Lab Design and Furnishings

Designing Labs for Productivity

Designing Labs for Productivity

Build and renovate labs that will operate at their maximum potential

Winston Churchill once said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” While his remarks referred to the rebuilding of the House of Commons, the adage is certainly true in the design of research spaces.

The laboratory environment’s impact on innovation and productivity is a theme that connects many of the world’s greatest visionaries, including Thomas Edison, Jonas Salk, William Hewlett, and Dave Packard. All began their research in humble laboratory spaces that shared key elements that encouraged collaboration and facilitated productivity.    

Such context prompts several questions. What makes a laboratory great? How is it that a lab can get a nickname like, "the Invention Factory,” or is consistently among the top grant-funded? Whether the lab is for research, testing, or teaching, operating at optimal potential is the goal of any lab. 

It is important to begin by realizing that while design can help to enable the discovery process, lab productivity is first and foremost the product of brilliant and dedicated minds. Further, any discussion of the influence that design has on the productivity of laboratories must begin with a look back at a handful of labs in which discoveries, breakthroughs, and inventions were commonplace. 

Many comparisons have been made to Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park lab, the Invention Factory. This simple and flexible lab was very interdisciplinary, housing a dozen or so of Edison’s “muckers,” whose expertise ranged from a clock maker to an electrician. But the space was also small enough to allow for oversight and collaboration.

The atmosphere was intimate, but often very intense. There was dissent between the researchers, and particularly with Edison. One of his researchers said he “could wither one with his biting sarcasm or ridicule one into extinction.”

Until its demolition in 1998, MIT’s Building 20 was known as a place of discovery and Nobel Laureates. The ground-breaking advancements achieved in the building included mobile radar, high-speed photography, the physics of microwaves, the first video game, and Bose speakers. 

The achievements are even more remarkable considering Building 20 was supposed to be a temporary facility for research during World War II. Yet the beloved building remained open for more than 60 years. Noam Chomsky, the celebrated linguist, tells us why: “It was extremely interactive … there was a mixture of people who later became [part of] separate departments—biology and computer science—interacting informally all the time. You would walk down the corridor and meet people and have a discussion.”

The Salk Institute.

The collaboration between seemingly unrelated departments was a natural result of the facility’s large, horizontal footprint. There was no rhyme or reason to where any office or lab was housed in the building. Spaces were not clustered by department or function. The quilt-patch of adjacencies of various fields almost forced interaction. 

The adaptability of the spaces came from the building’s temporary status. If more space was needed for a piece of equipment there was not much discussion. If available, the solution was to just bend it, cut it, or knock it down.

The Hewlett-Packard garage is considered the birthplace of Silicon Valley. While it may not be the first business started in a suburban California garage, it certainly was not the last (see Apple, Google, Amazon). Bill Hewlett and his wife needed an affordable place to live, and a garage where Bill and his partner, Dave Packard, could start their company. They found a flat in Palo Alto which came with a garage. 

They were not operating out of the garage very long, but the culture they created in the little, single-car garage eventually inspired them to create a flexible, higher-quality working environment that encouraged autonomy. This ideology made a lasting impression on both Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs while they interned at HP, when they eventually formed their own garage start-up.

The Salk Institute, designed by famed architect Louis Kahn, marks several breakthroughs in the evolution of modern laboratories. Considered by many to be the first use of modularity in lab design, the size and capacity of the bench areas are like Edison’s Menlo Park facility.  

The Vierendeel trusses allowed for two important innovations. First, the interstitial space between floors allowed for utilities to enter from above the ceiling (a forerunner to plug-and-play). Second, the column-free labs meant that benches could be repositioned, and new equipment easily brought in to accommodate a variety of uses. In order to allow for areas of deep concentration, the offices were designed to be private spaces with a view to the ocean.

Six productivity metrics 

Given that no two laboratories are alike, it might initially seem difficult to ascertain common features and underlying drivers.  Interestingly, when studying modern laboratories along with the latest research on workplace design, six metrics for measuring productivity emerge: 

  1. Patents/discovery

  2. Funding and grants

  3. Speed and accuracy

  4. Absenteeism/sick days 

  5. Employee retention/satisfaction

  6. Customer satisfaction


Top design strategies for 21st century lab productivity

Creating a space that not only inspires creativity but also optimizes worker productivity is no small task. Ten design strategies and features were key to moving the needle of the productivity metrics. 

Natural wood materials and the use of shapes found in nature are examples of biophilic design which has shown to improve cognitive functioning.
credit: debbie franke

Connect to nature (biophilia): A definition of biophilic design can be summarized as: real or representational nature in architecture and interior design. The concept is based on research confirming that the human brain responds functionally to sensory patterns and cues found in the natural environment. Some examples of these connections include natural wood materials, green walls, murals of nature scenes, and the use of shapes found in nature.

Some of the positive impacts of biophilic design include better cognitive functioning on tasks requiring concentration and memory; improved worker performance, lower stress, and greater motivation; and enhanced healing and recovery from illness, major surgical procedures, and social problems

Views to the outdoors, particularly long views, also positively impact well-being and attentional focus. When the eyes can refocus to different distances, the dilating muscles are exercised. Fewer cases of eye strain and nearsightedness were found when views were available to occupants.

Add some color. Retailers know that colors affect mood and emotions. Fast-food restaurants usually have sharp, vivid colors, whereas clothing stores and other places where lingering is encouraged typically have cooler colors. Sharp, vivid reds enhance energy while yellows help people feel clear headed and alert. Bright colors, such as reds, blues and greens, enable higher focus and task accuracy. Cool colors, such as blues and greens, promote calm and creative thinking. The right frame of mind for focus allows for greater productivity.

Cool colors, like the blue shown here at the University of Notre Dame’s McCourtney Hall, promote calm and creative thinking.
credit: bsa lifestructures

Maximize the ergonomics. Ever wake up with a stiff neck or wonder why height-adjustable standing desks are so popular? Better check your ergonomics. Good posture, less exertion, and fewer motions to complete a task lead to greater productivity. Being able to work longer before fatigue sets in and being able to position the workstation for easy access to instrumentation and tools saves time and effort. Using adjustable chairs, benches, sit-to-stand desks, and other ergonomically beneficial furniture and fixtures improves posture and ergonomics.

Optimize work lighting. One-third of U.S. employees experience downtime due to headaches and eye strain. In the lab, ambient lighting is often insufficient for work at the bench. Beyond proper brightness, task lighting can also provide other important lab features, such as proper color rendering, temperature, directionality, and diffusion.

Be nimble (adaptability and changeover). Understanding lab operations is essential to designing for future adaptability for seamless changes from differing laboratory spaces to office-based work to laboratory spaces.  It will also account for users with larger equipment needs versus more benchtop space. Anticipating the potential chemical usage of the worst-case user groups will allow us to create control area strategies that will not hinder future changes and use.

Let the sun shine. Like proper indoor lighting, research has shown that daylight has its benefits. It helps regulate circadian rhythms, which improves health and productivity in several ways. Employees with views to natural light experienced a reduction in absenteeism and an increase in productivity, job satisfaction, work involvement, and organizational attachment.

Embrace the need for speed. As laboratories go through changes and expansions over time, adjacencies, layouts, and headcounts typically depart from the ideal. Even new lab owners/operators need to consider space constraints, equipment utilization, collaboration, safety, sequence, and the variability and uncertainty that comes with lab environments. Using Operational Improvement (OI) tools and techniques such as simulations, cluster analyses, and spaghetti mapping, sources of wasted motion and bottlenecks can be pinpointed. Only then can throughput speed and capacity be increased by redesigning workflows and adjacencies.

Yet nothing comes close to maximizing throughput in a testing lab like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). Glen Dakan, co-founder of a stealth-mode animal health biotech startup in Kansas City, is applying hardware and software automation to diagnostic processes traditionally run by humans at the lab bench. “Artificial intelligence and machine learning are at the heart of our business model,” said Dakan. “We are predicting an order-of-magnitude effect on cost and efficiency, compared to traditional diagnostic methods.”

Limit distractions. The two most commonly cited distractions are excessive noise and visual interruptions. When work requires concentration, disruptions can require up to 20 minutes for personnel to reorient. The biggest culprit? Large, open work areas. The evidence is becoming clear that with open-plan design comes a drop in productivity. Even in the most highly touted research facilities researchers “have been spotted wearing chunky headphones” after complaining that “the open-plan design is too noisy and they can’t concentrate.”

The do-not-disturb message that headphones communicate is contrary to what open design is trying to achieve. However, what researchers and other personnel are asking for is a balance between spaces that offer stimulation and enable concentration. Thus, a mixture of open and more private spaces provides the optimal environment for researchers with differing needs and personalities to do their most productive work.

Design for proximity. While large, open labs can cause distractions, research confirms that some proximity, up to 35 feet, has a positive impact on collaboration among researchers. In fact, it helps if the researchers are on the same floor, which illustrates that passive contacts, or chance “collisions,” outside of the lab are where collaborations begin and creativity emerges.

More attention should be placed on designing collision spots along circulation routes and public areas where occupants cross paths. These small nooks and other gathering spots can encourage face-to-face interaction and sharing by featuring comfortable seating, coffee, connection to Wi-Fi, and other amenities. 

Mix the disciplines. There is a relationship between interdisciplinary research and the probability for discovery. When research is a collaboration of different scientific fields, the number of citations increases significantly. Arizona State University made a big bet on interdisciplinary research, changing the direction of research funding and lab design. The New American University initiative strives to “tear down walls between traditional academic departments” to create an interdisciplinary teaching and research university.

The first-ever engineering-based medical school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Everitt Laboratory Building features cross-disciplinary work areas for the departments of mechanical, electrical, and bio engineering with the Carle Illinois Medical School.
credit: BSA LifeStructures

From a design standpoint, ASU took a page out of MIT’s Building 20. According to a researcher at ASU researcher remarked how easier it was to collaborate, stating that other departments “were somewhere else on campus” but now he is near researchers in other disciplines “who are interested in the same science I’m interested in, and we get things done faster and, I think, better.”

The results speak for themselves. The university's federally funded research portfolio grew by 162 percent over an 11-year stretch. During that time, the number of funded interdisciplinary projects rose by 75 percent, whereas projects led by one department climbed by just 8 percent.

Can design influence productivity in the lab? Yes, it certainly can. By creating places where people can and want to spend time and enabling the connections that improve discovery, laboratories will operate at optimal productivity.


David Miller, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP, is the National Discovery Market Leader for BSA LifeStructures in Kansas City, Missouri.