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Lab Design and Furnishings

A New Life Science Ecosystem

Laboratory design can support the people, process, and community of companies developing life-saving medicines, therapies, and technologies

Isabel Mandujano
Demand for life science facilities is expected to remain strong for years, regardless of politics or the economy, commercial real estate analysts say. 
LPA

New technologies, scientific breakthroughs, and global demand are transforming the life science industry. Every element of research and production is evolving at an unprecedented pace, fueling demand for new facilities to support the life-saving mission of these highly specialized companies.

Demand for life science facilities is expected to remain strong for years, regardless of politics or the economy, commercial real estate analysts say. Research funding is growing at a historic rate, driving demand for new drugs and new facilities. National Institutes of Health research funding jumped 37.4 percent from 2015 to 2020 and accelerated during the COVID pandemic. Venture capital funding hit record highs in 2021, according to accounting firm PwC. Life science companies paid an average of $585 a square foot for space in 2021, up more than 50 percent from a year earlier, Newmark reported.

Next-generation life science facilities will take a more holistic approach, moving beyond the closed-off stereotype of traditional lab spaces. Top companies are demanding high-performance buildings that do more to connect with the community and sustain the people involved in sensitive, high-pressure tasks. To optimize these facilities, designers and lab managers must work together to analyze how the building can best support the work, exploring everything from biophilia and co-working space to more responsive HVAC and mechanical systems. By working in partnership, lab managers and designers can ensure life science buildings reflect the mission and purpose of the company while creating an optimal environment for innovation. Here are some of the primary considerations when designing a next-generation life science facility.

People, process, and community

As the industry expands, companies are looking for better, more efficient ways to support a development process that is increasingly mixing research, automation, data analytics and manufacturing. Lab design solutions should be organized around people, process, and community, exploring the site context and the building’s role in making teams more efficient, healthier, and happier. The “people” aspect includes spaces that support focused work, collaboration, and mentorship and environments that spark inspiration and provide respite from the often-grueling work. It’s important for scientists to have space outside of the lab where they can recover, relax, and reduce stress. Restorative environments allow the mind to process and come to ‘a-ha moments’ that are critical for creativity and discovery.

Effective design needs to provide lab-specific amenities such as cloud-based automation, visualization, in vivo research, and management of supplies and hazardous materials. In addition, robust building infrastructure and plug-and-play flexibility is essential to the creation of resilient facilities.

More than ever, life science companies are looking for facilities that also help them connect with the community and collaborate with academic institutions. They are eager to put their work on display and give people a glimpse into their work. Life science executives want their facilities to provide a hub for community collaboration, innovation, and scientific discussion, including space for STEM education, workforce development and incubator labs, to foster the next generation of scientists. Immersive scientific visualization labs will also be part of the digital toolkit for many companies.

The new lab

The fundamental nature of labs is changing. The growth of automation, miniaturization, and computational research is reducing the dependency on intense chemical and wet lab use.
LPA

The fundamental nature of labs is changing. The growth of automation, miniaturization, and computational research is reducing the dependency on intense chemical and wet lab use. Biologics and data analytics are growing in importance. Local zoning codes and regulations are keeping pace, making it easier to place research facilities in urban settings.

Life science companies are increasingly considering nontraditional space, such as the adaptive reuse of office buildings and high rises in urban areas as life science facilities. In addition to being a more environmentally friendly solution, it shortens the construction timeline significantly and allows the end user to move in and start using the space much more quickly. Urban lab spaces can be closer to academic, tech, and medical research institutions and help develop vibrant urban centers fostering innovation. 

The conversion of space that was not originally designed for lab space comes with complex technical challenges to upgrade the required infrastructure and adapt less than ideal physical space, which is a driving force for architects, lab managers, and engineers to work collaboratively to come up with creative solutions to accommodate.

Sustainability

Laboratories use 10 times more energy than other building types, so it’s incredibly important for lab managers and designers to develop creative solutions that create more sustainable and efficient laboratory spaces. High-performance design can achieve meaningful reductions in a lab’s use of water, energy, and materials, while improving indoor air quality and creating a healthier environment. Reimagining existing properties to accommodate laboratory functions, rather than building from the ground up, is the first step in responsibly using resources. Recycling existing properties will always use less energy than building something new.

There are also many alternative strategies lab managers can use on the operations side. For example, fume hoods use a sizable amount of energy, and in the US the standard is 100 feet per minute face velocity. Energy efficient fume hoods, on the other hand, can run as low as 60 feet per minute. Lab managers should work with the engineering team and local code officials to understand the type of chemicals being used in the space to evaluate if lower flow fume hoods can be a viable solution. Demand-controlled ventilation can help monitor contaminants and set ventilation rates in accordance to real time conditions, while natural ventilation in offices, conferences rooms, and collaboration space promotes less energy use throughout the facility.

Using point-of-use rather than central systems for utilities such as laboratory vacuum and pure water affords more flexibility and allow users to provide these services where they are really needed, rather than hard piping through the whole building, which lowers efficiency and increases maintenance. Evaluating the necessary temperature of ultra-low freezers for the types of samples being stored, rather than setting them to the standard negative 80 degrees Fahrenheit, can also help preserve energy. Green chemistry programs, which guide lab users in using chemicals that are less harmful to people and the environment, and recycling programs for laboratory supplies are other important considerations.

Other sustainable strategies lab managers should discuss with designers include re-using condensation from cooling towers for landscape irrigation, using integrated thermal storage to help balance energy supply and demand, decentralized systems with standalone cooling towers for optimized free cooling and reduced plug loads.

The lab as a workplace

While technology is rapidly evolving, companies are putting an increasing emphasis on supporting the people doing the critical research. Designers should work closely with lab managers to explore the different ways a facility can support a “day in the life” of the life science teams, including the effect of new technologies on workflow as well as on the health and wellness of the people doing the work. 

An effective scientific workplace inspires collaboration and innovation, which fosters a sense of community and helps retains top talent. Designers and lab managers should consider incorporating the health and wellness benefits of the outdoors, using elements such as open-air terraces and indoor biophilia connect people to nature. Easy access to stairs can promote healthy activity and casual collisions between different teams. Plug-and-play modular systems and flexible spaces ensure that spaces stay relevant as technologies and priorities change. Respite areas and access to daylight help create supportive environments that bring out the teams’ best work. 

In the end, the lab is a workplace and people that work in it are the most valuable resource. Lab managers and designers can work in partnership to create a healthy, supportive environment that supports the people, process, and community of companies developing life-saving medicines, therapies, and technologies. 

Isabel Mandujano, RA, LEED AP BD+C, is Director of Laboratory Planning at LPA, an integrated national design firm with six studios in California and Texas. She leads the firm’s laboratory planning practice, helping to create innovative research and development facilities for corporate, pharmaceutical, and biotechnology clients. Isabel works with laboratory managers and scientists to create high-performance laboratories that are inspiring, sustainable, functional, and safe.