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A Q&A with Select Lab Design Experts

Four lab professionals share their experiences with major lab design projects and the lessons they learned along the way.

Angelo DePalma, PhD

Angelo DePalma is a freelance writer living in Newton, New Jersey. You can reach him at

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Q: Describe a recent laboratory design/build or retrofit at your organization. 

A: Arthur Brings: We recently completed a major expansion involving 100,000 square feet of laboratory space. In addition to labs, we planned to include a small animal facility, a bioinformatics group, and information technology space. The project took 24 months. 

David Miller: I work in the clinical laboratory of a small regional hospital. Our project involved planning and design of new laboratory space in a new facility—a hospital under construction. 

Gerry Oxford: I direct a biomedical research institute based in a medical center that focuses on neuroscience research relevant to chronic pain, neurological, and developmental psychiatric disorders. Our institute and the neuroscience research community here in Indianapolis are in a growth phase. To accommodate this growth at our facility, we built a new laboratory building that has been operational for four years, and we are now constructing a second laboratory building as part of an interconnected two-building complex combining outpatient clinical services with cutting-edge basic and translational research. 

Stacy O’Reilly: Our department maintains laboratories for faculty research, upper-level classes, and courses for first- and second-year students. We renovated teaching labs for organic and general chemistry during the summer of 2011. The renovation was done because the particleboard cabinets, ceiling tiles, and other soft surfaces had absorbed forty years’ worth of chemicals and smelled. There were also significant air-flow issues in the labs and not enough hoods in the organic labs. 

Q: How did you manage the project? 

A: Arthur Brings: Our project was managed by an in-house director of construction who worked closely with a general contractor. The construction team consisted of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory staff, a project manager for the construction company, the architectural firm, and the engineering firm. We sought out other expertise as needed. For example, if we encountered a structural question, we brought in a structural or civil engineer. The team met every other week throughout the duration of the project. 

David Miller: Our health system engaged a facility design consulting firm to work with the construction company and the departmental advisors. Since we were merging two laboratories, the managers of the respective labs were on the team, in addition to the executive responsible for the laboratories, a member of the construction team, and a consultant. Meetings were held as needed, which at first was occasionally, then monthly, but ramped up as the project progressed. On some occasions the information could be relayed via email or a phone call, so formal meetings didn’t need to be set up. This information included things like the status of equipment to be retained, power needs for individual analyzers, the footprint for equipment, etc. 

Gerry Oxford: The current project was envisioned almost six years ago as an effort to satisfy space needs for neuroscience clinical services and research, as well as to co-locate health services seamlessly with an environment supporting the latest discoveries related to nervous system dysfunction. A steering committee of high-level hospital and medical school administrators set the course for the complex. For the research building, two sequential committees were created: a programming committee and a design committee. Both committees consisted of representatives of research stakeholders in various school units with space needs. The design committee added the architectural firm for the project as well as the university architects and fiscal plant management representatives. The design group met every two weeks for seven months to refine the design. 

Stacy O’Reilly: The project was initiated by the university’s board of trustees after taking a tour of the labs. The project team consisted of architects, the university engineer, the Department of Chemistry chairperson, and a chemistry faculty member. The group met about four times over a two-month period and then met as needed beyond that until the completion of the project eight months later. 

Q: Did the project meet your expectations in terms of cost, timeliness, and functionality? 

A: Arthur Brings: In my opinion the project has exceeded expectations: on time and under budget. The building is functioning very well, and the individuals using it are happy and satisfied. One of our top priorities was to build an energy-efficient building. Despite the fact that our new facility uses 30 to 40 percent less energy than most labs, we decided not to go for LEED certification because of the cost. Nevertheless, we did a lot of things that would have qualified us for that certification. But the process for LEED is long and expensive, costing several million dollars. We realized that it is possible to meet or exceed LEED expectations without having the certification.

David Miller: The entire project was managed tightly with regard to cost. However, the timeline got extended quite a bit for the completion of the entire facility. Costs were kept on target, but this sometimes required eliminating design elements and space allotted in the original plans. Functionally, the final design was acceptable. Considering that two lab groups were combining, there were inevitable compromises that had to be made. The project was managed from the beginning with “green” strategies built in. This included recycling education, signage, and materials considerations that were to become part of the finished facility. Also, community meetings were held to get design input and garner support. One issue that was important to the community was the use of green materials in the construction, as well as operational strategies to reduce waste and energy consumption. 

Gerry Oxford: As the current project is under construction, I will reflect upon the nearly identical experience on the existing laboratory building. It came in on budget, was designed and constructed with a brisk but not aggressive timeline, and has served the needs of our researchers quite well. I anticipate the same for the new project, as the same group is involved. Advantages of using the same team for both projects have included familiarity with common design issues and client needs; a comfortable vocabulary that has evolved between architectural and biomedical research professionals; and time efficiencies in dealing with fundamentals, leaving more time for novel design aspects. 

Stacy O’Reilly: The entire project was designed to significantly green our facility. We used ductless hoods and LED lights throughout the project. We came in under budget and on time. The space works well. There are a number of small things that we missed, but that is not surprising considering the project, which included a full gut of four teaching labs, went from design to completion in eight months. 

Q: Can you provide any advice for lab managers considering a project like the one you discussed here? 

A: Arthur Brings: Develop a good working team, and develop it early on. Our team was established even before we started building design. Include people who are going to occupy and use the building as part of that team. 

David Miller: For labs involving medical care, put the patient first in the planning process. Arm yourself with data to support the importance of the laboratory with regard to diagnostic decisions, revenue, etc. Start with an “if money, space, and time were no object” perspective and a clear understanding of what the lab can live without. Then, as the process moves along, you can graciously volunteer to live without certain elements. This will allow you to be a team player and still get what you need for your lab. Get input from your staff, but make it clear that not all input can be implemented. Lastly, communicate as much as possible; even unpopular decisions are easier to take when the process is transparent. 

Gerry Oxford: From my perspective a critical, but not often employed, approach is the direct involvement of representative scientists in the design phase at early stages. It provides an educational opportunity for both design professionals and researchers to mutually appreciate the rationale for laboratory operational requirements and the limitations of construction and costs, respectively. Leaving scientists out of the process because they are not design professionals is false economy and leads to retrofitting needs down the road. 

Stacy O’Reilly: I would recommend that people take the time to meet with and develop a working relationship with suppliers. That made a big difference for us. I was able to make some changes to the hoods during production and to better understood the entire scope of the project.