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Ask the Expert: How to Design Laboratories with Challenging Space Requirements

Greg Herman, program manager at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) discusses his experiences planning, designing and constructing the Biological Sciences Facility and the Computational Sciences Facility at PNNL.

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Greg Herman, program manager at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), talks to Tanuja Koppal, Ph.D., contributing editor at Lab Manager Magazine, about his experiences planning, designing and constructing the Biological Sciences Facility and the Computational Sciences Facility at PNNL. He emphasizes the need for early and timely decisions on operations, space management, project management and capital planning in order to incorporate changes in lab design that are the most user-friendly and energy and cost efficient.

Q: How do you go about designing labs when you are faced with space limitations?

A: When constructing the Biological Sciences Facility and the Computational Sciences Facility at PNNL, we were designing brand-new buildings where we could not go beyond a certain size and we had to meet certain efficiency requirements. Since we were actually reducing the amount of square footage we were coming from, we needed flexible and efficient laboratories. We had to be very careful about how we laid out offices and labs so that we had both usable and functional space. A lot of buildings now have utility corridors, but we actually incorporated the utility corridor inside the lab. What that did was give the lab occupants more usable space within the lab and helped us improve our efficiencies. We put a lot of equipment at the back of the lab, and moving vertically we put in lots and lots of shelving between the labs with mobile casework. We had quick disconnects on all our mobile casework so that we could easily remove and relocate any equipment. It all worked out quite well, and people got a lot more than they thought they were going to.

Q: What do you think is driving the need for increased flexibility in lab design?

A: Flexibility is being driven by crossdisciplinary work—where people from different fields are now working together. Although they all need similar infrastructure, they do have different equipment needs. It used to take a lot of time and money to take down walls and put in casework, and we just couldn’t move fast enough. Today we are required to set up large “ballroom”-type laboratories, which are about 1000 to1500 square feet, very quickly. Hence, we need lots of shelving and mobile casework to move things in and out. Every workbench now has “quick disconnects” for all utilities, including gas, electrical and IT. All the casework we use is mobile, where everything can be unbolted and unhooked. All sinks and hoods are on the exterior wall so that the interior lab space can be opened up to anything. We don’t have time for a big demolition that can take two or three months; we have just two or three weeks. With lab renovations we have to keep up with what the researchers are expecting.

Q: What has led to these innovative, flexible designs in lab equipment?

A: Over the last five years there has been a lot of emphasis on LEED accreditation with choosing materials that are renewable and reusable. What you also need is quality, because you are modifying the space so often that you can do all the modifications without making the lab look old. New technologies are also being introduced for more efficient use of equipment by being smaller and providing more individual controls. The technologies for managing utilities are also changing, with more individual controls for different labs.

Q: Did you account for any expansion in your design?

A: Yes, we did. Our buildings are sort of unique because our biologists and computational researchers wanted to work together. So we have a biological side and a computational side and the two buildings, which are about 64,000 square feet each, are connected by a common lobby where all the meeting areas are located. On the biological side we planned for about 15 percent vacant space for future expansion. We finished the building a year ago, and people are already moving in to occupy the vacant space. We thought we had a couple of years of expansion space, but with growth the building is already full.

Q: What advice do you have for people looking to redesign or renovate their labs?

A: There is always the “need” versus the “want.” So the first thing we did was to sit down with our users to find out what they really needed and then we asked them what they wanted. We were then able to decide what we had to deliver to meet their needs, and if we had the ability, then we could also give them what they wanted. The next thing is, you have to investigate what’s the latest and greatest out there, because some are good but others are bad. You have to get opinions from experts on how to install and use certain things. We relied a lot on our general contractor to get his advice on what would be most reliable and useful for long-term use. If it’s not reliable, then the users are not going to use it and will find some way to work around it.

Q: How can you ensure that the redesign process goes smoothly?

A: We got a person who was the single point of contact between us and the users, and that person became a kind of referee in the process. The person understood both sides and could better translate the user needs versus the wants. We had a great relationship with the users, but having that advocate who could speak on both sides of the fence was a huge benefit to us. This person had a unique background. The person was like an operations manager who understood facilities but had come out of a research background. Having this person helped us reach decisions much quicker, since we didn’t have to reach out to 12 to 14 individual users separately.

Q: What would you do differently the next time around?

A: With these buildings, since they were a design build, we could make changes on the fly and our contractors and users worked well together. We included all the key decision makers at every step. But we did have one very unique lab that had some high-end light, gas and electrical requirements, and looking back, if we had spent more time initially to draw and sketch everything out in greater detail, it would have saved us some time. When you are doing pieces and parts of a building, you hope that in the end it all comes together, and that was one where we ran into some problems.

Greg Herman is the program manager employed by Battelle at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and is responsible for the conceptual development of facilities and projects related to PNNL’s major initiatives. The department he is a part of is responsible for the development of requirements, engineering and design solutions, construction, and commissioning new and existing projects. His most recent project involved the planning, design and construction of the Biological Sciences Facility and the Computational Sciences Facility, where he was also responsible for the development and approval of the business case justifying the use of alternative approaches to finance these facilities. Additionally, as the manager of real estate and infrastructure planning, he oversees the development of campus master planning, strategic infrastructure planning for maintenance and upgrade projects, strategic site and space planning, and real estate development and planning. Some of his past responsibilities have included management, prioritization and oversight of laboratory capital investments; management of grounds maintenance, moves and relocation services. Herman has a B.S. in civil engineering from Washington State University and a Master of Business Administration. He worked as a civil engineer early in his career but has now spent nearly two decades in a multitude of roles within Facilities and Operations.