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A Blueprint for Serendipity: How Lab Design Helped Fight COVID-19

In 1998, biochemist Katalin Karikó bumped into Drew Weissman while waiting to make some photocopies in a research facility where they both worked. The rest, to beat on an old cliche, is history. A microbiologist, Weissman was intrigued by messenger RNA (mRNA) which brings our cells the blueprints for our DNA. Karikó, meanwhile, was convinced that mRNA could unlock cures for devastating diseases like cancers. That early chance conversation led to a series of events that eventually allowed a novel technology to become a crucial tool in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

Working together for more than 20 years. Weissman and Karikó developed the fundamental technology that is reshaping vaccine and gene therapy today. This chance encounter may well turn out to have the long lasting, life-saving effect that the discovery of penicillin or the development of the polio vaccine has had on the world.

Chance Encounters of the Best Kind

The Weissman and Karikó story, and others like it, has many sociologists, designers, and innovators thinking about how a facility design can encourage the kind of chance encounters that might lead to discoveries that could change the world.

Serendipity can play a huge role in scientific discovery, so creating collaborative spaces that allow for workplace interaction and the cross-pollination of ideas informs the spatial and organization structure of today’s modern lab facility designs.

At Parkin, when we approach a new facility design or a renovation, we pay special attention to the in-between spaces that may be welcoming or relaxing spaces outside the formal lab. Lab designs have recently focussed on encouraging team intra-collaboration but, as we continue to build for the future, inter-collaboration between disparate research labs is becoming an important element of overall facility design as well.

Hamilton Health Sciences, David Braley Cardiac Vascular Stroke Research Institute


These interstitial spaces can work to expose researchers to other people they may not otherwise chance to meet in their typical research circles and help break down knowledge silos.

Serendipity as a Design Principle

Environmental factors can play a role in the production, distribution, and consumption of information by exposing people to one another, and researchers are increasingly recognizing serendipity as an important element of innovation.

Collaborative spaces within a lab facility, for instance, could include casual gathering spaces where various teams can meet to discuss their research or any challenges they’re encountering.  Cafes, lounge areas, exhibition spaces, and conference rooms are places where synergy among teams and team members could be fostered.  Strategically placed, comfortable spaces encourage researchers to interact and share ideas outside their research focus.

Hamilton Health Sciences, David Braley Cardiac Vascular Stroke Research Institute


Maker spaces also provide opportunities for chance encounters. These spaces often provide common-use resources like 3D printers and computer-aided design/manufacturing machines (CAD/CAM). Depending on a facility’s function, they also provide space for robotics research or medical imaging equipment.  Functioning like large, open workshops, maker spaces are the Karikó/Weissman shared photocopier writ large.

Designing for Flexibility

Once health officials recognized that COVID-19 was going to become a pandemic, labs around the world went into action to prepare for research and, eventually, vaccine production.  Modern laboratory design facilitated the quick changeovers that labs were able to make. Modular planning with furniture and floorplates is organized so that labs can reconfigure and expand or contract without major modifications.

For new buildings, the skeleton needs to allow for long spans that can accommodate the needs of open lab spaces. Mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems are then installed to provide individual modules with ceiling services like lab gasses or ventilation in new configurations as needed.

In the initial stages of the pandemic, labs that could handle automated liquid handling and high-throughput PCR processes were quickly reconfigured to provide the diagnostics services that were in high demand. With demand now dwindling those labs are easily returned to research spaces.

Flexible design allowed labs that were handling biologically sensitive material to quickly be configured from open spaces to walled-in areas. Labs easily integrated bio-safety cabinets for manual processes and were able to upgrade mechanical requirements without the need for costly and time-consuming renovations.

Scientists around the world met the crisis of COVID-19 head-on and developed vaccines and safety protocols that helped us fight the pandemic. They were able to meet those global needs at lightning speed with the support of flexible and strategic lab design.


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