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Insights on Laboratory Design

Today's laboratory designers understand that in environments that support complex tasks, workflow should dictate design, not the other way around.

Angelo DePalma, PhD

Angelo DePalma is a freelance writer living in Newton, New Jersey. You can reach him at

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Designing for workflows

Key to healthy, productive laboratories

Laboratory design used to involve a cookie-cutter exercise: one design for a chemistry lab, another for a cell culture, another for environmental testing. Designs constrained workers and their activities. Today, laboratory designers understand that in environments that support complex tasks, workflow should dictate design, not the other way around.

Getting started: Listening pays off

John Kapusnick, principal at architectural firm Studio of Metropolitan Design (Philadelphia, PA), is unique among designers in that he was a healthcare industry end user before becoming a consultant. In his previous career Kapusnick was manager of facilities, design, and construction, and had maintenance personnel reporting directly to him. “Although I was schooled in architecture,” he says, “I was forced to learn about other trades.

Economy Anaerobic Chamber / BactronEZ Sheldon Manufacturing / Studio of Metropolitan Design is part of a growing trend in laboratory design that combines big-picture project management with a benignly naïve approach to finer design points. “When we pull in engineers to support our design, we don’t say ‘this is a laboratory—go at it.’ We provide specific parameters regarding air and utilities, down to the number of electrical outlets and how they’re marked,” Kapusnick says. Similarly, the firm has rarely simply handed plans off to the contractor without retaining oversight.


Stakeholders regularly review design plans in depth for new constructions. Kapusnick scrutinizes plans before sending them to the client and contractor. His firm holds weekly, even biweekly meetings on-site. “We ask clients to take time to pay attention to everything, especially finishes, equipment, and casework, which can sometimes arrive damaged.”

Retrofits begin the same way but with the advantage of having a fixed floor plan and more-or-less intact utility areas. Upgrades to electrical systems are common, as are upgrades to containment and ventilation equipment (e.g., BSCs, fume hoods). “To maximize the benefits of a retrofit, people don’t usually want to rip out too much,” Kapusnick explains

Related to Kapusnick’s detail-oriented approach is the notion that workflows— not predetermined ideas of what a chemistry or forensics lab should look like—must drive design. “We examine their science—processes that users expect to carry out and equipment they plan on using and translate that back into the larger systems that will enable them to do their work,” he says. Biology may require glove boxes, biosafety cabinets, or tissue culture incubators; chemistry may require fume hoods. “If customers are doing PCR, they’ll need a small enclosure for that. Often, it’s better to build a lab within a lab—that is, to put up a physical barrier that will provide workspace that is somewhat cleaner or brighter or that sports better finishes than the outside areas where the ‘dirty work’ is carried out.”

This approach has been adopted widely in the pharmaceutical industry to maximize “grey” (less stringently clean) space and isolate it from highly specialized areas such as clean rooms that are expensive to maintain. Glove boxes and barrier-isolator systems are two other examples of this idea.



Durable Lab Storage Solutions Lista International /
Total Exhaust Fume Hoods / AirMax™ AirClean Systems /

Renovations involving a switch of the lab’s mission, say from chemistry to biology, sometimes involve wholesale upgrades. More often, only equipment needs to be swapped out, for example, a biosafety cabinet for a fume hood. These renovations will retain the utilities as much as possible, although lighting requirements may change. Biology-related tasks carried out mainly at the bench demand different lighting than do chemistry processes that mostly occur within a hood. Regardless, a combination of indirect lighting and task lighting is usually the answer.

“When I was managing labs I hated when a consultant came over and told me what I wanted,” says Kapusnick. “My advice to designers is to sit and listen first. Try not to butt in to show off how much you know. You may be familiar with everything they’re doing, but you’re not the researcher.”

Kapusnick relates an episode involving a university bringing him in as a consultant. “Our project manager warned me that the university people did not like architects, and sure enough the meeting began on a very tense note. When we sat down, the dean asked for my plans. I responded that I did not know what the new group would be working on and could therefore not possibly have a floor plan. The tone of the meeting changed to distinctly positive.” The bottom line: listen to what clients have to say and ask for their opinions. This, Kapusnick says, will calm down even the most hard-boiled facility managers.

Capital equipment

With improvements in materials of construction, design, and function, capital equipment remain core elements of modern laboratories and key considerations in lab design. “Fixed casework in wood, steel, and stainless steel continue to be the most popular products,” comments Chip Diefendorf, director of business development at Mott Manufacturing (Brantford, Ontario, Canada). “That said, future trends will be based on adaptable furniture systems and environmental sustainability.”

Workstations are experiencing significant design activity, with the frequently specified “H-frame” design forming the basis of adaptable systems. Mott’s Optima line is an example of a traditional H-frame, while the company’s new Altus table system is a “new take” on the H-frame idea, Diefendorf says.

Sustainability is another area of high interest for lab furniture. Approaches that conserve energy via innovative fume hood design, recycled synthetic construction materials, and wood from sustainable forests are receiving more attention than ever. While demand for lower-end wood products has leveled, preferences for high-end wood is healthy, and demand for steel casework and steel systems furniture has seen a substantial increase.

Stainless steel remains a substantial component for worktops and cabinetry. Stainless is specified primarily in areas where either sanitation or decontamination are important, or the laboratory uses a majority of wet operations. Examples include areas where infectious agents are present and in animal containment areas where hot water and/or steam are used for cleaning. Stainless steel fume hood liners are often employed where highly corrosive acids and/or radioisotopes are used, or in work areas with high heat loads.

Table System / Altus Mott / Laboratory Cabinets / Premium Series Hatfield Laboratory Furniture Lab Bench Cornerstone-WS™ Sovella USA


Flexibility and modularity in lab furniture allow physical space to change with evolving workflows and laboratory processes and new personnel. For example, a university courting a veteran, well-funded researcher will have an easier time if labs are reconfigurable to the new project(s). “Flexibility and modularity make the transition from what was previously done to anticipated tasks much easier,” says Diefendorf. Or in the case of pharma or biotech labs, companies can quickly transition to a new development project, to the point of adding or subtracting research space. “Flexibility and modularity allow for this by minimizing expensive, time-consuming construction work.”

Flexibility has become the loudest buzzword in lab design due to changes in the types of lab work occurring and how people work. “In higher education, researchers come and go, each with their own requirements for equipment and layout,” notes Robert Skolozdra, a partner and LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) design specialist at Svigals + Partners (New Haven, CT), an architectural firm that specializes in design and human factors. “Grants change, staff are hired and let go, equipment is acquired.” The more flexible the design, the more easily groups can adapt without the need for major structural changes.

The evolution in workflows is due in no small part to automation, which is seen increasingly even in lowthroughput industries. Researchers and technicians are less likely today to stand in front of a tissue culture hood all day or dutifully get up every 10 minutes to inject a chromatography sample. As equipment becomes more sophisticated, expensive, and automated, lab resources— including personnel, furniture, space, and equipment— are reassigned to more value-creating tasks.

“Using robotics means humans have less messy stuff to deal with,” Skolozdra adds. Today’s lab worker is likely to spend as much time in front of a computer as next to the HPLC. Concomitantly, as more individuals (and their employers) become comfortable with portable electronics, the distinction blurs between lab space and office, meeting, and even recreational space. “You don’t necessarily need to stand in front of an instrument or even at a 37-inch-high desk. People can work from a couch in a break room or lounge.”

As Paulina Bugyis, senior laboratory planner at BSA Lifestructures (Chicago, IL), puts it, “One size fits all does not apply to casework and, more generally, to lab design.” Yet she notes that flexibility “is not always an answer.” High-throughput analytical labs, in particular, often rely on fixed, sturdy, robust equipment that is anything but mobile. “In some labs, equipment will never move, or if it does it is for purposes of replacement or repair. Flexibility is a goal that should be implemented case by case.”

Energy considerations

Lab designers and those who supply them with instrumentation and other equipment are looking with anticipation to the expected release of LEED v4 as the next step in environmental responsibility. According to the US Green Buildings Council (USGBC), a major force behind adoption of LEED standards in the US, LEED v4 builds on past practices while providing higher levels of building performance and “positive environmental outcomes.” Scot Horst, senior vice president of LEED at USGBC, comments that “this newest version of LEED challenges the market to make the next leap toward better, cleaner, healthier buildings.”

Paulina Bugyis says that LEED has progressed from being a mere trend. “Every lab now has sustainability goals,” she explains, even if not part of an official LEED project.

Ventilation strategies can often dictate a lab’s energy efficiency. The prototypical fume hood is coming of age, says Brian D. Garrett, LEED Green Associate and product manager at Labconco (Kansas City, MO), thereby making it easier than ever to design laboratory buildings that save energy, while maintaining the highest safety and containment levels.

This trend is based entirely on economics. With design and building funds scarce, many facilities are renovating instead of building new. While redesign can save up-front costs, outdated mechanical/ air flow systems designed for large airconsuming fume hoods will suck those savings out of the building over time. Energy-efficient fume hoods not only outperform their predecessors but also create opportunities to reduce the consumption of expensive “conditioned” air.

How easily is this done? “As long as it doesn’t require a full change to the ductwork, fume hood removal can be simple and not very expensive,” Garrett explains. “Although in some cases it can be a highly invasive process. But if you’re entering a renovation and the hood is coming out anyway, you might as well replace it with something more efficient.”

The efficiency numbers are compelling. A six-foot fume hood running at 100 feet per minute, with the sash open 28 inches, consumes 1,250 cubic feet of air per minute. Over 15 years the conditioned air going “up the stack” costs the owner about $130,000. A new fume hood costing about $10,000 to install has a 15-year cost of $28,000 for a savings of more than $100,000. “And some facilities have hundreds of hoods,” Garrett observes. “These large research campuses can easily save tens of millions of dollars over the lifetime of the fume hood installations. Whether it’s new construction or renovation, this strategy is a no-brainer.”

Ductless Enclosure Paramount® / Labconco Fume Hood Captair® Flow / Erlab LED Light Fixtures Sovella USA

An often overlooked factor in energy savings is lighting and its most efficient application. Scientists need between 70 and 100 foot-candles of light for bench work, according to Robert Skolozdra, but unoccupied labs and work areas have minimal or no lighting requirements. Combined with highly efficient light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs, occupancy sensors can provide better lighting where it is needed, while saving energy at other times, and all without human intervention. “Human comfort improves, and everyone wins,” Skolozdra adds.

Similarly, sensors and control systems have replaced hardwired timers to provide monitoring and adjustments to every relevant aspect of energy consumption. Applicable areas include air changes, heat, humidity, and ventilated spaces such as fume hoods. Reducing air changes at night are an obvious energy-saving move but available only relatively recently.

“Hidden” design considerations

Human factors

Labconco’s March 2013 launch of an updated Class II Biosafety cabinet spotlights the company’s lab design philosophy for capital equipment. “Our approach has been to focus on how capital equipment and laboratory design influence ergonomics and therefore the safety and efficiency of laboratory personnel,” says Garrett.

Garrett’s recent LinkedIn poll on lab design indicated that lab workers are cognizant of ergonomics on a personal level, particularly with respect to pipettes, microscopes, and other small equipment. Of 53 respondents, 49 indicated that comfort and ergonomics were essential to lab safety. “Yet they fail to see how their safety enclosures—fume hoods and biosafety cabinets—influence their daily routines,” Garrett tells Lab Manager. One commenter went so far as to write that safety enclosures don’t affect ergonomics at all since they are not used every day.

This belief is intuitive, but facts indicate otherwise. “If you’re working with those personal devices within much larger safety enclosures that are not ergonomically sound, then nothing you do inside the enclosure will be, either,” Garrett says. Every time Labconco redesigns their biological safety cabinet products (they are up to the sixth generation), they bring in outside experts in biology and human factors. These specialists assist in streamlining the design, for example by moving a display so it sits at the line of sight when the worker sits. Thus, reading alarm messages does not require workers to move or twist uncomfortably and thereby become distracted from the work they are doing. This feature is part of a suite of ergonomic improvements packaged as “Inclination Technology” —qualities that support the physical activity that workers are inclined to do.

A contamination-based approach

Dave Phillips, technical application specialist at Thermo Fischer Scientific (Asheville, NC), views lab design and layout from the perspective of contamination. Contamination arises from three sources: equipment, lab air, and people. Contamination and cross-contamination incidents are inevitable in biology and cell culture labs and can even occur in labs conducting more traditional chemical analysis.

Footprint reduction has been a powerful driver of lab design. But strategies that involve shrinking work spaces and equipment to gain space are effective only to a point. A television remote could be made as small as a matchbook, but it would be too small to use.

Similarly, too-small equipment and work areas are more difficult to clean, and therefore might promote contamination. For example, a biosafety cabinet could be too small for comfortable operation or too cramped to allow adequate cleaning of the enclosure or equipment inside. The point: cleaning requires room to operate.

Changing workflows can also come up against the wall of “too small.” A safety cabinet or hood downsized to accommodate one worker or one specific equipment configuration will rarely be amenable to changes like adding a worker or, say, a small incubator.

“Smaller footprints are great, but they should be implemented within the context of the lab and workflows in ways that maximize efficiency while minimizing contamination,” Phillips observes. “Maybe we should think about rightsizing rather than simply reducing footprints.”

The exceptions, according to Phillips, are labs that do one thing over and over, or for which contamination is less of an issue, for example, high-throughput HPLC labs conducting environmental assays or compounding pharmacy labs. Still, designers should leave adequate space for servicing and routine cleaning.

Also related to reducing contamination are designs that keep related operations within a defined area. One example is maintaining the incubator close to the biosafety cabinet and microscope station, with the glove dispenser and knee-operated sink nearby, and everything as far as possible from contaminating air flows.

“In very small rooms, exhaust vents cause disturbing airflows that will pull contamination into or out of a biosafety cabinet,” Phillips says. “So the lab should be designed so that the BSC is away from human traffic and outside airflow patterns. You don’t want to walk by dirtier areas of the lab, such as a coat rack, when processing cells.”

Class II Biosafety Cabinet 1300 Series Thermo Fisher Scientific CO2 Microscope Cage Incubator Okolab Bold Line / Warner Instruments