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Cutting Costs Without Cutting Corners in Lab Design

Strategies and tips to protect your investment

Adam Denmark, AIA

As the R&D landscape is shifting to a “new normal” in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, institutions and organizations are feeling the after-effects of business interruption and lost research assets. While research has shown itself to be more recession-proof to the current disruption than other sectors, research funding mechanisms continue to evolve and drive the need for efficient and timely cost-cutting measures to glean the most return on investment. To offset short- and long-term cost impacts of the pandemic, there are actions that can be taken during the course of design and construction projects to ensure appropriate scope, operational efficiencies, long-term business continuity, and resiliency.

Clearly define vision and goals up front

It’s impossible to work collectively toward a goal that lacks definition. Successful projects take a proactive approach to identifying project success criteria right at the start. This exercise comes with several benefits. First, it enables all stakeholders to understand the value standards and potentially analyze alternative ways to achieve them. Second, it helps to keep everyone focused on their priorities and avoid distractions. Finally, by understanding the vision and goals up front, it provides team members a framework for decision-making that can help navigate difficult choices.

Find a realistic alignment between scope and budget

Nothing leads to more disappointment than trying to work toward a project scope that doesn’t appropriately align with the project budget. A project that is on budget at completion needs to begin on budget early in the programming phase. Doing so requires an accurate understanding of the scope of the program and systems up front so that a realistic cost per square foot target can be set. It is critical that a project not move into schematic design from programming until that scope and budget are aligned. Once in design, a continuous, critical process of cost evaluation and analysis must be undertaken to protect against scope creep and ensure that costs remain on target.

“Successful projects take a proactive approach to identifying project success criteria right at the start.”

Right-size spaces

Bigger is not always better. Technical laboratory projects come with a high price tag and it’s imperative that you ensure your project is getting the most out of the dollars you’re spending. Labs are typically designed around a laboratory module, but identification of the most appropriate module requires an understanding of the science the project is intended to house and the requirements necessary to make it function. Depending on the scale of the project, there can be several thousand square feet tied up in an inefficient room size that increases costs and reduces efficiencies without providing any actual benefit to the end user. This can be equally challenging in renovation projects where it can be more difficult to adjust the module within the structural framework of the existing facility.

Don’t over-design

The design team should fully understand the scope of the research program at the beginning of the lab project, so that they can set  a realistic cost per square foot target.
SmithGroup

It can be tempting to design for any and every possible need that may ever arise over the course of the life of a project. Not only can this diversion lead to budget challenges throughout construction, but importantly, this will almost certainly lead to massive costs over the life of a facility as these systems must be energized, maintained, and replaced over time. A more beneficial strategy is to clearly understand the systems and infrastructure necessary to accommodate the project vision and then provide opportunities for expansion of these systems as necessary down the road without installing them on day one. Strategies might include leaving open space for future equipment, providing clear pathways for growth of distributed systems, or simply planning in a manner that enables future expansion. It is worth considering initial investments to achieve longer-term operational cost savings. Life cycle costs are where the real dollars are spent, and strategic early investments can enable longer-term savings.

Seek out opportunities to accelerate the construction schedule

Time is money. We all understand this, but the schedule is often an overlooked opportunity for decreasing costs by reducing the time required for project completion. While this sounds easy, it’s rarely as simple as accomplishing more within a shorter duration. This strategy requires tight coordination between the owner, design, and construction teams to identify schedule acceleration opportunities that do not adversely impact project goals. This may be as simple as finding an alternate product manufacturer whose production timelines better align with those of the project. Alternatively, it may mean exploring opportunities for items that can be more efficiently pre-manufactured off-site and then delivered to the facility to be incorporated. Opportunities like these often require design decision-making at different points from a standard process, so it’s best to identify these opportunities as early as possible. In addition, alternate construction delivery methods such as design/build and design/assist can offer cost savings in addition to schedule acceleration.

“Technical laboratory projects come with a high price tag and it’s imperative that you ensure your project is getting the most out of the dollars you’re spending.”

Design a resilient lab to protect your investment

In addition to short-term project costs, the dollar figure placed on long-term research investment cannot be underestimated. We must look to guard institutional investment and protect research assets by designing resiliency into our labs. Dynamic events have underscored the fragile nature of the built environment. These can be triggered by either natural or human events (or a combination of the two) and can impact food, water, the environment, and a host of other systems. The following cost-saving resiliency strategies can be implemented during the design phase:

Push the boundaries: Facilities managers will need to think more broadly about adaptability, both in terms of core utilization as well as potential uses during disruptive events. 

Be proactive: Decisions regarding appropriate protection measures against potential disruptive events need to be based on data trend lines, not historic averages. 

Automate observation: Artificial intelligence systems could be employed to analyze real-time data against established parameters to implement a pre-determined response more rapidly. For example, relying on air quality sensors to shift an administrative space from natural ventilation to mechanical ventilation during a wildfire event. 

While the COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly changed “business as usual” for the near future, tackling the challenges of this new era will require a holistic understanding of the cost impacts of decision making. A willingness to think beyond traditional approaches to seek new cost-saving synergies and opportunities can ensure economic business success and research continuity into the foreseeable future.

Adam Denmark, AIA, is Principal, Science & Technology Practice Strategist |  Director of Lab Planning with SmithGroup.