested in attracting the best research and academic minds and industry leaders.

Common spaces also promote interactions and the formation of social connections, which ultimately can result in collaborative opportunities.

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