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Lab Construction & Renovation: A Manager's Point of View

When it comes to lab design, construction or renovation, there will be problems. Accept that, and be prepared to be flexible and cooperative in finding solutions that do not compromise safety, budget, scheduling and quality.

by Kurt Headrick, PhD
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The quality and quantity of the output from a lab is dependent on the technical training of its staff, as well as the management skills and training of the supervisors and managers. Lab output also depends on the laboratory infrastructure, design and construction. Deficiencies in infrastructure, design, or construction can prevent the laboratory from fulfilling its purpose, regardless of the caliber of the personnel and instrumentation.

There is no formal training available that the author is aware of for the lab manager facing a lab construction or renovation. On-the-job training may suffice for managing existing infrastructure, but it is not sufficient during the construction of a new facility or the major renovation of an existing facility, given the potential serious, costly, and long-lasting consequences if there are problems. Many published articles are aimed more at architects and engineers rather than the non-specialist lab manager; the author is not aware of any relevant articles written from a lab manager’s perspective.

The Lab Design Newsletter1, published by R&D Magazine,2 is readily available and focuses on design and renovation. Lab Manager Magazine3 also publishes relevant articles. Harvey4 presented a case study in flexible lab design for a bioscience startup facility. Tehrani and Laymon,5 Tehrani et al,6 and Tehrani7 discussed aspects of lab relocation. Ketcham and McLeod8 discussed safety during lab construction projects. Komoly9 published a valuable summary of lab design through to commissioning aimed at managers, lab managers, project engineers and architects; however, it is not readily available electronically.

The key resource for the lab manager facing a startup or major renovation is the book “Laboratory Design, Construction, and Renovation—Participants, Process, and Product” published by the U.S. National Research Council Committee on Design, Construction, and Renovation of Laboratory Facilities. 10 This is a key resource because it is designed to comprehensively guide non-experts such as laboratory managers and administrators successfully through the entire process and to maximize results. The following recommendations are taken mostly from references 9 and 10, combined with the author’s experience with laboratory construction and renovation.

The first thing to realize is that you need to educate yourself. Lab management experience does not adequately prepare one to maximize the results of a lab construction or renovation. Even non-lab construction/renovation experience is inadequate because of the myriad technical requirements unique to labs. You may need to educate your managers also. Don’t assume that your organization knows what it is doing. Most organizations, including organizations with multibillion- dollar market capitalizations, do not have the knowledge, experience, and resources to successfully deal with all aspects of lab design and to maximize the results of a construction or renovation,9 although they may think that they do.

The NRC Committee on Lab Design and Renovation10 identified four critical success factors for a successful lab construction or renovation, namely Process, Communications, Champion, and Design Professional. The Process associated with the construction or renovation must be well-defined and well-articulated so that the process will be understood by all participants. The Process must also be comprehensive, encompassing the pre-design through post-construction phases of the project. Another way to think of this success factor is that there must be a plan.

The second critical success factor identified by the NRC is Communications. There must be clear lines of communication, as well as clear lines of authority, for all participants. Again, it is important that this applies for all phases of the project, from pre-design through post-construction. The plan cannot be acted upon unless it is communicated and understood.

The third critical success factor identified by the NRC is the project Champion. The Champion articulates the need for the project, drives the project, and is committed to the success of the project. The Champion must command respect within the organization and have a direct line of communication to the administration of the organization. The Champion should have the confidence of the entire client group, comprising the facility users and administration. Finally, the Champion should be with the project from start to finish. From the above, it may be seen that lab managers are likely Champions for laboratory construction or renovations, although senior administrators may also fulfill this role. Regardless of who champions the project, the lab manager is certain to play a critical role, for example, as head of the users’ group.

The last critical success factor identified by the NRC10 is the Design Professional, also identified by Komoly9 as being critical. Selection of the Design Professional is critical to the success of the project because this individual usually recommends the participation of others, for example, engineers. The Design Professional is often but not necessarily an architect; the Design Professional on the author’s most recent project was a chemist with extensive experience who owned a design consulting business. Regardless, the Design Professional should be able to demonstrate successful completion of at least one project of similar scale and in the relevant scientific area. Note that success in one technical area does not necessarily demonstrate competence in other areas. For example, experience in designing and building acid factories is not relevant to a geochemical assay laboratory, nor would success in designing geochemical assay labs translate into success in designing or renovating synthetic labs. Before committing to a Design Professional, the NRC recommends verifying candidates’ success by interviews with previous clients and site visits to previous projects of similar scale and scientific area.

In addition to the above critical success factors, the NRC also found that successful construction or renovation, defined as the lab meeting its design goals, was strongly correlated with the inclusion of a pre-design phase: “Pre-Design, involving a design professional, maximizes end results.”10 The goal of the pre-design phase is to identify the project scope, budget, and issues likely to affect subsequent phases. The pre-design phase also produces preliminary cost estimates and design alternatives. The success of the pre-design phase was found to enhance the probability of the project being completed on time and on budget.

The reason the pre-design phase is strongly correlated with construction/renovation success is that it defines the project scope at the outset. For example, for an analytical lab, how many samples, of what types, of what sizes, and requiring what sample prep, will the lab be required to process in what period of time? The answers to these questions will determine the techniques and the type and numbers of instruments and equipment the lab will require. This in turn will determine the requirements for sample, reagent, and waste storage and archiving. Human, sociological, safety, and security needs can then be defined. Finally, all of the above will determine the infrastructure, services, materials, and space required to accomplish the goals. At this point, the scope will have been identified, which will allow a cost to be estimated. The estimated cost will then be compared with the project budget. In the event that the estimated cost exceeds the project budget, design alternatives identified in the pre-design phase may then be readily adopted to realign the scope with the budget, thus allowing the project to proceed expeditiously.

As lab managers, we have quality control processes in place to ensure that our labs produce results of the desired quality. Similarly, there needs to be quality control for the design, construction, or renovation of a laboratory. Although the lab manager may not be qualified to conduct a detailed review of engineering blueprints, for example, the lab manager needs to keep a close eye on all aspects of the project. There needs to be strict document and change-order control as well as processes for document review and approval. Although others may take the lead in ensuring that documents are technically accurate, the lab manager should scrutinize the various user needs, scope of work, engineering, tender, purchase order, construction, as-built blueprints, and other documents, as errors in any of these may adversely affect the success of the project. While engineers should catch an error in ventilation layout that a chemist would likely miss, for example, the engineer might not notice an error (frequently an increase!) in scope of work in a tender document or the omission of items from purchase orders. Particular attention needs to be paid to detailed costs and schedule estimates.

There is a long chain from the users’ group and the lab manager through the Design Professional, architects, engineers, procurement, etc., through to the contractors who actually do the work. The number of people and steps involved and the technical complexity of laboratory projects provide many opportunities for errors, increases, omissions, substitutions, etc., to occur. Deliberate increases in scope, or substitution of cheaper materials, for example, are unfortunately not unknown. Regardless of intent, you need to make sure that there is quality control during the construction, to make sure that the quality of materials and work are as specified. The NRC10 recommends two to four inspections per month.

Inspections should include whatever members of the client group are necessary to verify engineering, construction, etc., compliance and quality and should always include the lab manager.

Just as lab procedures are validated to ensure quality and fitness for purpose, laboratory constructions and renovations should also be verified to ensure quality and fitness for purpose. This is accomplished via a detailed commissioning plan for all systems and equipment installed. Major equipment in renovated areas may also need to be recommissioned, especially for sensitive equipment that was relocated. Operations and maintenance documentation and training needs to be provided to ensure that the client group can manage the building and systems, and accurate and complete as-built diagrams are required to ensure long-term success. The validation should include a post-occupancy evaluation approximately a year or so after completion, as some problems may not be immediately apparent.

The decision to build or renovate an existing facility can be complex. Renovating dispenses with the need to locate and purchase a suitable location, and fewer permits are required, for example. Labs increasingly have more demanding and complex requirements for infrastructure, which can make renovation more expensive than building a new facility. Renovating can also severely disrupt ongoing lab operations. Early, proactive, and frequent communication with the client group, contractors, and customers meant that the author’s recent major renovation was completed with no significant customer impact. Don’t be shy; tell your project group and the contractors what your critical needs and systems are. It may be possible for the contractors to temporarily reroute ventilation or utilities to keep critical systems functional, to connect temporary systems, to work on critical systems in off-peak periods, etc. The better the lab requirements are known and understood, the better the contractors can plan to mitigate them. Establish positive relations with the contractors (construction professionals), and educate yourself about the challenges they face. Seek their suggestions. Once you know their challenges, you may be able to suggest a solution or improvement to their plan. Disruptions may not be avoidable. Regardless, a contingency plan should be prepared well in advance, as options such as staffing changes or renting or purchasing additional equipment or facilities may be required to meet critical lab requirements, and these would have to be included in the project scope and budget.

Safety is a particular concern for the lab manager during a renovation. Good housekeeping, while always important, is essential during renovations, to minimize risk to contractors. Walkways and benches must be kept as clear as possible at all times to provide access for contractors and to avoid possible injuries, spills, and equipment damage. Equipment should be put away or covered when not in use. Lab personnel may have to monitor and enforce contractor safe work practices and use of personal protective equipment (PPE) in lab areas. Depending on the work being done, lab personnel may need additional PPE, for example, hearing protection. Lab personnel will have to be conscious of contractors coming and going and watch for ladders, equipment on benches and floors, etc. Other personnel who would normally access the labs, such as customers, also need to be briefed and reminded about the status of the renovations and hazards.

Finally, despite everyone’s best planning, intentions, and efforts, things will not go perfectly. As Helmut von Moltke said, “No … plan survives contact with the enemy.” 11 There will be problems. Accept that, and be prepared to be flexible, creative, and cooperative in finding solutions that do not compromise safety or budget, scheduling, and quality specifications.

4. M. Harvey, “Achieving Flexible Lab Design on a Budget,” Lab Manager Magazine (July/August 2008), pp. 24–28,
5. J. Tehrani and S. Laymon, “Relocation, Relocation, Relocation,” Lab Manager Magazine (January 2009), pp. 26–27,
6. J. Tehrani, K. Ajoku, and R. Dioguardi, “Moving Laboratory Equipment,” Lab Manager Magazine (July/August 2008), pp. 32–34,
7. J. Tehrani, “With Growth Comes Change … and Lab Relocation,” Lab Manager Magazine (April 2007), pp. 15–18,
8. G. Ketchum and V. McLeod, “Surviving a Construction Project — a Structured Approach,” Lab Manager Magazine (April/May 2006), pp. 23–25,
9. T. Komoly, “Issues Related to the Design and Construction of a Laboratory,” Man. Mod. Lab. 1998, Vol. 3 No. 3.
10. National Research Council (NRC), “Laboratory Design, Construction, and Renovation—Participants, Process, and Product,” National Academy Press, (2000). 11. Elder#cite_note-1.