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How Lab Design Can Encourage New Ways of Thinking

The role of a lab planner in designing spaces that encourage new ways of thinking

by Mark Paskanik
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What is innovation science? Or rather, what makes labs capable of supporting innovation? If you look back at history, many famous lab inventions came about in nonconventional and even accidental ways.

Lab inventions

Thomas Edison is well known for his inventions and an amazing 1,093 patents, most of which were based on trial and error. He was once quoted as saying, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” In June 1877, while working in the lab on an audio project, Edison and his assistants inadvertently scratched grooves into a disc. This unexpectedly produced a sound, which motivated Edison to create a rough sketch of a recording machine, the phonograph. By November of that year, Edison’s assistants had created a working model. Incredibly, the device worked on the first try, a rare outcome for a new invention. This innovative idea made him famous.

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How do you win a Nobel Prize? By sifting through your trash, of course. Eager to go on vacation, Alexander Fleming left a pile of dirty petri dishes stacked at his workstation before he left town. When he returned from holiday on September 3, 1928, he discovered that most of them had been contaminated—as you might expect would happen in a hospital bacteria lab. Fleming dumped most of the dishes in a vat of Lysol. But when he got to a dish containing staphylococcus, something odd caught his eye. The dish was covered in colonies of bacteria except in one area, where a blob of mold was growing. Around the mold was an area free of bacteria, as if the mold had blocked it from spreading. When he realized the mold could be used to kill a wide range of bacteria, penicillin was invented. To this day, is it one of the most widely used antibiotics.

University research

A few universities have taken a different approach. At the University of Michigan, there is a program called MCubed. This program stimulates innovative research and scholarship by distributing real-time seed funding to multiunit, faculty-led teams. Through this funding program, three faculty members from at least two different campus units can form a collaborative trio, or “cube,” and request either $15K or $60K to advance their idea right away. As an example, one pediatrician and two mechanical engineering professors came together and developed a biochip that quickly measures immune status with only one drop of blood. Through their MCubed results, these cube collaborators secured a $3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, and they are now one step closer to saving patients’ lives. The MCubed program uses interdisciplinary methods to think about research by using nontraditional professions such as composer, artist, linguist, and more.

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For the second consecutive year, Arizona State University (ASU) is the nation’s most innovative school, according to U.S. News & World Report rankings (2015/2016). “We do things differently, and we constantly try new approaches,” ASU president Michael M. Crow said. “Our students’ paths to discovery don’t have to stay within the boundaries of a single discipline. Our researchers team up with colleagues from disparate fields of expertise. We use technology to enhance the classroom and reach around the world. We partner with cities, nonprofits, and corporations to support our advances as the higher-education economy evolves. This ranking recognizes the new model we have created.” I have worked on projects for bioengineering, pharmacoengineering, and others. The programs that merge disciplines open up new ways of exploring research to discover innovation. This shift will continue to advance research.


Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) have been at the forefront of education. The methods of teaching are still driving how space is configured. The innovation aspect that is changing how STEM is being taught is shifting toward industry. The education system is being challenged to have its students be better prepared for real-world experiences. Community colleges are looking at models to prepare their students for the next step: either the workforce or higher education. Higher-education systems are partnering more with industry to provide funding, and the industry partners are able to leverage the knowledge and brain power of the more highly educated personnel.

Lab design

Traditionally, laboratory design has been based on a rigid modular layout comprising rows of benches. In many cases, this can be a very effective and efficient approach, but integrating modular layouts with collaboration and workplace spaces can also have a very positive effect on the culture and environment of the research. To create an innovative layout, many of the following concepts apply:

  • Relationship of the office to the lab
  • Level of openness and flexibility
  • Percentage and location of collaboration/interaction spaces
  • Blurred lines of “territory”
  • Technology

Modular layouts can also be set up to run in both east-west and north-south directions. If tour routes are being used, a hexagonal shape can create a unique way of displaying the science while increasing the linear footage of usable bench space.

In a lab, even the smallest details can have a big impact on efficiency. A good lab planner will listen to clients and researchers and design a workspace specific to their needs. If a researcher is struggling to perform a particular task, for example, making a change to the architectural details of the lab space can improve productivity.

Laboratory owners are constantly challenged to create new research environments with limited budgets and few resources. In addition, consideration has to be given to the “triple bottom line” (people, planet, and profit) within these strict budgetary constraints. Cost-conscious owners want facilities to meet their vision and business objectives while also including flexibility, efficiency, safety, and robust utility/engineering systems. Early in the process, strategies can be used that have no financial impact on the project. These strategies come from the lab planner’s previous design experience and include options specific to the current project. Along with these strategies, incorporating initial and ongoing dashboards facilitates making informed decisions from the planning phase all the way through occupancy.

Laboratory projects can be extremely challenging and require a very thorough analysis. How do we as designers use our knowledge of past projects to work with clients to create their vision? In many cases, a high-level visioning process can be used in combination with practical approaches to create that vision in a day. With careful advance planning and use of very interactive and visual tools, the process itself can build consensus and can be fun for the groups involved.

So, what can we do today to make innovation science? We need to create spaces that promote the spark of genius, encourage new ways of thinking, and foster collaboration across disciplines.