Change is inevitable for the modern lab. Between rapidly accelerating technological advances and evolving research and business priorities, labs are challenged to increase efficiency, flexibility, and adaptability while embodying core values in the workplace and nurturing collaboration and innovation.
Management frequently need to rethink lab spaces due to, for example, relocation, establishing a new facility, lab optimization, or a growing workforce. Safety, effectiveness, and productivity hinge on well-thought-out design. Lab managers can accelerate the design process, ensure current and future needs are met, and fulfill workplace potential with careful preparation and consideration of key factors and goals, before engaging a design team.
Developing the vision
Change marks an opportunity to define and actuate a more desirable future. Realizing this potential requires a clear vision. Collaborative visioning activities inspire creativity and innovation while aligning diverse perspectives and ensuring effective communication across stakeholder groups. The vision catalyzes the transformation of abstract concepts into concrete plans and actions, providing the purpose and direction to which resources and efforts are aligned. It anchors planning decisions and helps prioritize initiatives. While defining the vision, decide on core areas for improvement, for example, collaboration or sustainability, that will underly goals and drive positive change.
Using the vision as a guide, formulate objectives that will achieve business goals and promote organizational values. For example, objectives might focus on attracting and retaining talent or supporting staff wellness. Others can be designed to improve effectiveness, ensure flexibility and resilience, or promote innovation.
These objectives will help inform design priorities based on related facility and space needs. They often require cultural shifts that are impacted by the environment. Even with staff buy-in, for example, connecting or coordinating with other teams must be easy to do or collaboration efforts will decline. Conversely, creating social spaces that invite spontaneous connection with diverse groups will naturally enhance collaboration. Write-up and lab support spaces are equally important in ensuring effectiveness and driving productivity. Taking time to establish a holistic view of requirements and priorities here will help guide relevant data collection in the next phase.
The next step in lab planning involves capturing a snapshot inventory. Collect the raw data: floor maps, personnel lists identifying teams or other work groups, and asset lists. Map headcounts and assets onto existing spaces, noting who uses what and works where. Identify and review process requirements, mapping out current procedures and workflows.
This information forms a baseline for current space allocations, against which requirements and potential improvements can be validated. Validation of requirements is bolstered with real-time occupancy and asset utilization data to demonstrate usage, ensure bottlenecks are identified, and streamline efficiencies. Collect these data as well to inform the next steps.
This is the time to identify improvement opportunities for things like efficiency, sustainability, safety, and staff satisfaction. Using the mapping activities and any additional asset and occupancy data, evaluate current space utilization, equipment placement, and workflow efficiency. Don’t neglect walk-throughs and consulting staff at all levels for what is and is not working on the floor. Check for any work or storage spaces that are over- or underutilized, especially incorporating lessons from the last few years, like ensuring adequate or flexible storage for PPE inventory. Are workspaces sitting empty, or are staff tripping over each other? Are assets forming bottlenecks, or can they be retired or redeployed? Substantial improvements to overall lab efficiency can be achieved by reconfiguring layouts based on common workflows and user needs, streamlining processes to eliminate redundant steps or remove bottlenecks, and incorporating new technologies.
Look for automation opportunities, as these offer multi-faceted solutions through greater consistency, consolidated footprints, reduced waste, and improved staff wellness and satisfaction with reduced exposure to hazardous materials and injury-prone tasks. Similarly, considering ergonomic design principles contributes to a safer and more productive environment.
Design can have a large impact on sustainability efforts. Many current building standards and best practices address sustainability issues, but additional pain points for labs frequently involve HVAC load. Finding more sustainable alternatives can take creativity, like incorporating more natural ventilation into building design to aid in cooling freezer facilities.
Improving staff satisfaction varies by situation, but designs that make benchwork easier and more comfortable are a good start. Companies are increasingly taking a more holistic approach to staff wellness with people-centric design, from promoting more flexible work options to improving social and relaxation spaces, including cafes or well-equipped kitchens, and incorporating more natural lighting and indoor or outdoor nature breaks. Staging opportunities for staff to engage in purpose-driven activities around those central themes underlying long-term objectives is another sure way to improve satisfaction, especially with younger employees. Designing for community cohesion will be an important factor moving forward.
Following this exploratory stage, finalize the asset, utility, and space requirements and prepare initial layouts.
Efficient layouts maximize space utilization without compromising staff effectiveness and comfort. This optimization is a complex and delicate balance, but a few tools and metrics help in evaluating and comparing spaces.
Two commonly used metrics to quantify lab space are net usable area and equivalent linear feet (ELF). Net usable area reflects square footage after accounting for mechanical systems and utilities. ELF describes the total linear workspace in the lab, including open bench space, hoods, equipment, sinks, and write-up stations. As an example, the standard “alley-style” lab space measuring 10 ft by 30 ft provides 300 sq ft of net usable area and frequently extends workspace along the full length of the room on both sides for a total of 60 ELF. Both metrics are useful for comparing new and existing lab spaces as well as against industry standards.
Lab space is normalized for more meaningful comparisons based on occupancy as ELF per scientist. This helps to quickly validate space requirements in different spaces while assessing the efficiency of the design. To illustrate, the ratio of ELF to net usable area is maximized in the long, narrow lab rooms compared to larger open, shared lab spaces popular for facilitating collaboration. Central bench rows in large rooms are necessarily truncated to allow movement, reducing the ratio. However, that 10 ft by 30 ft room might only support two scientists for 30 ELF per scientist, while a larger room used by more staff could be dialed in to the target ratio, for instance 20 ELF per scientist.
The optimal ratio based on occupancy is heavily dependent on the type of research and technology employed, how much time is spent on wet work, and workplace culture. Comparing new designs to current lab spaces is an easy starting point, but it is also helpful to gauge your lab against industry benchmarks based on a general or targeted selection of peers. Lab planning and design service partners often have these data available to assess laboratory, support, and alternative office or write-up spaces. They can also help ensure that spaces are optimally designed for collaboration, networking, and productivity.
Adequate support space for research labs is vital but often under-considered. This can be similarly assessed by a support space ratio or percentage against common benchmarks.
Considering building zones can help ensure a holistic design. Laboratory, write-up, and support spaces would typically compose the primary zone. Dedicated “focus space” is invaluable. Social zones should be optimized to increase interaction between diverse teams, and enclosed meeting spaces are vital to effective planning, collaborating, and otherwise connecting. Common areas, including reception, and eating spaces are important spaces for people to unplug. Incorporating flexible workspaces helps future-proof new spaces, providing a solution for transient and future unknown projects.
Lab redesigns can be daunting, but they extend the means to evaluate and improve operations and more. Seizing the opportunity with careful consideration and planning can help organizations realize their potential.