How Workplace Trends are Reshaping Research Facilities Today and Tomorrow

Architecture and industry professionals have witnessed a deep paradigm shift in workplaces over the last decade. Traditional office and R&D designs have failed to serve new business models and employment arrangements; the results have been visible at the bottom line of balance sheets. Because workspaces couldn’t adequately serve their occupants and research teams, productivity and morale have suffered.

The real bottom line is this: Better workplaces make for better business. New workplace models today are more suited to current work modes and needs for enhancing creativity; attracting talent; and increasing collaborative, efficient approaches to breakthrough science. Ideas like hoteling (unassigned workspace sharing), co-working (workstations for visitors or consultants) and swing spaces are built into corporate and institutional business plans. Laboratory flex-space is also seen as an answer to evolving research programs.

As the workplace design shift continues, savvy researchers and laboratory managers have taken note, adopting novel work arrangements, workplace layouts, and furnishings. These lessons learned with a variety of best-in-class workplaces offer important guidance. Research scientists and technicians are more productive in labs that are efficient, healthy and inspiring.

Improve the workplace, they say, and the work results too will improve.

Workplace inspiration

The research facilities achieving the best results are those that have been designed with valuable innovations in workplace design, but even more so with humanistic innovations. These design elements and amenities nourish organizational and individual endeavor by understanding what lab users need as human beings.

Research indicates that workplaces incorporating natural daylight and views to the outdoors demonstrate reduced absenteeism, higher productivity and better overall employee health. Adding works of art or similar flourishes—as well as natural materials and finishes, such as wood panels—is also known to affect worker attitudes and output. Likewise, updated approaches to office plans and facility layouts that increase interdisciplinary interaction and time spent in collaborative settings also improve productivity, morale and creativity. As an added bonus, these same design ideas help corporations and institutions attract and retain the top producers.

Let’s face it: Lab facilities are more than mere workplaces. Scientists and technicians may spend more time at work than at home—so the workplace is home. Furthermore, many technical environments do not naturally ease the senses.

Many will argue that research and lab spaces cannot easily be built this way. Yet, such spaces already exist—such as the novel and sun-drenched labs at 55 Park Street in New Haven, with its reclaimed wood, colorful panels and lush planters—and they already outperform their more traditional counterparts. Labs in outmoded or standard workplaces will soon find themselves at the short end of the paradigm shift.

Workplace trends are influencing laboratory environments. Outside the clinical laboratories at 55 Park Street in New Haven, Conn., Svigals + Partners and Behnisch Architekten developed a large, sun-drenched atrium to encourage meetings and relaxing break areas.

Nurturing the human spirit

Art is a simple and cost-effective addition to any lab design, and it’s even more effective when incorporated into the design process from the beginning. Research has shown that when integrated into the facility environment, art has a powerful effect on human interaction and the lab occupants’ sense of well-being. It even boosts scientific creativity, say many lab operators.

A recently completed lab facility for PepsiCo’s product research team offers several examples of humanistic amenities. An employee break area, for instance, is a playfully branded space, emblazoned with familiar Pepsi logos and snack themes in mind; the area is friendly, familiar and cheery, and popular with the staff. Designed by architecture firm Svigals + Partners, the new PepsiCo research facility in New Haven, Conn., benefited from this visual and artistic relief, because this enhances learning and improves creative thinking for the facility’s occupants.

Humanistic amenities in labs can include employee break areas like this one for a PepsiCo product development lab, with playful branding, cheery colors and flexible, movable furnishings.

Properly integrated, artistic and natural elements can engender respect for the workplace while at the same time promoting creativity; the branded PepsiCo lab break area is only one such example. For the Yale University biology department, an old carriage house converted to a lab for the study of butterflies incorporates butterflythemed art glass in the doors of the main entrance. The lobby of a new science building at Albertus Magnus College features a two-story water wall engraved with the titles of all the books written by Albertus Magnus. The flow of the water is synchronized to match the ebb and flow of the tide in New Haven Harbor. All of these features enhance the sense of place and purpose while nourishing that all-important human spirit.

Spaces to congregate, meet up and collaborate are also essential to nurturing our energy, imagination and resourcefulness. Recent lab workplaces have eliminated private offices, shrunk individual workstation sizes and increased common areas. An example is Pepsi’s advanced research facility in Valhalla, N.Y., which eliminated all but two individual offices and utilized the recovered space for an expansion of its mission-critical sensory lab. Similarly, an increase in dedicated collaborative workspace is an essential trait of tomorrow’s best clinical and research environments.

Wide-open spaces

This also increases the potential for interaction. Traditional lab workplaces have often separated co-workers from one another in the name of efficiency, individualism or seniority. The most modern workplaces present a blistering counterargument: Open-plan offices, elimination of fixed walls and high partitions at lab benches, and increased collaborative space have proven to be more productive—and, when done right, more enjoyable.

The underlying idea of this new paradigm is to cultivate groupthink; while Americans typically embrace the culture of the individual effort, the spaces in between individuals drive the collective endeavor. It is there, in the in-between spaces, that a company or research group can gain a competitive edge.

In the lab, this new paradigm radically rethinks traditional floor plans and layouts. Meeting and collaborative spaces use a greater percentage of space, to the point that some lab owners have inverted the traditional ratio of office space to meeting space. Savvy lab managers frequently come to such decisions about cutting individual office space as part of a plan to add equipment or reduce square footage. It not only makes the most of a facility in terms of dollars per square foot, it also tends to improve the results of research and clinical teams.

Busy work areas like the one at 300 George Street require good ambient lighting, ample clearances and good visibility. Note the glass vision panel behind the lab worker.

This unintended convergence of economic and workplace trends is vital to an optimally functioning lab facility. PepsiCo’s international beverage R&D facility offers another vivid example, featuring multiple collaborative and break spaces to foster team spirit and interaction, and meeting rooms enclosed in glass—affording acoustic privacy blended with a visual sense of community.

Similar spaces abound at the 300 George Street Technology Center, also in New Haven. 300 George has more than a half million square feet of multi-tenant office and research space, with a powerful infrastructure capable of supporting the needs of biotechnology firms. What makes the space truly effective, however, is the maximizing of collaborative spaces, views of the outside, and glass-enclosed private spaces.

Material choice is vital for effective, enjoyable workplaces. For the Park Street clinical labs, the atrium features reclaimed wood, colorful wall panels and lush planters. The space has become a favored meeting place for scientists and researchers.

Getting the team on board

One often meets resistance when implementing new workplace models. Workstation walls, for instance, cater to our desires for privacy and individual space. But by reducing cubicle wall heights significantly, we allow lab occupants to experience a greater sense of community and improved access to natural daylight and outside views.

Adopting novel workplace standards can be tricky, however, with some potential for conflict. As a best practice, lab managers evolving their laboratory workplace layouts should encourage all users and researchers to participate in the design process early on. The project design team will benefit by understanding intimately what the researchers hope to accomplish, what they typically do day-today and how they allot their time. This information tells the architect and lab consultant how best to optimize space for the occupants.

In addition, face time with the new lab occupants will start to educate them on how the new space will benefit their individual and collective efforts, for example by visiting an open workstation plan to see firsthand how best to make use of collaborative and meeting spaces. Hoteling, in which users must reserve the use of unassigned lab bays, work areas and equipment, works especially well in multi-tenant labs or institutional labs where expensive specialized equipment can be shared, as in flow cytometry and confocal microscope core facilities. But a lack of familiarity on the part of one group of users can cause the system to break down—again pointing to the importance of having the research groups participate in the design process.

Projects at PepsiCo’s R&D facility, Yale University’s research labs and 300 George have benefited from a proprietary lab-design method created by Svigals + Partners called Phusion, which anticipates and plans for these kinds of workplace innovations. The key to the process is getting feedback early and often to inform downstream design decisions.

Furniture on casters, lightweight materials and low-VOC finishes along with glass partitions help create a friendly, productivity-enhancing ambience at 300 George Street Technology Center. The friendly look belies the powerful research infrastructure within.

The holistic lab

If the experts are right, any dominant workplace design trends will eventually inform laboratory spaces. And so they should: labs are workplaces, and the benefits are there for the taking.

Sustainability should be a cornerstone of any new laboratory project or renovation work. HVAC and MEP systems should make efficient use of energy and water, and the interior should incorporate low-VOC materials and finishes. Also crucial is a lighting and fenestration scheme that makes the best use of natural daylight. Occupancy sensor controls for lights and climate systems can also achieve the parallel goals of energy efficiency and workplace comfort. Furthermore, care taken to specify casework and other hardware can pay dividends. Attractive, sustainably sourced furnishings can enhance workplace atmosphere while scoring points toward LEED certification.

The entry to the Park Street Clinical Laboratory in New Haven reveals a very open atrium used as an informal meeting area, break zone, and a way to impress visitors. Designed by Svigals + Partners and Behnisch Architekten.

This is not only energy-efficient, but also workeroptimal; study after study shows that natural daylight in the workplace increases productivity and reduces absenteeism. Since true sustainable design is as focused on the health of the occupant as it is on saving the planet, green labs also mean more satisfied employees.

Modern workplace setups also tend toward the flexible, and labs should be no exception. Just as open office plans provide the opportunity for rearranging a space without the need to knock down walls and build new ones—and to rewire and re-plumb as well—so too can a flexible lab plan furnish a research group with a space that can adapt to changes in research strategy, or the means to sublease a space on a temporary basis.

The flexibility of a lab space is dependent on the placement of core elements such as water and electricity, and how far into the space they penetrate. Built-inplace, fixed systems require a construction crew and infrastructure professionals to move, remove or replace. Keeping the core elements available through plug-andplay pods in the floor and ceiling allows the option of a table system, or even a rolling cart system, providing exceptional flexibility.

Last, it bears mentioning that an approach to lab design that creates a high-functioning and desirable workplace will also help a research organization attract the best possible pool of talent. All things being roughly equal in terms of salary and benefits, a top candidate for a research position may make her decision in part based on the facility she’ll call home.

Remember, many who work in labs spend more time there than at their actual home. And a candidate worth her salt will look for a workplace with as much of the above as possible: inspiring atmosphere, natural daylight, views of outside, sustainable design, and open and flexible plans.

And since she’ll be commanding a top salary, it would be best if she’s attracted to the place—and surrounded by amenities and elements that inspire her creativity and optimize her performance—don’t you think?