Expanding the definition of inclusive laboratory design

In our continued quest to provide our clients cutting-edge thinking and ideas about lab planning, HERA is expanding how we identify inclusive design. Lab Planner Rachel Updegrove, WELL AP, and Senior Lab Planner Jeff Owens, MPH, CSP, SM (NRCM), CBSP, Assoc. AIA are pushing the typical parameters to ask deeper and more meaningful questions of users to create spaces that truly work for everyone. Read more about their first-hand perspective and passion on this topic.


How is HERA’s definition of inclusive design different? 

Rachel: I think it can mean a lot of different things for a lot of different people. The words we use matter. To me, inclusive design is designing so that all are included and considered. While we all have our own human experiences and differences, we shouldn’t be denied access to a space because of those differences. The multitude of differences and intersectionality that can exist just within the human body is vast! So, there is a lot to consider. This is why it is important to engage all users in the design process to foster a comfortable and open environment, so that dialog happens with the user and the designer. 

Jeff: To me inclusive design is truly understanding the people and the breadth and depth of abilities and experiences each individual brings to the laboratory environment. It’s our job to shape that space in a manner that best supports and enhances the workplace so every ounce of potential is realized.


Why is this important for clients? Why is this important to you, personally? 

Rachel: Personally, this is a very important topic to me…and I will probably tell you more than you want to know about the topic, because I love it so much. I was diagnosed with severe Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) at the beginning of college and Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) at the end of college. I constantly was, and still am, confronted with stereotypes around my disabilities and misuse of those terms. So I speak up about my experiences to normalize it.

When I received my diagnoses, my perception of OCD and ADHD (and honestly any mental health disorder) had changed because of my lived experience with it. And it’s kind of sad, to be honest, how proximity and embodiment change our relationship and understandings of those with human differences. However, no one was talking about their experiences with mental health, and I found it really hard because I felt alone, like no one was going through the struggles I was. Yet the statistics around mental health disorders show that these conditions are far more common than how little they are talked about in society. So I very quickly became interested in human differences, especially in reference to mental health and disabilities, because even before my diagnosis I always felt like an “other.” Now with the context provided by my diagnoses, I am able to be an advocate for myself, those with human differences, any anyone who feels like an “other.” I take this experience with me when designing labs or just conversing with anyone because we are all human and we all have differences. I mean, what is even normal anyway?!  

Because this topic is so near and dear to me, outside of work, I am a human differences advocate, often talking about my experiences with mental health disorders and as a neurodiverse woman who also works in the built environment industry. 

As for clients and translating human differences, health and wellness into design, this is important to clients. If you feel good, you will do good work and love the work you do. I think if we can accept the preferences and experiences of our clients (as long as they are safe!), even if they may not be our own preferences, the clients will really thrive in their labs. We can let clients know of the flexibility and options they actually have within their personal space, as historically they may have not had the agency or ability to make their lab truly for themselves and their needs. By addressing everyone’s needs, and not just the needs of the “typical body” (whatever “typical” means), productivity, satisfaction, job retention, health and well-being will all increase, ultimately saving money and creating a higher return on investment. 

Jeff: I think what Rachel has expressed is amazing and powerful, and to be perfectly honest she has been one of the biggest inspirations to me for driving these initiatives.  I have always been interested and passionate about health and wellness, and finding ways to incorporate that into my career, particularly in the realm of scientific discovery and the spaces where it occurs, has been truly rewarding.  And while it may not be explicitly included or discussed together at the same time, I think designing for health and wellness and inclusive design has more overlap than not.  Finding that intersection between the two has been the most exciting part, and in that exploration and through the personal experience and life stories from Rachel HERA has begun to develop a keen interest in how we can improve the laboratory environment for the variety of human differences.


What are some of the newest concepts/strategies you find useful for lab spaces? 

Rachel: Flexibility and adaptability for all and access to nature. While at the surface these ideas seem simple, they can be hard to execute – reality of budget, code, scope, understanding, standardization and facilities can impact this. Often addressing these topics can mean more money but it can also mean more satisfaction and productivity. It is just a matter of shifting the cultural paradigm to think truly over time, for all the human differences one might encounter over time, in just one lab. It’s time not only to think of the future of science, but the people of the future that might work in that space. Also, it is a paradigm shift from this fixed sterile environment, to one that YOU can adapt!  

For example, growing up none of my work surfaces were adjustable, always fixed. But now in the office my desk is adjustable. I have never had an adjustable work surface before, so even though it is probably better to adjust to be more comfortable (as I am a short woman), I never have used that feature. Being able to pivot tailoring ourselves to our built environment, we should be able to tailor our built environment to ourselves and our different needs. 

Jeff: For me it has been trying to flip the traditional lab design paradigm from focusing on the physical space where science happens between walls and taking a closer look at the actual space where science really happens: Between the ears! We can’t turn our attention totally away from the facilities, but exploring ways to better balance the facility-focused approach with a human-centered methodology will lead to more exciting spaces, which leads to more exciting discoveries.


What has been the biggest challenge for designing lab spaces while applying these principals? 

Rachel: Some of these might be hard to do within the lab – labs are designed for the scientific processes and human safety, which often have stringent requirements. Campuses and organizations have their own standards to abide by. So we must work within these parameters.  

It is hard to implement change. Scientists often have their own procedures and preferences that might be hard to change. And sadly, someone like me with a non-typical body always has to adapt to spaces (headphones, seat cushions, jackets, moving to another space, turning on many light fixtures, feet not touching the ground, hunching over, over stretching my neck to look up, etc.) and I think many scientists have to do the same.  

Jeff: What Rachel said is spot on! Much of design has always been centered around the facility, and more so with labs because of the nature of the work. With recent advances in energy efficiency and sustainability efforts in lab design this is a perfect time to push the boundaries and refocus that attention on the people inside the labs. Environmental conservation is certainly a worthy cause and should continue to be an area of focus in lab design, but I think along the way the people – the scientists, researchers, laboratorians, clinicians, animal care technicians, etc. – have been overlooked in the endeavors to improve energy efficiency, minimize waste, recycle materials, etc. Put the focus on the people and they will want to do these things as opposed to feeling like they are forced through design to do these things.


What do you think the next steps are for HERA with WELL and neurodiversity initiatives?

Rachel: Having inclusive design and human differences more embedded into the HERA DNA!

Jeff: Further exploring and deepening our understanding of the variety of human differences and how we can influence laboratory design to better support all types of physical, mental and emotional abilities, and then sharing what we learn with our clients and the design community. Did someone say “podcasts”?