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Lab planners view a 3D render of a building
HDR's design and planning teams utilize data visualization and computational tools to help their clients better assess and understand different building and laboratory design options.
Credit: HDR

Enhanced Perspectives: How Visualization Tools Can Shape the Future of Lab Design

Visualization demonstrations allow key stakeholders to participate in design decisions

by
Anisha Kothari

Anisha Kothari is a senior laboratory planner at HDR. She can be reached at anisha.kothari@hdrinc.com.

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It is not hyperbole to say that technology has changed how researchers work in extraordinary ways. Visualization tools enable life science researchers to observe molecules and DNA structures in three dimensions, medical professionals to decode data from MRI, CT scans, and microscopy images, and global researchers to collaborate and jointly explore 3D models and datasets to gain deeper insights.

In the same way, technology has fundamentally changed how lab designers and planners conceive, design, plan, develop, and improve lab environments. As economic pressures push research institutions to do more with less space, in addition to the desire to minimize overall environmental impact, technology offers the opportunity for designers, owners, and other stakeholders to explore more options that prioritize a myriad of different factors in a relatively short time to make quick and effective decisions. 

Enhancing lab design and planning options

For lab designers, architects, and planners, the primary goal is always to establish effective communication with clients, seeking to understand their goals and visions. Throughout the design process, an extensive array of information must be conveyed. From space utilization to flexibility, equipment layout to energy efficiency, accessibility to safety compliance, chemical use to waste management, and many other factors, there are several metrics that must be considered and can have unique implications in the lab environment. 

Design teams can share this information with clients in many ways. In the past, design teams have been more inclined to narrow down the range of options they examine with clients due to the complexities of keeping track of numerous drivers and metrics that can vary between solutions. This can be a painstaking and overwhelming task. Today, lab design teams can harness new enterprising technology tools that facilitate effective visualization to enhance communication among all stakeholders. This, in turn, fosters trust and confidence in the proposed design, leading to successful and satisfying project outcomes. 

Lab design and data visualization options—what to look for

When considering the use of visualization tools for a project, owners should ask design teams several important questions to understand how visualization tools will be utilized:

Which visualization tools does the design team intend to utilize for this project?

Many different visualization tools are available for use in the architecture, planning, design, and construction industry. Additionally, some companies have created proprietary platforms that can enhance the lab design process in different ways. Before selecting a design team, owners and other key stakeholders should gather insights into the specific visualization software or technologies that will be used and inquire about their capabilities and compatibility with the project's needs.

Today, lab design teams can harness new enterprising technology tools that facilitate effective visualization to enhance communication among all stakeholders.

How adaptable are the visualization tools to design changes? 

When comparing visualization tools, it's important to explore the flexibility of handling design iterations and inquire about the speed at which they can update visualizations to reflect modifications. Data-driven design tools, integrated with computational modeling platforms and visualization dashboards, allow lab design teams to evaluate multiple design options based on various parameters or data sets. 

Will the use of visualization tools impact the project timeline or budget?

To fully understand the return on investment from hiring a team that integrates these tools in their processes, it's essential to understand the benefits that the project can gain. This can vary from expediting the schedule to more accurate cost estimating to improved decision confidence and design validation. 

Highly accurate 3D digital models of physical spaces offer many advantages that can expedite part of the project processes. For example, in renovation projects, they offer precise measurements, expediting the generation of schematic floor plans with ease and precision. A 3D virtual tour feature empowers team members to zoom in and out of detailed captures, facilitating well-informed design decisions and reducing the necessity for physical site visits. This substantial time and cost-saving benefit make it a game-changer for project efficiency.

Are there case studies where the technologies have successfully enhanced project outcomes?

While it is appropriate due diligence to request examples of how visualization technologies have been used successfully on past projects, often this information cannot be shared publicly due to the sensitivity of client information and the need for confidentiality. One option may be to request a meeting with the project team to review examples with sensitive information redacted. Another is to speak directly with a client who used the technology or worked successfully with a team who employs the tool. In the quest for more information, work toward an "apples to apples" comparison. 

How will the owner be involved in the visualization process?

While a visualization tool has the potential to augment the design process and facilitate consensus building, its effective implementation is not always guaranteed. Owners should seek to understand how the design team will incorporate stakeholder feedback and preferences during visualization demonstrations and how the owner and other key stakeholders will participate in design reviews and decision-making. 

Real-time rendering capabilities further enhance the experience, allowing instant updates to the visualization as modifications are made to the 3D model. This immediate feedback expedites the design process and encourages more efficient iterations and exploration of design possibilities.

If multiple interactive walkthroughs with the owner and other stakeholders are desired, the time and resources required for those sessions will need to be considered and factored accordingly into the overall budget. Just because a design team may have access to a tool does not mean that you as the owner have access to everything that tool is capable of. 

No matter the scope or scale, both design team and owner alike aspire to develop an economically viable, aesthetically pleasing, and environmentally sustainable solution in the built environment. Today, technological advances are fostering a more engaging and transparent design process between designers, owners, laboratory staff, and other stakeholders, allowing all parties to explore lab planning and design concepts together and in more detail. 

By asking the questions described in this article, owners can gain valuable insights into the use of visualization tools and ensure that their integration will contribute positively to the project's success. This proactive approach fosters effective collaboration with the design team, leading to enhanced project visualization and communication.