Achieving Flexible Lab Design on a Budget

Unlike offices, laboratories require infrastructure that is costly and not readily available in commercial real estate.

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Bioscience companies face an unusual challenge — lab space is expensive and most funding for start-up companies is earmarked for research and product development, not leasing, owning, or building space.

University Enterprise Laboratories (UEL) offers lab managers who are faced with expansion, new construction, or renovation of their facilities an efficient, cost-effective blueprint to follow. Based in Saint Paul, Minnesota, UEL is a nonprofit organization providing early-stage life science companies with laboratory space and related infrastructure. It was founded in 2001 by the University of Minnesota Foundation and the University of Minnesota, with support from the City of St. Paul and several Minnesota-based corporations. Leaders from these organizations recognized the exodus of good scientists and their potential products from Minnesota to other regions of the country.
 
As an incubator, UEL needed to ensure that leases were as affordable as possible in order to attract and retain start-up companies as tenants. Therefore, the UEL business model required built-in flexibility of lab space, along with strict adherence to a design and construction budget. Since no existing facilities in the Twin Cities fit this model, UEL leaders had to start from scratch. Working with Architectural Alliance, UEL clarified the programmatic needs of the facility, along with what type of building would be required to support tenants’ needs. The search for UEL’s home would take the better part of two years.
 
Ultimately, project organizers discovered a vacant warehouse in a good location, but the 125,000-square foot building had little in common with the needs of a bioscience incubator. “The core of the building was there, but it needed a new infrastructure of services so the building could support laboratory research,” commented Tom DeAngelo, principal at Architectural Alliance. “Fortunately, with the warehouse-type setting, we had the opportunity to go right up to the roof with mechanical and electrical systems.”
 
Another appealing aspect of the warehouse was its size. Although much larger than the UEL project’s originally planned footprint, the building offered space for bioscience tenants to expand when needed. “If unique laboratory needs evolve for a tenant, we’ll be able to accommodate them without absorbing all of the construction costs up front,” said DeAngelo.

Balancing Flexibility and Commonality

Before embarking on the renovation, UEL’s architects interviewed scientists to discover what features were critical to the project’s success. “We had to make some informed decisions about what each lab should include,” explained DeAngelo. “For example, we learned that all of the labs should have a chemical fume hood, hot and cold running water, deionized water, and compressed air systems. But since we didn’t know who the lease holders would be, we had to create flexibility so tenants could add specialty areas, allow for growth, or alter space as their R&D needs change.”
 
Another issue critical to UEL’s success was that lab and office planning needed to reduce the environmental cost of tenant reconfiguration. The design team, therefore, assembled a materials palette that could be standardized throughout the building. For example, flooring materials included lab-grade sheet vinyl and carpet for offices, as well as a series of paint and plastic laminate colors that could be selected by the tenant. As lessees churned, there would be less need for ripping out and retrofitting lab equipment, furniture, fixtures, or utilities.
 
While the evolving design of UEL labs centered on adaptability to meet the requirements of disparate tenants, Architectural Alliance discovered there were overall factors that had to be common to all. One of the most important overarching design issues gleaned from interviewing scientists came as somewhat of a surprise — access to natural daylight; not only for offices, but for labs as well. There’s a lot of competition for top scientists, and recruiting is a concern for start-ups, the scientists explained. The labs had to be aesthetically desirable as well as functional.
 
To solve this matter, a “bioscience garden” was created to bring in light and provide a central, collegial space for tenants to interact, and to showcase innovation produced by the start-up companies. Within the garden, the perimeter of which is swathed in skylights, are shared meeting rooms, café/vending amenities, administrative support services, and a conference center. Individual labs, ranging in size from 750 to 1,050 square feet, surround the sky-lit garden.
 
Another aesthetic consideration, which became a critical component to the overall appeal of the building in the eyes of tenants, potential employees and visitors, was that the former warehouse and its site, set within the context of a large industrial park, offered no clues to the presence of the dynamic and exciting work going on within. The resulting design seeks to provide identity for UEL that is visible from the outside. A new, over-sized canopy and its downturned signage panel provide an inviting connection between the entrance to the building and the central bioscience garden.
 
Much pre-design discussion between the scientists and architects also centered on the proximity of office space to the laboratories. Workstations are moving out of the lab, as scientists spend less time doing traditional bench-related research. Studies indicate that about 40 percent of a scientist’s time is now spent doing computer-related work such as analyzing data, preparing reports, or engaging in email. However, scientists continue to value highly the immediacy of their office space to their labs, since lab activities are often concurrent with office activities. At UEL, offices ranging in size from single rooms to suites of up to 15,000 square feet are located adjacent to labs. 

Energy Considerations

Laboratories traditionally consume large amounts of energy due to significant exhaust requirements, and UEL would be no exception. The pre-design conversations with scientists revealed the necessity for complete air separation between labs. “We needed to ensure zero cross contamination among the different companies occupying the labs,” explained DeAngelo. “You want to feel confident that the people working next door to you are not going to unwittingly damage what you’re doing or cause health concerns.”
 
 To stay within UEL’s business model of creating cost-effective facilities for cash-strapped start-ups, the mechanical and electrical systems were designed for maximum efficiency. For example, the mechanical systems that were installed employ variable speed drives, allowing a 60 percent reduction in required air supply and exhaust, and increased chiller efficiency during partial load operation. Energy use data shows that UEL’s overall energy use — both electrical and natural gas — is approximately 27 percent better than building codes require.

Advice to Lab Managers

What lessons can lab managers take away from UEL’s design and construction experience? First and foremost, before any designer even lays pencil to paper, define what flexibility means to the employees affected by a redesign or new construction. One factor that needs to be weighed carefully is how often your lab configuration may need to change based on project life cycles, new research to be undertaken, or future expansion plans.
 
Lab managers also should clarify the types of change needed in any given physical space, and how agile those changes must be — oftentimes, the more flexibility required, the higher the construction costs. As a guide, here are three tiers of flexibility to consider:
 
1. The building
Does your lab design project need to accommodate expansion or evolve within the same footprint? Answers to this question will drive the type of infrastructure, such as mechanical and electrical systems, that is brought in to the building as a whole. In the case of UEL, infrastructure was the single largest cost consideration in remodeling the warehouse, which, of course, necessitated particularly careful thought and planning.
 
2. The lab
At the lab level, the issue becomes more about space management than building design, as a company’s projects scale either up or down. Oftentimes, adaptable, modular workstations can be installed as an effective way to meet the majority of reconfiguration needed. For example, UEL’s base labs include simple casework around the perimeter of the space with cabinets below, a continuous work surface and open shelves above. The center of the space is saved for specialized equipment that can be added or changed, or lab casework can be added as a central work island.  
 
3. The individual
Homing in on individual needs is vital for the well-being and morale of laboratory workers. For this, lab equipment manufacturers have made great strides in creating systems that function more like compartmentalized workstations so that employees themselves can adjust the height of a work surface, for example, to meet their ergonomic and productivity preferences. These new systems also can reduce maintenance costs by cutting down on the amount of time the facilities department is called in to modify equipment or fixtures.

Published In

Running Your Lab Like a Business Magazine Issue Cover
Running Your Lab Like a Business

Published: July 1, 2008

Cover Story

Running Your Lab Like A Business

Research skills are only part–albeit a critical part–of what lab managers need to succeed. Fortunately, scientists are learners and as such can put this skill to work in developing management techniques and tools to run their labs as businesses.