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Designing Lab Space for Innovation

Lab designs that remove silos and encourage collaboration can spur innovative thought

MaryBeth DiDonna

MaryBeth DiDonna is lab design editor and digital events editor for Lab Manager. Her work for the lab design section of the publication examines the challenges that project teams...

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Lab spaces are being designed not only for cutting-edge research but to promote collaboration and communication between different teams.  Enabling groups to communicate who otherwise might be siloed leads to fresh ideas and perspectives. 

Lab spaces must be designed to accommodate different skillsets rather than being single disciplined; different people will use different approaches to reach their conclusions. Their needs will vary—this includes equipment, infrastructure such as electrical and ventilation, quality, and compliance standards, etc. 

This article will discuss some of the key ways that laboratory design can influence staff morale and encourage innovative thinking among researchers.

Knowledge work versus production work

One way to promote collaboration in a multi-disciplinary lab is to place the lab equipment in open, shared work areas. By doing so, you can cut down on the feeling of “ownership” of the equipment and instead foster a sense of community and teamwork. 

The lab also needs to be able to easily adapt to new technologies and changes in science—this means that flexible lab design needs to allow for layout and equipment changes without major disruptions to research. Floor plans may be designed so that the layout of scientific suites can be changed if a handover between PIs occurs, or if updated equipment is needed to conduct research. Utilities and gas systems might be mounted on ceiling tracks so that they can move around the lab as needed, and an open-grid ceiling system (rather than a traditional concealed setup) allows for easy access if the utilities need to be updated or replaced in the future. 

However, some aspects of lab design aren’t as flexible as others. Different biocontainment levels can be a challenge when designing a lab for innovation, as well as local, state, and federal jurisdictions for safety and security. A design solution may be to situate all controlled labs by a dedicated stairway so that users don’t have to repeatedly don and doff PPE to circulate between these labs. 

Types of knowledge work and space requirements

Building a strong team is essential to any lab project. Site owners and lab managers should enlist skilled architects, lab planners, engineers, construction professionals, and others who are experienced in designing innovative, forward-thinking lab facilities. These experts can be identified by observing their previous projects, although many lab design/build professionals say that word of mouth may be the easiest and most reliable way to find your project team. 

A professional lab design team can also recommend sustainable design elements. Energy use is a main concern for labs, as labs are among the highest users of energy in a building. Sustainable design strategies can be used to curb power and water consumption and identify eco-friendly interior and exterior building materials.

Internet of Things advancements also mean that labs need to be equipped with the latest monitoring technology while leaving room for future, unknown developments. Partnering with the right product and service vendors who can offer the right solutions is a key step in this process for lab managers. 

Role of face-to-face interactions

Collaborative space can be centered around a nucleus or hub, often taking the form of a central lobby with a main staircase, a well-lit atrium (perhaps with plants or trees), a modern lounge area with comfortable seating, or a café with a fun feature like a coffee bar. Offices and conference rooms may be clustered around the research labs to allow for conversations to take place within close proximity to the science that’s happening. To spur innovation in the lab, the right people need to be given the support, the space, and the encouragement to develop the right ideas—and the flexibility to change those ideas as science and technology continue to advance. 

Another strategy implemented by some design teams is to spread the amenities and circulation points throughout the building to encourage lab end users to visit other “neighborhoods” they might not otherwise access. 

Social drivers—relationship between space, interactions, and innovation

The mental health and well-being of lab workers is an increasing concern—lab design teams are prioritizing incorporating natural daylight into their projects, amenities such as lounge areas and cafes, and other spaces that offer physical and mental health accommodations such as mother’s rooms and prayer rooms. 

Staff need to feel that their well-being is considered and that their workplace offers a sense of community and belonging. The workplace must also be a positive representative of the organization to successfully recruit and retain talent. Staff should feel that the organization is at the leading edge, where they can invent and innovate together in a supportive environment. This positive atmosphere will increase work effectiveness, which in turn will lead to higher rates of productivity and innovation. 


MaryBeth DiDonna

MaryBeth DiDonna is lab design editor and digital events editor for Lab Manager. Her work for the lab design section of the publication examines the challenges that project teams face when designing or building a new or renovated laboratory, and the communication and collaboration strategies used by architects, engineers, lab planners, and others when working with lab and facility managers to complete a project. She organizes and moderates the webinars and virtual conferences for Lab Manager as well as other LMG brands, helping speakers deliver educational, evergreen content to viewers who wish to optimize their labs and build their leadership skills. 

MaryBeth has a bachelor of arts degree in English from New Jersey City University. Her hobbies include cooking and baking, birdwatching, and travel. She lives with her husband, their young daughter, and three cats in northern New Jersey. She can be reached at: mdidonna@labmanager.com.


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Collaborationsexecuting innovationhealth and well-beinglab designLab Design and Furnishingslaboratory Laboratory Designscientific innovation
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