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Design as Pain Relief for the Lab Facility Manager

How can both the designer and the lab/facility manager be sure their concerns are actually being addressed?

by Jay Hallinan
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The team of project stakeholders for a new academic research facility typically includes a large and varied group of academics, scientists, administrators, and design professionals. The shared goal of the team is to create the most ideal research environment possible, though each team member may approach that goal with particular agendas in mind. Ultimately, the definition of “project success” may mean different things to different team members. While most of the team will be heavily involved in programming and design, many players will eventually move on to other endeavors as the conditions of their project delivery obligations are completed. Most of the initial project team drops off from direct involvement soon after initial occupancy of the new facility. At that juncture, the end-users can then look forward to the next five to 50 years of living with the result.

academic lab design
The University of Kentucky Chemistry-Physics Lab
Frank Döring Photography; Omni Architects; HERA Lab Planners

Question: From the point of project completion and initial occupancy, which project stakeholder holds the unique responsibility to bridge the gaps between perceived problems and subsequent resolutions going forward? Answer: Lab and facility managers are responsible for coordinating ongoing research operations and any needed modifications and maintenance to the lab environment over time. These enduring professionals, more than any other project stakeholder, will reap the benefits, or perhaps more realistically, face the repercussions of decisions made during design. That explains why most listings for lab facilities manager positions include a “can-do attitude” as a requisite personality trait.

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To minimize potential headaches, a good designer will ask, “What are their concerns, and how can both the designer and the lab/facility manager be sure their concerns are actually being addressed?" The laboratory facility manager’s range of responsibilities can be broadly categorized into two types of tasks:

  1. Management of researchers and research activity
  2. Management of the research environment including space, utilities, equipment, and materials

As a planned product, to what extent can the design enable the lab/facility manager to complete these tasks and live a stress-free life after the lab comes to life? In answer to this question, we might focus on a few key points that lab/facility managers should be aware of during design, and related strategies that designers might employ to increase the likelihood of “project success” for the lab/facility manager.

Provide the right menu of spaces

assignable research space graph academic lab design
A simple graphic that clearly indicates assignable research space per PI.
HERA Laboratory Planners

When a research environment contains the right types of spaces in appropriate proportions to accommodate the ways academic researchers go about their daily activities, the lab manager’s responsibility for providing for researchers’ needs and gaining researcher satisfaction is more easily met. A modern research program will include spaces for “thinking,” such as offices or perhaps a quiet corner with soft seating, an outlet and Wi-Fi; spaces for “doing,” including the lab bench, the tissue culture room, the laser lab, an automated sample prep line, etc.; and spaces for “sharing,” whether it’s a large or small conference space, project teaming rooms, or an open-access core lab. The onus to identify and incorporate the right spaces and functions into the plan is with the laboratory designer, but the lab/facility manager is often the most informed person at the table to make recommendations on what will be needed in terms of research space types, sizes, and quantities.

Develop a clear space allocation strategy

How will the lab/facility manager assign research space and resources? If a space allocation strategy needs to be created for a project, the answer to “how?” would typically be, “it depends.” Will the lab design be driven by people, process, or perhaps by specialized tools and equipment? Will space be assigned to individuals or to teams (man-to-man, or a zone defense)? Will there be an emphasis on sharing lab functions and equipment, or will clear delineation of “dedicated” bench, space, and equipment be more appropriate? The architectural program and arrangement of spaces should directly respond to these questions.

If for example, if it is determined that space allocation will be based on standard modules of research spaces assigned to individual primary investigators (PIs) and their teams, then this standard needs to be clearly defined. A simple graphic program of the typical PI block of spaces is a simple way to present this to the lab/facility manager. This typical “block” of space may then be arrayed several times to create the overall floor plan. The lab manager is then empowered to assign research space based on a defined metric. A fraction, or maybe a multiple of the standard block may be assigned to individual PIs, but it will still be measurable and therefore more consistent and controlled. The layout must be evaluated as a whole, but the whole is made by the sum of its measurable parts. If you step back, squint your eyes, and look at the plan, the space allocation strategy should be clear in the overall layout.

Align the layout with the “mode” of research

academic lab design
A lab blocking plan that fosters collaborative research.
HERA Laboratory Planners

The way scientific research is conducted on academic campuses continues to evolve. Some of the most complex questions being tackled today happen when large groups of diverse researchers who may be experts in very different fields converge to solve a problem. At the same time, there remains a persistent need for specific scientific disciplines to generate discipline-specific knowledge. The research methodology or “mode,” whether specific to one field of science, or based on some level of multi-disciplinary interaction should be determined early in the visioning of the project and should influence the layout of the research environment. The lab/facility manager must be part of that determination so that it is clear how the facility will be utilized going forward. When the overall layout is aligned with the intended methodology, the lab manager will have fewer obstacles to face when managing research activity.

Keep the practical aspects of lab functionality as simple as possible

A fundamental planning consideration for lab/facility managers is how people, equipment, materials, and waste will move, or be moved, through the facility. Mapping and diagramming required spaces and pathways for the delivery of research materials, access for service and maintenance of systems and equipment, and waste removal will be a fundamental organizing principle for the research facility’s overall design parti. A Maximum Allowable Quantity (MAQ) strategy for the storage and use of hazardous materials is another example of a practical concern that will impact design and operation of the facility. Design solutions should to the greatest extent possible be simple, intuitive, and easily understood within the context of the plan so that managers of the facility are not forced to make compromises, create inefficient workarounds, or spend a great deal of time and energy rediscovering how these functions were intended to be accommodated in the first place.

Plan for change management

As research activity evolves, the built environment will need to change to keep pace. The lab/facility manager may have specific ideas on how to accommodate changes. The designer needs to work closely with lab/facility managers to incorporate appropriate strategies for future adjustments that won’t adversely impact research operations or incur unreasonable costs. An experienced laboratory designer will be able to suggest ideas to the lab/facility manager regarding flexible design strategies, relying on concepts of rigorous modularity, accessible utility infrastructure, inclusive and adjustable casework systems, or “flex zones” between low and high-intensity research zones to allow for some amount of expansion and contraction. These strategies for change management should not be arbitrary. The most useful strategies come in response to a specific want or need that the lab/facility manager communicates to the designer.

Conduct a post-occupancy evaluation

Post-occupancy evaluation is the last and best tool for project stakeholders to determine whether project goals have been met. This evaluation can be done when core members of the project delivery team, including the designer and the lab/facility manager reconvene six months to a year after the facility is first occupied. Like the programming and planning phase, post-occupancy evaluation may be conducted through interviews, questionnaires and/or surveys of the end-users. The lab/facility manager again is uniquely positioned to provide perhaps the most useful feedback to the university and the design team on what has worked and what hasn’t. An additional benefit is that it may be the catalyst for initiating remedies to problems or correcting mistakes to prevent maladaptive workarounds going forward.

The challenge for the designer during their interaction with lab/facility managers is first to identify what the lab/facility manager’s primary concerns are. The lab/facility manager must be willing and able to work with the designer to articulate what these concerns and objectives might be. When it is time for the laboratory designer to present programming and planning solutions back to the lab/facility manager, the information must be presented in the most effective way possible to ensure there is full understanding and consensus that the concerns and objectives are being addressed. In subsequent design phases and construction, these solutions need to be constantly confirmed or adjusted to be sure they remain aligned with the lab/facility manager’s expectations. The lab/facility manager is more likely to find “project success” when their expectations are met.

Jay Hallinan is an architect and laboratory programmer and planner at HERA Laboratory Planners, with almost three decades worth of experience and insight into the specialized world of design for academic research. Jay has been involved in the development of academic research projects in a variety of settings for colleges and universities across the country. He has seen and contributed to the ebb and flow of design trends, and occasionally speaks at industry events and publishes writings pertaining to the historic, present, and future state of laboratory design. He can be reached at