Laboratory Design Trends

Lab work is a high-stakes arena for many organization.

The facility challenge: respond to accelerating change without busting the budget.

Today there are many types of laboratories in medical, corporate, and academic settings. Despite their differences, common trends have shaped these labs: automation, electronic equipment, regulatory guidelines (e.g., EPA, OSHA, ADA), lab/office relationships, and the evolution of the working environment. On the whole, these factors have resulted in lab personnel spending less time performing traditional wet-bench work and more time performing dry-bench or office-based tasks. This change has had a tremendous effect on space needs and distribution in the facility. With multiple variations of lab functions and requirements, any common facility attributes may seem difficult to find. However, many similarities do exist and so do fundamental design principles—principles that can help control project and life-cycle costs while improving the functionality and flexibility of the space.

One of the difficulties of identifying common laboratory design principles is the range of applications. Pharmaceutical company labs, for example, depend on advances in science. As science changes so must the research laboratories. The challenge is to accommodate change in the most cost-effective and time-efficient way possible, keeping overhead costs down and improving the bottom line of the new drug on its way to the marketplace.

Bay contrast, the academic lab can include needs for both research and teaching space. The institution must maintain state-of-the-art facilities to help researchers win competitive grant dollars while providing teaching space that can accommodate several functions, multiple courses, many users, and a variety of pedagogical styles. Ongoing recruitment and retention of students and staff is hampered without this flexibility.

The medical lab provides a service within a health care organization. Critical to this lab’s operation is high quality service and prompt turnaround times. A continual challenge is balancing the bottom line while providing for new, technologically advanced equipment. New equipment, such as robotic systems, requires uniquely different spaces and utility services. Advances in technology have reduced the running times of samples and produced a less staff-intensive lab—changes that must be taken into consideration in laboratory planning.


Common Factors

Despite the differences among these three laboratory types and their individual facility demands, there are common space utilization issues. One key issue is the lab/office relationship—critical in maintaining a close connection between the user and a variety of daily work activities. The challenge is to provide this relationship for two very different space types: office and laboratory. Offices within lab spaces present concerns for safety conditions, indoor air quality, and energy use. Separation of these spaces can save on capital costs and ongoing operational dollars by recirculating air in the office sections and providing less costly mechanical and structural systems for the offices. Close physical proximity or a technological linkage between the labs and offices with a lab information system maintains this desired connectivity.

The backbone of any laboratory is its mechanical system—another design area common to all types of laboratories. Carefully planned supply and exhaust air, power, data, and piped services such as lab gasses and water must meet specific needs and provide for future requirements. All facilities that perform scientific research, development, testing or instruction share a common need for high quality and functional distribution of these infrastructure items.

Specialized support functions and space are also commonly found in conjunction with the lab, regardless of type. More and more labs are providing biosafety-level rooms, clean rooms, magnetic resonance space, and specialized teaching areas. These space types often are associated with a high level of construction and operations costs. These support functions can be centralized or stacked to minimize utility distribution, create shared facilities, and limit the number of staff required for proper operation.

All laboratories should be efficient and functional. Flexibility can have either micro- or macro-applications. At the personal level, users can be provided the capability to modify their space with flexible furniture systems. This is accomplished with adjustable shelving and countertops, slide-in base cabinets, removable task lights, flexible connections to localized exhaust, and general components that are user-friendly and provide maximum storage capacity.

On a larger scale, a facility benefits by redundancy in the mechanical-electrical-plumbing system, moveable lab walls, provisions for building an expansion, and contiguous lab space. Planning for a high degree of flexibility typically results in higher first costs; less flexibility means lower first costs with premium costs incurred at the time of modification, for the life of the building.

Standardization in laboratory design is critical, and the early design phase of a new or renovated laboratory project is the best opportunity for the owner to develop or improve current building standards. These standards may apply to material finishes such as flooring, base boards, wall paint, special coating ceiling tiles, light fixtures, and window treatments. The proper selection of materials will expedite the cleaning and maintaining of the laboratory. Casework, sinks, service fixtures, and countertops may also follow a standard to minimize inventory while maximizing options for reconfiguration or expansion of the lab when necessary.

Most laboratories also share materials handling issues. There are many solutions, from traditional inventory methods to individual room bar code scanners connected to a server. For health and safety reasons, it is important for lab staff and facility managers to track the materials as they enter and leave the building. Individual labs should maintain a record of what chemicals enter the lab and should properly label mixed waste as it exits the lab. Delivery, storage, and removal of a variety of laboratory materials can be handled in a centralized satellite or satellite method, or in a combination of these methods, as determined by the environmental health and safety officer and the facility executive. Chemicals, cylinder tanks, disposable supplies, radioisotopes, biological, and biohazard materials and their containers become an important planning consideration.


Fundamentals of Design

Although the scientific processes within each type of laboratory may vary, the space requirements, including distribution of service utilities and mechanical systems, can be accommodated in a design that is based on fundamental principles. The result is a facility that is both efficient and adaptable. Good laboratory planning is achieved by applying three key design principles during the planning process.

The first design principle is to identify a standard module of space required for lab occupants and the safe and effective use of lab equipment. A lab module is created by considering the depth of benches and equipment on both sides of an aisle; the module will interface with a building’s structural grid. A modular approach to planning provides building blocks for organizing the lab for future flexibility.

A second principle of lab design is the careful zoning and distribution of mechanical systems as well as laboratory activities. Application of this principle benefits the lab occupants while it can help cut costs. Wet-lab functions (sinks and service fittings), dry-lab functions (equipment and workstations), and fume hoods (including other exhaust devices) can be positioned to increase the safety and efficiency of the lab.

The final principle of good laboratory planning concerns the integration of modules and zoning of activities into an entire facility design. It is beneficial to provide continuous, uninterrupted space—either open or individual labs—to gain economies of utility distribution and to separate lab/office mechanical systems. Uninterrupted spaces are also adaptable, which reduces the life-cycle cost of renovations and ongoing facility management.


Broader Considerations

Of course, good lab planning does not occur in a vacuum. Many external factors influence laboratory configuration; facility executives must incorporate into good laboratory planning and design. A good example is sustainable building design, which is having a big impact on laboratory planning and design. Emphasis on using daylight, conserving natural resources, and incorporating sustainable materials have assisted facility personnel and planners in reducing environmental impact while producing a building that functions well and longer, and has a greater pay-back to the environment on a life-cycle basis.

Energy conservation is another big issue. Laboratory facilities consume an overwhelming amount of energy. Strategies for conserving energy include reducing airflow through the lab such as variable air volume (VAV) controls and low-flow fume hoods. These and other mechanical innovations are changing the way laboratories are planned to reduce energy costs.

A third factor is ergonomics. The laboratory workplace has benefited in recent years by trends in the office environment regarding worker comfort and performance. Repetitive motion disorders including back and eye strain are attributed, in part, to furniture design and broader lab planning issues. Good laboratory design includes attention to proper lighting and layout of work flow and materials handling, as well as seating to minimize work-related disorders.

An interdisciplinary approach—featuring collaboration in scientific research, teaching, and development—has influenced the planning of laboratory facilities to include features and design measures that foster communication and multi-disciplinary interaction. Corporate and academic facilities have found success in inter-mixing disciplines of science on common floors or wings of a building. In addition, the lab itself can be made flexible to accommodate multiple processes through careful zoning of work tasks and utility distribution.


Changing Technology

Technological advances in the lab have also facilitated the sharing of information, allowing data to be used by scientists from locations outside the lab, in an adjacent office or around the world. In addition, the realization of virtual experimentation through software and technology will continue to impact the space needs and environment of the laboratory setting.

Finally, instrumentation and equipment on the benchtop are increasing in number and in size, requiring greater bench depths, which has a particular impact on planning for future needs. In addition, computers in the lab are taking up more space on the benchtop. One solution is using vertical space above the bench with structural shelving and racking devices for equipment as well as reagents and storage.

Scientific methods of discovery are constantly changing; so are equipment design and the perception of the laboratory environment as a workplace. Facility executives are on the front line of accommodating change. Complicating the facility executive’s job is the speed at which these changes take place in a market-driven economy. It isn’t only corporate labs where pace of change has accelerated; all types of laboratories are affected. The best way for facility executives to prepare is by applying the fundamental design principals of modular design, zoning of work tasks, and flexible planning to new and renovated projects.