How Natural Daylight and Other Amenities in Lab Design Contribute to Attracting and Retaining Top Scientific Talent
The list of fundamentals for good laboratory design is growing. Over the past decade, security and sustainability have both become higher priorities, and within each of these broad areas, best practices and special requirements have proliferated. Of late, designers and operators of laboratory spaces for a wide variety of research types are beginning to encourage clients to consider an unusual and often unconsidered aspect of research facilities: how laboratory design and amenities contribute to a research organization’s ability to attract and retain top scientific talent.
The fact is people matter more than ever. What’s more, the leadership of research-driven organizations understands that their most highly qualified candidates and employees will consider many aspects of their current and potential career positions. Human resources experts note that top researchers often look for a team or organization with a superior reputation. This can profoundly affect one’s career, so it often supersedes salary and benefits on the list of career goals.
The quality of the lab facility itself impacts an organization’s reputation significantly, both in terms of personnel satisfaction and even sources of funding. Top talent want to work in a top lab. This is partly just human nature. In a recent workplace survey of more than 2,000 respondents across eight different industries, 92 percent of respondents felt that better workplace design makes a company more competitive. 1 Moreover, a 1998 study by the Hay Group found that the workplace is a major factor in employee retention as well—specifically, employees in “high-performing companies” rated their working environments more highly than did their counterparts at other companies.
What design considerations and amenities matter most in setting one lab facility above the rest? Whether working on a newly constructed building or a renovation, lab managers should consider the following issues, which have been shown to boost a lab’s reputation and, ultimately, help draw talented scientists into the fold.
Daylight and views
Of all features that contribute to desirable lab facilities, natural daylight is arguably the most important. Bringing abundant daylight into labs as well as support and corridor spaces creates an energizing, welcoming environment in what is often required to be a sterile, highly controlled setting.
What’s more, sunlight produces health benefits for building occupants, dovetailing with sustainable design goals as well as productivity needs. In “Greening and the Bottom Line,” the Department of Energy’s Joseph Romm and William Browning of the Rocky Mountain Institute show that daylighting boosts productivity and reduces absenteeism in facilities like Lockheed 157, a multistory office space designed with a top-to-bottom atrium. There, absenteeism was reduced by 15 percent and employees spoke glowingly of their bright, attractive workplace.
Just as important, windows provide access to outdoor views, allowing occupants to feel connected to the world beyond the lab. Studies of workplaces have shown conclusively that the well-being and health of occupants benefit significantly from access to views, especially of natural settings. Extending this view access to interior corridors also functions as an orientation device, eliminating the mazelike effect of large research environments.
These findings are not news, of course, but few research labs are designed with these principles in mind. An exception is the Sterling Hall of Medicine C-Wing at the Yale School of Medicine’s Department of Genetics in New Haven, Connecticut. Designed by the nearby architectural firm Svigals + Partners, the lab interior was developed to accept as much daylight as possible, with generous views in and out. A post-occupancy survey showed that the finished project enjoys sunlight in 86 percent of areas occupied for visual tasks—a very high portion compared to typical labs, which might have daylight in only one-third of spaces, or even less.
What are some practical ways a facility can incorporate more light? The C-Wing plan, for example, aligns spaces that can benefit from transparency—glass partitions and open areas—so that sunlight can reach from the perimeter deep into the floor plate. Lab modules are situated along the exterior walls, where exterior windows allow daylight and views into the bench area and beyond into corridors through interior glazed openings. Lightcolored surfaces and transparent materials are utilized throughout, and open areas and glass-enclosed meeting rooms are strategically located to take advantage of the daylight. High clerestory and view-height windows were combined to create a bright, inviting atmosphere.
Of course, research space is always at a premium. Yet the common practice of designing lab facilities with double-loaded corridors limits the possibility for a highly transparent interior. Standard uses along these corridors include storage and lab support zones, which may not benefit from daylight anyway. A daylight-friendly lab layout may mean balancing space efficiency with personnel gains—lose a bit of usable square footage, for example, and gain productivity and employee loyalty.
Transparency offers other benefits as well. Commercial researchers benefit as staff members can show research in process to VIPs and investors from the corridors without bringing them directly into core research zones. Some groups, Yale’s genetics team included, even use the open interiors to tell the story of the science at work in the facility. What’s more, should there be an emergency in the lab, colleagues on the outside will know immediately that help is needed, making response time quicker, and thus increasing lab safety.
Sustainability and LEED
Daylighting offers another bonus: it’s an advantageous and often required component of sustainable design. Good use of natural light helps reduce lab power loads, from both electrical lighting and HVAC requirements, and injects health and morale benefits for occupants.
On top of that, sustainably designed lab spaces can directly influence a highly qualified applicant’s view of the parent organization. From anecdotal experience, we know that many researchers in the health and science fields see green lab facilities, especially with Green Globes orU.S. Green Building Council LEED certification, as a big plus. Sustainability is often in line with their beliefs, especially among recent graduates entering the field. An internal study of RNL’s LEED Gold offices, for example, found that 82 percent of its staff felt that the new space would improve recruitment and retention. Savvy candidates for lab positions may also be aware that LEED-certified labs are healthier spaces, containing elements like low-VOC materials, higher ventilation rates and better lighting systems.
On top of that, sustainably designed lab spaces can directly influence a highly qualified applicant’s view of the parent organization. From anecdotal experience, we know that many researchers in the health and science fields see green lab facilities, especially with Green Globes or U.S. Green Building Council LEED certification, as a big plus. Sustainability is often in line with their beliefs, especially among recent graduates entering the field. An internal study of RNL’s LEED Gold offices, for example, found that 82 percent of its staff felt that the new space would improve recruitment and retention. Savvy candidates for lab positions may also be aware that LEED-certified labs are healthier spaces, containing elements like low-VOC materials, higher ventilation rates and better lighting systems.
The Yale Sterling Hall of Medicine’s C-Wing and IWing, for example, achieved Gold ratings under the LEED for Commercial Interiors (LEED-CI) program, the first in the country for a laboratory renovation. The USGBC chose the Svigals + Partners project as a case study for developing a LEED standard for lab renovations. It may soon become commonplace to hear of LEED labs, which can only contribute to a competitive hiring environment.
Flexible and inviting lab organization is another element in the design of a prestige facility. These workplaces attract top talent in part because they foster collaboration and positive interaction among peers. Just as important, they can adapt to new research programs and up-to-date protocols and methodologies. In fact, the workplace consultancy DEGW’s Axel Praus concluded in his paper “Recruiting the Next Generation” that while salary and career prospects remain the most appealing factors, “The workplace environment and flexible approaches to working are equally important to students soon to be entering the job market.”
“It is essential that employers around the world understand both the fundamental changes taking place and the expectations of this pool of future employees,” Praus adds, stressing “modern workplace environments that reflect the skills and communication habits of this generation.”
This new paradigm includes recasting the workplace to have a more relaxing atmosphere that fosters interaction and collaboration—a huge benefit, especially in large and multidisciplinary research projects. For large facilities, creating multiple locations with both formal and informal meeting areas, especially locations for eating, make the facility more inviting while simultaneously reducing the travel time to and from the lab.
Open lounges along corridors encourage greater interaction and collaboration; studies of interaction in the workplace have shown that a closed door, even one that leads to a public break area, will discourage an occupant from entering the area beyond, especially if there is someone already in the space. Open lounges foster a desirable sense of community within the facility, as do windowed corridors and open (doorless) daylit stairwells.
For an example of this type of strategy, consider the Yale Department of Genetics renovation: in this case, Svigals + Partners co-located a large break room, a conference room and several offices on the courtyard side of the facility. The break room itself opens directly onto the courtyard through glass doors. The effect is striking, combining daylighting, views and strategic floor planning to create a space that fosters collaboration, community and shared enjoyment.
Comfort and amenities
Everything discussed up to this point contributes to the comfort of the facility occupant, often while paying additional dividends of sustainability, efficiency and increased productivity. Yet there’s more to be said on comfort: ideally, the design approach should transform the facility into a “home for research.”
Many research labs are 24-hour facilities, and their denizens spend as much—if not more—time there as they do at home. Current and prospective employees view their available amenities through this lens. Showers and locker rooms for lab employees, for example, are simple amenities that offer multiple payoffs. New recruits imagine themselves comfortably refreshing themselves without having to travel to and from home. Employees who wish to ride bikes to work are also encouraged—yet another way to earn points toward LEED certification.
Aesthetics are also important to creating the “home for research,” and they may further contribute to sustainable design. The Whole Building Design Guide, a project of the National Institute of Building Sciences, lists several recommendations:
- Provide windows in all occupied spaces
- Design spaces around basic human needs, ancient preferences and connections to the patterns of nature and the mind
- Consciously integrate facilities into their natural and man-made contexts
When considering interior elements, consider that colorful and warm alternatives to the traditional sterile laboratory environments are crucial and not at all cost prohibitive. Metal casework can be replaced with maple, oak or even bamboo. These can be as cost-effective as metal casework, sustainably sourced and offer pleasing natural appearances. Flooring with colors and patterns can add a contemporary dash and a dose of fun, with many sustainable materials available. Countertop workspaces, especially for bench tops, should remain neutral in color.
Easily relocatable benches and shelving are also good, cost-effective elements that contribute to the flexibility and usefulness of the space on a day-to-day, weekto- week basis. When considering lighting fixtures, the design should of course seek to reduce the power level while retaining lumen quantities. Pendant fixtures work well in this regard—the hanging lamps reflect the light to create even distribution, which in turn generates a more open feel and furnishes the space with a sophisticated, architectural look.
Workplace paradigms are already changing in nearly every field, and talented candidates consider their potential work environment in their decision making. In the research field, being so competitive, securing the best and brightest has concrete implications for the research organization’s short- and long-term outlooks. Modest investments in creating a “home for research” are likely to pay for themselves, not only because they are likely to represent energy-efficient and productivity-increasing design strategies, but because they will raise esteem. In labs as elsewhere in life, a good reputation will beget a good reputation.
- 2006 U.S. Workplace Study, www.gensler.com
5 Must-Haves for Building Design
A few key elements are useful for lab management and their facility design teams to consider in planning a construction or renovation project. These could be make-or-break items when hiring the top talent:
- Adaptable Infrastructure. Many candidates are very aware of how quickly technology is changing. Consider extra power, data, cooling and space over and above the minimum requirements. Flexible, reconfigurable casework is also now a common requirement.
- Networking. Already advantageous to productivity, digital networking that makes best use of personal digital devices will attract up-to-date minds.
- Virtual reality. Special visualization labs have a dramatic impact on applicants and benefactors alike. These are becoming more common, which means that their cost-effectiveness is rising.
- Lighting and acoustic control. At Lockheed 157, daylighting and acoustic strategies were responsible for a 15 percent reduction in absenteeism, which the company said paid for the added design cost in the first year. The employees rave about their workplace.
- Art. Art can foster pride and a prestigious atmosphere while communicating the story of the science. A butterfly research lab designed by Svigals + Partners for Yale incorporates a butterfly-themed work of glass into the doors of the main entrance. The effect on the facility is to enhance an already beautiful daylit lobby as well as the glass-enclosed spaces beyond.