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Flexible Lab Zones

A dynamic shift in the way researchers conduct their work has had a profound effect on the design of their facilities. Emphasis has focused on three main components: establishing large open labs, the distribution of utilities to and within the lab, and the auxiliary spaces that both support the research experiments and promote collaborative dialogue between colleagues.

by Stacy Wyman,Dan Watch
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Maximizing Budgetary Allowances While Eliminating Redundant Resources

In recent years there has been a significant shift in traditional methods of conducting research. The benefits of cross-pollinating various fields of investigation have become undeniably apparent. The need for this collaborative effort to operate effectively and seamlessly with the ability to transform on demand has become the focus of current laboratory design. This dynamic shift in the way researchers conduct their work and connect with one another has had a profound effect on the design of their facilities. Emphasis has focused on three main components: establishing large open labs, the distribution of utilities to and within the lab, and the auxiliary spaces that both support the research experiments and promote collaborative dialogue between colleagues.

The research lab of today comprises multiple researchers working within one flexible zone. Labs are designed to accommodate multiple principle investigator (PI) teams and are complemented by shared support and core labs that house specialty instruments and equipment. Identifying appropriate shared resources and maximizing their efficiency impacts the overall effectiveness of the facility. The arrangement allows for experiments and investigations to grow and contract as needed within the flexible lab zone by assigning and reassigning adequate bench space in response to current real-time demands. Not only does the facility benefit from the maximized efficiency associated with this model, but the incidental dialogue that occurs between individuals working in proximity to one another often leads to the generation of new ideas that are strengthened by a cooperative investigation benefiting from a variety of specialized expertise. Research is no longer performed in silos; the walls that once partitioned individual investigations have been removed and replaced with discourse.

Designing facilities that designate spaces for shared resources, such as expensive equipment and auxiliary functions, permits an institution to maximize its budgetary allowances by affording the institution the ability to invest more directly into the individual experiments and less on unnecessary redundant resources. Shared support spaces build flexibility into the facility by allowing assignments of these spaces to change based on the needs of specific investigations. The lab and the research that takes place within its walls are living organisms that are constantly transforming and evolving in response to the flow of activities conducted within. The building not only must be capable of adapting to this dynamic fluctuation of activities, but also must strengthen, promote, and encourage the investigations and social networking of its occupants.

The Material Science research labs at North Carolina State include heavy equipment based core labs serviced by overhead carriers that allow for equipment to be reconfigured as needed. Photo Credit: Michelle Litvin, courtesy of Perkins+Will

Open labs foster flexibility through their ability to accommodate variations in the distribution of bench space and equipment. This is further advanced through the distribution of utilities to and within the lab space. The incorporation of wet columns and overhead service carriers allows researchers to quickly and easily connect or disconnect the bench to such necessary utilities as water, electricity, vacuum, and gases. With minimal effort and limited downtime, a lab can be reconfigured for either benchtop research, equipment-based investigations, or fume hood work. Wet columns distribute plumbing for water at each structural column, thus providing a multitude of connection points within each lab, with minimal square footage required. This method has proved to be a very effective and inexpensive way to provide flexibility to wet functions within the lab at every other row of benches. The overhead service carriers can vary widely in their complexity and the services they provide. Typically these systems can accommodate multiple gases, air, and vacuum among other required services. The bench provides a master connection to the carrier above, which runs along the ceiling in a manner similar to that of a light fixture. This main feed distributes the provided services to connection points at the bench top for convenient access to the researcher. Everyday activities are accommodated at the bench top as was traditionally done in the past. The primary difference is the main connection from above. Distributing these utilities from the ceiling permits the floor of the lab to remain free of obstructions. The majority of benches are mobile and can be moved with relatively little effort. This model allows the lab to truly operate as a flexible research zone suitable for a diverse range of disciplines.

Service docking stations at Galveston National Laboratory provide connections to services from the ceiling at every other row of benches. Photo Credit: Nick Merrick, courtesy of Perkins+Will

Wet columns at this CDC lab are built out around all structural columns, and run along the perimeter walls of the lab providing convenient utility connections for both equipment and benches. Photo Credit: Michelle Litvin, courtesy of Perkins+Will

This robust infrastructure requires initial investments to be committed up front during the construction of the facility; however, the payoffs over the life of the building are immeasurable. By designing the building more flexibly, one can eliminate redundant resources and optimize shared/common zones within the building. The savings associated with a more efficient base design can be reallocated to the funding required for a fully optimized design of the building infrastructure and utilities. A research building should be designed to meet not only the needs of today, but also the unforeseen demands of 20 years from now. The expedited rate at which science and research are currently evolving only reinforces the need for investments to be focused on buildings and spaces that are able to adapt to a wide, ever-changing variety of activities.

The design and organization of auxiliary spaces that support the research are imperative for a successful operation. These spaces include collaborative meeting and discussion areas and instrumentation, equipment, and storage rooms as well as shared core labs for specialty research. Designing meeting and conversation spaces outside of the lab where users can socialize, brainstorm, and engage one another helps facilitate camaraderie and fosters collaborative working relations. If these spaces are not thoughtfully folded into the design of the facility, individuals wind up spending all their time shut in the lab, and opportunities for cross-discipline discourse are suppressed. The core labs are often concentrated centers that support multiple disciplines and bring together a network of researchers.

Core labs at the Texas A&M Interdisciplinary Life Sciences Building are centrally located on the first floor for convenient access to the larger campus of researchers. Image Credit: Perkins+Will

Collaboration spaces at the Georgia Tech Klaus Advanced Computing lab are distributed throughout the building providing areas for researchers to engage in impromptu discussions and collaborate on new ideas. Photo Credit: Michelle Litvin, courtesy of Perkins+Will

At the new Texas A&M Interdisciplinary Life Sciences Building, which will open this spring, the core labs consist of proteomics, genomics, structural biology, and image microscopy and are designed to showcase the cutting- edge work that is being conducted at the university. They are intended to be shared by the entire campus of researchers, drawing together individuals and supporting a vast number of varied research investigations. By locating these highly specialized labs in a central location, easily accessible to the larger research community, the university is able to maximize its investment while allowing the open general research laboratories to remain flexible and quickly adapt to desired research requirements. Strategically designing these auxiliary spaces is instrumental to the success of a research facility.

Buildings are inherently static structures that often house dynamic programs. Research laboratories are especially subject to fluctuations in the activities that are carried out within the facility. These buildings must be designed thoughtfully to sustain exploration and investigation. By maximizing the flexibility of the labs, the support spaces, and the collaborative nature of these facilities, it is possible to design a building that will support the evolving studies of its occupants over several decades. Careful considerations must be made during the design of these facilities, from the infrastructure to the casework, as all factors impact the success of their operation. Investments in science and research and development are innately investments in the future of humanity, and as such the investments appropriated for the facilities within which these functions are administered should support the progression of the science.