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Center for Device Innovation @ TMC
Credit: Gensler

Designed to Inspire Innovation: Key Strategies in Academic Research Laboratories

Four strategies to create inspirational, innovative spaces for principal investigators

by Rebekah Gandy, AIA, NOMA, CDT
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The pandemic has expedited a culture shift to a more hybrid world. We have the opportunity and obligation to leverage new strategies to maximize the embedded potential in principal investigators within our academic research facilities. These shifts in culture have the potential to stifle innovation through reduction in engagement and collaboration. If we don’t adapt, we will be left behind.

Listed are a few key strategies for designing academic research facilities that inspire innovation. 

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Research-driven design for the research atmosphere

Get to know your client through purpose-driven surveys and observations. These help inform the design team and key client stakeholders of the status of their laboratories. The result is an objective viewpoint of the current state, exposing patterns that could not be determined through interviews alone. 

Research can include—but is not limited to—shadowing studies, occupancy studies, and even engagement indexes. Engagement indexes survey the effort and enthusiasm of end users, particularly where their discretionary efforts are spent. Understanding what drives an engaged principal investigator is critical for institutions wanting to recruit the best and brightest, so study your targeted audience.

Image of the Princeton University Innovation Center labs with glass walls
Princeton University Innovation Center labs
Credit: Gensler

According to data pulled from the Gensler Education Engagement Index, there is a direct correlation between inspirational spaces and engagement in academic and research environments. We explore engagement through the lenses of effectiveness, motivation, and well-being. Surveys should always be done anonymously and by a specialist. Your typical project architect should not be solely responsible for the creation of the survey. Instead, the team should engage expert researchers. Reliable data will elevate your outcomes. 

The design team should look like the client—representation matters!

Whether your researchers are Generation X (1965-1980), Millennials (1981-1996), or Generation Z (1997-2012), diversity of people leads to the diversity of ideas and solutions. Diversity in collaboration efforts is an increasingly important value among Millennials and Generation Z1. Research institutions pull the best talent from around the world. These up-and-coming thought leaders want to see themselves represented in the creation of their new home. 

The pandemic provided opportunities to renew a focus on racial and social justice. Institutions who want to remain relevant will need to embrace active inclusivity to acquire and maintain clients. This active inclusivity should start from the initial kickstart/ideation of your new lab through its completion and operation. 

Nimble hybrid research environment able to flex with different types of learning

A nimble environment will empower individuals to innovate as they see fit. This empowerment with a flexible space will put principal investigators at the center of the action. Nimble design needs to be applied to both laboratories and associated office space. Within the cleanliness of a typical biosafety level 2 lab, the uber-flexible lab must go beyond the typical mobile casework. We are seeing an increasing amount of mobile fume hoods, mobile sinks, and automation built within its own encasement with casters so the equipment can easily be moved. Mobile automation is an opportunity for different groups to share resources while limiting disruption of focused research within their specific labs.

Research institutions pull the best talent from around the world. These up-and-coming thought leaders want to see themselves represented in the creation of their new home.

Demountable wall systems are also becoming more prevalent. Depending on budget, the designer can recommend utilizing the casework manufacturer’s mobile casework panel walls system. Although more expensive, the casework panel system maximizes flexibility by having a panel wall system that provides accessible utility chases in the walls. The bi-parting wall now has plumbing and electricity utilities that are easily accessible and reconfigurable. When a space needs to be renovated or reconfigured, the walls can be taken down over the weekend while reducing the amount of dust and debris. Although equipment should always be protected, having a cleaner demolition and set up process reduces risk. The nimble space should also provide hyper tech-enabled environments.

A place for connection to industry leaders and an entrepreneurship focus

Many institutions are already utilizing this design approach by providing research-specific incubator spaces because funding for research projects can come from multiple resources. 

Providing an environment with direct access to industry leaders catalyzes the spirit of innovation. The participants will experience a more holistic idea of what life is like outside the academic research facility. Unlikely collaborations can occur when diverse fields of research are brought into the same physical space. Biology, chemistry, and electronic research groups should not always be segregated into different buildings or even floors. Instead, having a place where they can coexist improves the probability of the cross-pollination of ideas. When two different specialties come together, out-of-the-box innovation will materialize. 

We need to create a physical space for the exchange of ideas, providing a community of resources and an environment designed to foster exploration. 

These are just four strategies to maximize the potential to create an inspirational innovative space for principal investigators. Keep in mind that each project is unique and not all strategies may be appropriate for every project.


1.    Miller, Jennifer. “For Younger Job Seekers, Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace Aren't a Preference. They're a Requirement.” The Washington Post. WP Company, August 24, 2021. Accessed on December 21, 2022.