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Two scientists work in a lab at the Elm City Bioscience Center.
The infrastructure at an existing building was renovated to create the new Elm City Bioscience Center in New Haven, CT—a biotech hub for start-up science, laboratory, and research companies—was upgraded to meet the safety, mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems needs of both BSL-1 and BSL-2 biotech tenants.
Credit: Woodruff Brown Photography

Inspired Workspaces, Safe Environments: Lab Designs for All Biosafety Levels

Safe lab design begins with meeting the appropriate BSL rating

by Robert Skolozdra
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Are inspiring and magnetic research facilities incompatible with safe and efficient ones? Hardly. Productive laboratories that advance scientists’ and researchers’ life-changing discoveries can also be safe environments that inspire innovation. It’s about creating labs that meet their designated biosafety level (BSL) in spaces that are as comfortable and inviting as they are effective and benign.  

Savvy lab managers know that safe and effective lab designs begin with meeting the scientific environment’s BSL rating of 1 to 4. With the levels tied to progressively stringent safety systems associated with the health risk of the infectious agents stored and used within the facility, state-of-the-art lab designs go beyond integrating required BSL safety measures to creating dynamic workplaces for groundbreaking research. 

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Meeting biosafety levels

Installing a door and lock may be a simple enough approach to safeguard lower-rated BSL labs against outside contaminants and vice versa, but the more involved measures required for higher-level BSLs often require a heightened design approach. Self-closing double doors, air locks, showering stations, and other critical safety measures necessitate careful attention to a lab’s layout and working environment. Perceptive design solutions prevent sensitive materials’ unintended access and the chance of biological agents harming scientists or those living in the surrounding communities; effective creative designs also provide researchers and lab staff with comfort and peace of mind while working in the spaces.

As an example, the new headquarters for biotechnology company Halda Therapeutics, situated in the former Winchester Arms factory in New Haven, CT, incorporates glass partitions treated with a film that obscures private information and images on screens. This provides a connected sense of openness without compromising access to data.   

Connecting with consultants

Early and continued close communications and coordination among team members, client representatives, and safety and systems consultants results in engaging lab designs that effectively and beautifully meet their required BSL. These inspired spaces often rely on specialized experts to ensure the workplaces’ absolute safety and that of the surrounding community. The expertise of a vivarium specialist or veterinarian, for instance, can provide essential measures to protect animals and people against dangerous infections in ABSL 1 through 4 vivariums where research involving animals is conducted. 

The success of resulting labs is achieved through the design process. Often, a well-conceived and executed design solution is required to mitigate a potentially hazardous situation.

Key consultations for the design of the transgenic butterfly BSL-2 lab at a private university, for instance, resulted in designated safeguards that prevent the different types of butterfly populations under research there from mixing with each other and causing unwanted transgenic breeding. Air lock vestibules with interlocking doors that prevent two doors from being open simultaneously, and air curtains to brush off any potential escaping butterflies, are two such proven solutions.  

Designing productive, welcoming labs begins with collaborative dialogue between design firms and clients, with designers asking open-ended questions. These sessions establish what needs to be protected and isolated to meet the appropriate BSL level, with additional consultants advising as required.  

The success of resulting labs is achieved through the design process. Often, a well-conceived and executed design solution is required to mitigate a potentially hazardous situation. To create the BSL-2 lab at Arvinas, a biotechnology company based out of New Haven, CT, close coordination between the design team, safety consultant, and mechanical engineer brought attention to the need to protect waste streams and lab staff from the lab’s fine powder refuse. The resulting customized lab design approach ensured the safe and effective management of the refuse. This includes systems for how the lab equipment is cleaned, how the containment and periodic pumping of associated waste are conducted, and how the room housing the material is washed, along with systems for the proper disposal of the refuse.

Bolstering infrastructure and systems

While higher costs are associated with the implementation of a building’s robust infrastructure—which often is needed to support heavy equipment and systems used by labs, especially at BSL-3 or higher—an initial financial outlay for the structures and systems may provide savings in the long run. Even at lower BSL levels, advancing the lab’s design to support heftier equipment and systems, such as an extensive plumbing network, can help ease the cost of subsequent lab expansions and the potential of a higher BSL rating. For instance, the infrastructure at the existing building renovated to create the new Elm City Bioscience Center—a biotech hub for start-up science, laboratory, and research companies in New Haven, CT—was upgraded to meet the safety, mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems needs of both BSL-1 and BSL-2 biotech tenants. This provides flexibility for the tenants’ present and future needs.

The mitigation of vibration levels can also be a factor, especially for higher BSL facilities, with the labs’ weighty equipment popularizing the often less costly structural advantages of locating them in a building’s lower levels. Chemical and hazard storage often is reduced at higher floors, as well as the least hazardous materials typically located on upper floors along with separate office spaces. The level on which a lab is located can also lessen accommodations for fire rating requirements.

Incorporating art and biophilia—furniture and finishes

The incorporation of biophilic elements in research and lab workplaces can add warmth, reduce stress, and enhance concentration, especially when access to nature is limited. In BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs where outdoor windows are prohibited, using nature-inspired colors on the walls and floors can help inspire a sense of calm akin to natural views, as can (if possible) lighting that simulates natural daylight.

The reception area of Halda Therapeutics, featuring glass-walled conference rooms and a reception desk
Standing planters situated in the reception area at Halda Therapeutics focus traffic between two large structural beams, brining in color and a welcoming biophilic element into the workplace.
Credit: Robert Benson Photography

Biophilic elements showcased in the workplaces’ public areas are another effective design approach to counter-imposed design constraints. There is a requirement that all BSLs prohibit the inclusion of natural wood elements and plants because non-porous surfaces are susceptible to pathogens. Standing planters situated in the reception area at Halda Therapeutics focus traffic between two large structural beams, bringing in color and a welcoming biophilic element into the workplace.

The integration of artwork and branding also creates an inviting atmosphere through appropriately placed color, signage, and furnishings. At EvolveImmune Therapeutics in Branford, CT, the integration of artful branding ties into the firm’s “Biology First” brand through the smart and appropriate use of color and materials in the office and BSL-2 lab, including hexagon tiles and custom lighting fixtures in the shape of the company’s logo. Additionally, special attention to furniture ergonomics and lighting not only maximize productivity but also worker enjoyment. 

At Halda, the workplace’s lab is equipped with 40 wet benches outfitted with sinks and fume hoods. Where appropriate, the ceilings of lab areas are open and painted in a brand-inspired blue accent color in order to add visual height to the room and reinforce the company’s brand. Other brand-inspired elements accent the 7,500-square-foot headquarters’ workstations, meeting rooms, and huddle areas.

Adding amenity spaces

Amenity spaces provide a welcome relief from lab work and the opportunity to socialize and refuel with food and drink, an especially important design for scientists and researchers working in BSL-2 labs and higher as they prohibit eating and drinking inside the labs. As is possible, a lab’s easy proximity to shared eating areas, lounges, and meeting rooms can create a heightened connection with other team members, with the assurance that lab areas remain comfortable, clean, and productive workplaces that are safe from contaminants. 

Lab suites at Elm City Bioscience Center welcome interactions among colleagues with a variety of inviting amenity spaces that accommodate workspaces outside the secured labs, including offices, meeting rooms, and break rooms, with the option for multiple tenants to share these spaces. 

Inspiring and productive labs of all BSL ratings can be as safe and efficient as they are welcoming through designs based in team collaborations and innovative approaches to required elements and worker comfort.