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Challenges and Trends in Vivarium Design

Handling the unique concerns surrounding vivarium labs

MaryBeth DiDonna

MaryBeth DiDonna is managing editor, events for Lab Manager. She organizes and moderates the webinars and virtual conferences for Lab Manager as well as other LMG brands, enabling industry...

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Animal research facilities or biological resource centers—also known as vivariums—are complex spaces designed for the care and maintenance of experimental animals. Because of their unique and sensitive nature, they can be costly to build and operate. Vivarium design is a rather niche area of lab planning and life sciences, and those involved with the design and building of these facilities must be sure to adhere to proper standards. There are requirements about whether animals must be housed in a pen or a cage, the size of the facility and the cages, how to control odor throughout the building, what kinds of HEPA filters may be required, and countless other aspects related to vivarium design. Certain areas may need to be isolated and segregated in order to maintain safety and research integrity. Architecture and building systems must ensure that outside contaminants or pathogens cannot be introduced into the facility, and that infectious outbreaks will not occur. Safety and security, of course, are also a concern for vivariums, as is the necessity for backup systems in case of power failure.

Josh Meyer, principal at The Jacobs Laboratory Planning Group in Tarrytown, NY, stresses the need for accreditation from AAALAC International (Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care), as well as the need to meet National Institutes of Health standards. “If you're going to use large animals then all of a sudden the USDA [United States Department of Agriculture] guidelines come into effect,” adds Meyer. “If you’re using mice, rats—if you move into regulated species, that usually falls to large animals, farm animals, and so forth—the USDA also has guidelines.”

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New vs renovated, and other challenges

A common issue with laboratories that need to be updated or expanded is whether it makes more sense to build a completely new facility or renovate an existing facility. According to Meyer, renovations can indeed be done to vivariums, but there are a lot of factors involved in getting it right. “The real issue with renovation—and we have renovated actively occupied animal facilities—is the noise and vibration…affects breeding and behavioral studies. So you need a really, really good plan if you’re going to renovate and you're not going to take the animals out and put them in another facility. That is really critical,” says Meyer. “We did a really large renovation of an animal facility and because they had no other place to put the animals, we could only do a quarter of a floor at the time and it took years. We brought in consultants that looked at noise and vibration to mitigate those. It was successful…but it took a very long time and it was expensive,” he adds.

Asked if there is a preference for new versus renovated, Meyer says, “It’s always new. But some of the renovations we’ve done have worked out very, very well. If you plan well, you can get an excellent facility. It’s also good to know that some of the older vivariums use interstitial space and that also makes it easier.”

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Maintaining pressurization, says Meyer, is one of the biggest challenges that comes with designing or renovating a vivarium lab. “Trying to keep cognizant on maintaining pressurization in rooms and not have odors leak out,” he says, is a common concern. “The other issue is one of redundancy. Most animal facilities have a certain level of redundancy, so if an air handling unit goes down or an exhaust unit goes down, there’s another one.”

“Doing an animal renovation is one of the more difficult renovations to do—you really have to know what you’re doing,” emphasizes Meyer. “And now you have this whole set of construction workers—if it’s a barrier rodent facility, how do you maintain it as a barrier or a biocontainment [facility], especially with all these construction workers on the site?”

Changes due to COVID

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed many aspects of lab design/build, and the vivarium sector is no exception. Meyer, who often travels to Asia for his work, cites software programs such as Bluebeam which have been helpful as more and more design firms have turned to remote working. However, he adds that he misses the interaction with clients and colleagues: “The technology is really just getting to know somebody—there’s a big difference between working with somebody virtually and working face-to-face. But with the tools out there, we’ve been very successful continuing projects.” Getting used to software and other virtual programs has also been somewhat of a challenge, he says. “I’m somewhat old-fashioned and miss drawing and making corrections on [paper].”

Operational and design features for the vivariums themselves have also been affected. Locker room hours in vivariums must be staggered, and entry and exit points are also a major concern in regards to social distancing. Meyer notes that animal facilities have “never really been very dense, but most of my clients have been moving toward no more than one or two people in it at any given time.” Personal protective equipment (PPE) is obviously a concern as well—“For animal operations, surgical procedures, and other invasive procedures, you do need multiple people in the room so they need to wear full PPE. They are a lot more cognizant of how many people are working, trying to direct traffic…it’s easier in an animal facility, especially if it’s a dual corridor with soiled and clean corridors. But not all of them are designed that way.”

The future of vivarium design

Meyer, who has been with Jacobs for over 30 years and has led the firm in many research projects and animal facilities for academic, institutional, and corporate clients, shares some of the trends he’s seen in his recent work. Gnotobiotics—a condition in which all the forms of life present within an organism can be accounted for—is a field that’s getting bigger and bigger, says Meyer. These types of rodents require a lot of space, and Meyer is seeing more and more of these facilities come online as he works with his clients. “I believe almost every single client of mine will eventually need a gnotobiotic facility,” he adds.

Hot air versus steam sterilizers, says Meyer, is an option that has “been around for a while, but more and more clients are inquiring about it.” Medium and high pressure steam systems require a fireman (boiler plant operator) 24/7, he adds, “so a lot of our clients want to go to low pressure steam systems because they don’t have to have that 24-hour fireman. With hot air, you don’t need steam. I’m seeing that more and more. They’re also very reliable because it’s not a pressure vessel, and it doesn’t weigh nearly the amount as a steam sterilizer,” he says. He believes there needs to be at least one steam sterilizer, he adds.

Automation has gotten a lot more reliable and commonplace, according to Meyer, along with vacuum and chain-and-puck bedding systems. “The thought of collecting all this waste manually, dumping it into a dumpster manually…it has to be a pretty small facility.” He also says that more of his clients are requesting a higher percentage of procedure space within their vivariums, because “the last thing you want to do is have animals leave the vivarium.” He shares that there should be at least one six-foot biosafety cabinet for every 300 to 400 cages.

In terms of lab management and leadership, keeping the staff healthy and happy is of utmost concern. “Your animal care staff are an integral element to the success of your research program—if you have a lot of high turnover or people who are disgruntled or unhappy, it impacts the science,” says Meyer. “I’m a big proponent of making sure there's a natural light view in the break area. Even if the animal facility is underground. We’ve done several underground facilities that have skylights over the break area.” And not every vivarium facility is underground, he adds, stating that he’s worked on many facilities that were located on the top floor of their respective buildings. This can be a cost-effective move, he says, because “the mechanical penthouse is right there, and you’re not bringing exhaust throughout the whole building—especially if there are flooding concerns.”