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From Blueprints to Buildings: How Labs Get Documented, Permitted, and Built: Part 1

Part 1—The Design and Documentation Phase

Altair Galgana-Wood

The project is going well—you’ve met with the design team several times, and they have been diligently taking notes, asking great questions, and presenting iterations of the design—when out of the blue, things go quiet and you don’t hear back for days at a time. What’s going on? Where did the design team go?

Whether it’s your first time working with a design team, or a seasoned veteran of the process, this first article of a two-part series will give you a “behind-the-scenes” look at the design and construction process, and how the team works together to make your space a reality.

The design and documentation phase

Labs and life sciences workplaces result from extensive collaboration between partners, following a planning process led by the design team to establish everything from the vision and experience to drawings and construction documents. Source: Gensler
Labs and life sciences workplaces result from extensive collaboration between partners, following a planning process led by the design team to establish everything from the vision and experience to drawings and construction documents.

The list below provides a brief overview of the design and documentation phases of a construction project. Depending on the scope of work, some of these phases may not apply or may be combined to expedite the process. Refer to the contract for a breakdown of the schedule and deliverables for each phase.

Programming is when you meet with the design team to evaluate the project’s needs and fine-tune the requirements of each space. The team should also identify preliminary lab and equipment requirements at this time to help the lab designer make informed recommendations during the subsequent design phases. At the end of Programming, the design team may produce an Owner’s Program Requirements (OPR) document to capture all the information discussed, and serve as a guideline for future project decisions.

Schematic Design (SD) is when the design team takes the Program and begins to assemble the different spaces in a cohesive layout. Depending on the complexity of the project, the design team may present multiple options before selecting a “final” layout to develop. At the end of SD, you may have a meeting with the design team to go through the drawings page-by-page, also known as a “page turn,” to review the most current design of the project.

It is important to schedule page turn meetings at the end of each phase to help catch any misalignments with your team’s expectations and the design team’s understanding of your needs. It is critical to have all key decision makers in attendance to provide timely and accurate feedback to the design team. In general, changes to the project are much easier and cheaper to implement during the design phase rather than the construction phase.

Design Development (DD) is when the design team develops the Schematic Design, capturing the design of each space in greater detail, and coordinating the technical aspects of the project to ensure the feasibility of the design. The majority of your meetings with the design team will happen during DD, as the design team presents multiple iterations of drawings and 3D views to solicit feedback from your team. If the project is relatively simple, this phase may be combined with SD into a single “design phase.”

At the end of DD, there will a more detailed page turn, which marks the end of the “design phase.” Your meetings with the design team will begin to dwindle following this page turn, so review the project carefully and call to attention any remaining items that you are unsure of, or have concerns about. In addition, some projects may use the drawings and 3D views produced during this phase to obtain preliminary pricing estimates, so the more thoroughly the design is captured, the more accurate the pricing will be.

Construction Documentation (CD) is traditionally when the design team takes the content developed through the design phases, and formats the information in such a way that the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) can review and approve the building permit for the project, and General Contractor (GC) can price out and build the work.

However, in more contemporary projects, because of the wide adoption of Building Information Modeling (BIM) systems, such as Autodesk Revit, more and more of the project can be documented during the design process rather than waiting until CD, which can then be more focused on coordination and detailing. The final deliverable from this phase are the Construction Documents, which include the drawing (graphic) and the specification (written) information on the project.

The different types of drawings

Labs are one of the most complex building types that exist, and they require extensive collaboration to design and execute well.  Source: Gensler
Labs are one of the most complex building types that exist, and they require extensive collaboration to design and execute well.

The majority of lab projects are interior renovations in an existing building, with minor exterior changes to support the new program. The most relevant design team drawings for this scope of work are listed below. You will encounter these drawings at each design and documentation phase, with new layers of information added as the project progresses. 

Labs that are built as part of a brand new building, or include more extensive exterior modifications, will require the involvement of additional design team members not listed below, such as a Landscape Architect and Civil Engineer

Architectural/Interior drawings (typically indicated with an “A” or “I” prefix)

Life Safety Plans indicate the locations of fire rated walls and safety devices, such as emergency showers and fire extinguishers, as well as any hazardous material “control areas” and containment units.

Floor Plans indicate the dimensions and wall types of the project, including acoustic and fire resistive properties.

Reflected Ceiling Plans (RCPs) indicate ceiling and light fixture information, as well as any objects that interact with the ceiling plane, such as fume hoods and utility chases. The RCPs may also call out rooms which need to adhere to specific performance requirements, such as cGMP or ISO classification.

Finish Plans indicate the floor and wall finishes of each room, and may also call out rooms which need to adhere to specific performance requirements.

Power/Data/Furniture/Equipment Plans indicate the location of power, Information Technology (IT) , and Audio Visual (AV) connections, as well as furniture and equipment in the project. These items may also be separated out depending on the complexity of the project.

Lab Plans/RCPs combine and supplement information from other drawings at a larger scale, and may include lab details and 3D views for visualization. These drawings help facilitate reviews with the lab users and serve as a guide during equipment installation.

Additional architectural drawing types include: site plans, demolition plans, enlarged plans/RCPs, elevations, and details. The Architect’s Handbook of Professional Practice1 provides a more in-depth explanation of the aforementioned drawing types, as well as providing a list of typical deliverables for each phase of the project.

For brevity, the following disciplines have been shortened to an overview of their design scope. For a more in-depth explanation of the different MEP building systems, refer to Mechanical and Electrical Equipment for Buildings2.

Mechanical drawings, typically indicated with an “M” prefix, document Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) equipment and distribution systems, such as roof top units, ductwork, and exhaust, as well as chilled water, heating water, refrigerant, and condensate piping.

Electrical drawings, typically indicated with an “E” prefix, document electrical circuits, panels, and equipment, as well as lighting and sensor information. They may also capture the design intent of any “special systems” to help facilitate coordination with consultants outside of the design team, such as your internal IT or Security team.

Plumbing drawings, typically indicated with a “P” prefix, document plumbing fixtures, domestic hot and cold water piping, chilled water systems, roof and floor drains, sanitary waste piping, and corresponding vents and cleanouts.

Process Engineering drawings, typically indicated with a “P” or “PR” prefix, focus on “non-domestic” plumbing – this includes standard and specialized lab gases, lab waste piping and neutralization equipment, process chilled water, and reverse osmosis/de-ionized (RO/DI) water. Note that the content of these drawings are sometimes included in the plumbing drawings rather than as separate drawing types.

Structural drawings, typically indicated with an “S” prefix, indicate any modifications to the existing building structure, such as providing additional reinforcement to support new loads, or modifications to the existing paving, such as adding concrete pads for new storage tanks.

Labs are one of the most complex building types that exist, and they require extensive collaboration to design and execute well. As the lab owner, you have a critical role to play in this procces: the faster and more complete the information you provide, the more throughly it can be incorporated into the Construction Documents. Notify the design team should your requirements change at any point so that they can make any necessary adjustments to help minimize the cost and schedule impacts to the project.

Once the Construction Documents are complete, the project is ready to be submitted to the local AHJ for review and permit, and to the GC for final pricing. Part 2 will enable you to learn more about the Permitting, Construction, and Closeout phases of a project.


  1. Mankins, Paul. “Chapter 10.5 Design Phases.” In The Architect’s Handbook of Professional Practice, ed. R.L. Hayes (New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2014), 654.
  2. Grondzik, Walter; Kwok, Alison; Stein, Benjamin; and John Reynolds. Mechanical and Electrical Equipment For Buildings. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2010.

Altair Galgana-Wood is a Design Manager at Gensler in Austin, TX, who thrives on projects with scientists and engineers that build the cutting edge of the future. Altair’s extensive experience with public and private sector clients on labs, mission critical, semiconductor, and industrial facilities makes her well suited to work on projects with complex technical needs and mixed typologies. She skillfully and successfully manages projects of varying scale, scope, and budget, and is committed to mentorship and collaboration to make professional and project aspirations a reality.