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Five Tactics for Kicking Off a Successful Laboratory Design Project

With many individuals participating in the project, it is important to get on the same page from the start

by Robert Skolozdra
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Successful laboratory design requires a common vision among the design, management, and consultant teams. Many factors are at play, including funding, location, staff well-being, local regulations, equipment needs, programming, future growth, and the like. With many elements to weigh and so much at stake, considering these tactics might help start you in the right direction. 

1) Clarify scope of the job

A critical step is ensuring the client organization has clear objectives and a consensus-driven vision for their future. As organizations change and grow, their needs do as well. It’s critical for stakeholders to be on the same page prior to launching the design phase of a project.

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At this early stage, programming details and location need to be established. Is the project a redesign of an existing building or the design of a whole new facility? Whether or not the client is considering a new location, well-documented program parameters are an essential tool for guiding the evaluation of potential sites and/or (re)designing the new environment.

Some teams benefit from a series of client/design team workshops where the designers can establish a holistic understanding of the organization, its departments and their functions, and how they work together to determine optimal short- and long-term goals. This may include interviews related to the company’s goals and program needs that will help inform the design team on functional and adaptable space and design needs for labs and offices as well as mechanical, operational, and building systems, ancillary and amenity spaces, and other areas.

These sessions are an effective way to explore critical infrastructure considerations, phased stages, adaptable spaces, project constraints, budget parameters, and scheduling options. This preparation can go a long way toward ensuring the lab’s design ultimately results in a superior environment that advances productivity and promotes staff morale. 

2) Build a design budget

Budget considerations require the assessment of costs involved for each stage of the project, including the design, consultant fees, materials, and labor. Creating a detailed matrix for each of the project’s different aspects not only assists with high-level planning, but also provides cost analyses for each space type. To keep the information relevant and useful, update the matrix as the design expands and evolves, including cost-drivers like casework, engineering needs, and architectural elements.

3) Select the right colleagues for the job

The design lead for the project will need to establish a well-balanced design team for the project to meet the lab’s demand for a highly technical space that’s responsive to the client’s present needs and can meet future demands. A project manager experienced in laboratory planning and design is essential, as are architects and designers who specialize in effective and welcoming laboratories similar in scope to the one being designed. Support staff and proven consulting firms also smooth the way.  

4) Host a stakeholder kickoff meeting

An organized kickoff meeting establishes where and how the lab will be designed among the project’s stakeholders, including the architecture and design lab team, the laboratory’s steering committee—chief executive officers and facilities director—and the lab’s departmental directors and staff, as required. Essential topics should be covered during the session and the initial steps involved in the project should be put into motion. 

To best prepare for this kickoff meeting, the architecture firm’s project manager may want to schedule a preliminary in-house session with the designated design team to outline the topics to be covered in the kickoff meeting, issues related to each topic, and possible options to meet the named objectives. This sets up mutually agreed parameters among the architecture and management groups for the lab design team to later deliver an effective design program in a timely manner, including a review of space allocations, listed and diagrammed rooms, technical criteria for each space, preliminary area projections, and preliminary costs. 

Once the topics and issues have been outlined, the lab design team should share this agenda with the meeting participants prior to the session, allowing everyone to see what will be discussed and giving them the opportunity to add areas of interest to the program. The agenda also informs all the meeting’s participants of when the session will take place, how long it will be, and whether it will be a video gathering (with the link included), an in-person meeting at a specified place, or a hybrid gathering. 

5) Communicate and negotiate with effective strategies

It’s important to maintain open, productive communications throughout the design, construction, and move-in phases of the lab design project. Scheduling regular meetings after the kickoff session ensures a consistent approach to the lab’s design in a timely, efficient, and cost-effective manner. It also furthers the resolution of design, technical, and construction challenges that may be encountered during the process. 

To keep meetings timely and productive, take steps to keep attendees on-topic. Sharing agendas early on is an effective means to ground meetings in key aspects of the project and to hold participants to the topic at hand. Make sure the team’s supporting members take notes on shared comments, input, and subsequent steps for discussed topics. 

Often, materials that support the concepts addressed will need to be prepared and included in the meeting and later sessions. It’s helpful for the design team to share essential content in various visual formats for a complete and holistic view of the project’s critical requirements. In addition to the agenda, this could include electronic or physical diagrams involved in planning the project, along with preliminary layouts, spreadsheets, and charts to make it easier for the meeting’s participants to understand proposed ideas. 

Planning for something new is exciting, especially when it’s for the creation of a new, renovated, or adaptive reuse of a space for a state-of-art lab that advances life-changing research and innovation. Whether it’s the design of a 150,000 square-foot lab and research facility or a start-up lab’s two-bench space, laboratory environments that are efficient, safe, and comfortable start with significant planning and communication.