Veterans of the lab planning, design, and construction process understand that there are essentially two different worlds that they can work in—academic and corporate. The technology and mission of an academic lab may be similar, or nearly the same, when compared with a lab set in a corporate environment. However, the path they take to achieve their objectives and their measures of success are often different.
Grants vs. profit. Smart planners and architects always consider a project’s funding source. A lab designed for a university campus is usually backed by a public universities’ support, or private grant. This is important because the amount of the grant is generally fixed, which leaves little room for budget modification or creep. Another consideration is that perpetuation of the grant for future cycles may drive the focus of the research and the speed with which accomplishments must be made. Corporate labs may also include some grant funding, but at least a component—and sometimes the entirety—of the expense is borne by the company. While this can result in a tighter initial project budget, it can also allow for greater flexibility in budget expansion for worthwhile enhancements that are likely to increase the return on investment.
Longevity vs. value. Colleges and universities don’t often move a campus the way that a corporate entity might relocate. For this reason, academic research labs are typically built for the long haul. The lab planned, designed, and built today might be operating in the same building decades into the future. So while the technology is sure to change as advancements are made, the room infrastructure—casework, fixtures, and building systems—are likely to be sturdier and longer lasting than a corporate setting would demand. Academic lab users may prefer, or accept, more fixed casework. Academic lab users tend to overwhelmingly prefer wood casework with corporate labs preferring metal. A corporation may place higher importance on flexibility and value than on extremely high quality and durability. The more established a corporate entity is, the more that life expectancy is considered. Conversely, startups in the corporate world may see upfront costs as the driving force as their research develops.
Transparency vs. confidentiality. For several reasons—government funding, the public nature of most college and university research projects, the need for buy-in from the academic community—laboratories on college campuses are often an open book. The more people who know about and approve of the research, the better. For its work on Popmintchev LABS at the University of California at San Diego, Taylor Design included video monitors in the hallway outside the labs doors so that interested observers could watch the X-ray science and laser research being done inside. Conversely, many corporate lab projects are highly confidential—to the point that lab planners and designers are sometimes prohibited from reusing design features from one project to another.
Abundant vs. limited infrastructure. The process of tying a laboratory’s building systems into the necessary infrastructure—plumbing, electric, HVAC—is often less challenging in a university setting than a corporate one. This is because the university campus usually has a highly developed infrastructure in place to support the other functions of the institution. For example, steam for autoclaves may be available in a campus setting, but is rarely so in the private sector. Corporate facilities are more likely to need new or upgraded infrastructure to accommodate sophisticated research processes.
There is certainly overlap between these two groups, and in some cases—large pharmaceutical companies, for example—a corporate entity’s lab might function more like an academic one, including with high-level infrastructure. Yet, as lab designs have evolved in these two separate worlds, we see more examples of the two cultures informing each other’s design decisions. All participants want to spend wisely, regardless of budget, to the point that a consistent mantra of lab facility design is to secure the best value for the available funds.
To that end, labs in an academic setting may find that lab furniture systems more commonly found in a corporate setting may ultimately be better suited to their purposes and pocketbooks. The efficiencies sought in the private sector can filter down to the academic sector, thereby reducing unnecessary infrastructure expenditures and allowing for more efficient utilization of available space. Finally, while differences will always remain, when corporate and academic facilities resemble each other, the result is often that researchers feel comfortable and effective in either environment. The corporate lab world recognizes that their staff almost certainly began in academia, and that their facilities represent part of their recruitment effort.
In the end, whether academic or corporate, the best facilities feature a winning mix of comfort, efficiency, connection to the outside environment, collaboration spaces and events, and environmental considerations. When a lab facility is designed with these important principles in mind, the differences disintegrate between the academic and corporate lab worlds.
Ken Ederington is a senior project architect and lab planner for Taylor Design, an employee-owned architectural, interior design and design strategy firm with five offices throughout California. He can be reached at email@example.com.