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Interior shot of a research facility with a conference room adjacent to a laboratory.
Lab equipment is getting smaller, faster, safer, smarter, and more powerful; this creates an opportunity to adjust space allocations per scientist as newer equipment is procured.
Credit: HDR © 2020; Lawrence Anderson

From Collaboration to Miniaturization

Ten research trends shaping lab design in 2022 and beyond

Anisha Kothari

As with much of life today, advancements and shifts in research focus, methods, and technologies are rapidly transforming the spaces where research is conducted. New methodologies, increased automation, fewer and less hazardous chemicals, and the ability to analyze more data all require planners and designers to rethink the research environment.

Below are 10 key drivers and trends that are shaping laboratory design within the life sciences sector, along with considerations for design and planning concepts.

Theme and team-based sciences underscore importance of integrative research environments

Modern science has become more social and productive by including different perspectives to foster collective thinking and holistic approaches to problems. It is important to design integrative research environments that help support knowledge transfer and collaboration amongst individuals and groups.

Design/planning response: Consider how the research environment can go beyond the walls of the “wet” lab and be more integrative to include spaces that allow for communication, active collaboration, focus and analytical work, exploration, and experimentation amongst teams. Consider activity-based zoning to plan spaces and floor plates.

An increase in digital collaborations

Although digitally-based collaborations have been steadily increasing thanks to advancements in technology, COVID-19 certainly helped to propel the idea of digital conferencing, live events, and cloud-based systems and solutions.

Interior shot of an office in a research facility
Credit: HDR © 2020; Lawrence Anderson

The workforce has started to think differently about the overall workplace moving forward. Lab workers from different departments and even external organizations can now access data and carry out research, projects, and assignments together and from different locations as necessary. With this advancement, data volumes are steadily on the rise. Ensuring the integrity of the information through cybersecurity measures, proper integration, management of software tools, understanding specialized infrastructure needs, and allocating ample workspace for IT/data management personnel should all be considered. This means that a larger portion of the construction and/or FFE budget must be allocated for IT and technology than ever before.

Design/planning response: Space assignment for infrastructure and technology support will increase. Understanding the specific technology requirements and infrastructure needs is paramount to a successful design. Team and collaborative spaces should be outfitted with technology for shared data visualization.

Lab digitization: Automation, artificial intelligence, bioinformatics, and machine learning

The advancement of digital transformations with artificial intelligence and machine learning has changed the landscape of research. Tasks can be automated, human errors are reduced, and data outputs allow for researchers to spend their time in more cost-effective ways, drawing conclusions based on various data sets.

Modern science has become more social and productive by including different perspectives to foster collective thinking and holistic approaches to problems.

Automation and new ways of looking at data have made data scientists an integral component of a research group. While data scientists require some dry space, allowing them to be embedded within the research environment with the ability to spend some time at the wet bench can help expedite processes specific to computational models. In addition, the technology-enabled work process allows researchers to spend more time out of the lab and have more flexibility in when and where they will work. 

Design/planning response: Data scientists will require specialized space; however, embedding them with wet researchers will be key. Understanding transformations in workflows due to digitization of equipment will require some insight into the appropriate space ratios. Plan for the evolution of lab workers as their skills require access to both the wet and dry environments.

Tissue culture is on the rise

A surge in therapies for cancer and neurosciences, development of novel vaccines, growing focus on personalized medicine, continual R&D in drug discovery, and overall awareness about cell culture techniques that can be used in various areas of research have resulted in a growth of tissue culture work. Although 2D cultures are preferred methods and typically used, significant growth in other techniques such as 3D cell cultures, organoids, and 4D cell cultures are providing new models between the historical 2D cell culture and animal models.

Design/planning response: Understanding the type of culture (mammalian vs. non-mammalian) and the specific kind (i.e., clean, infectious disease, bacterial, viral vector) is important to accommodate for specialized protocols, equipment, and ventilation requirements to help prevent contamination between samples and allow for specialized protocols that may be required.

Molecular testing is gaining momentum

Molecular testing has seen tremendous growth in the past few years and is forecasted to see continued significant growth. It has become a widely accepted technique used to help with diagnosis of disease, cancer research, gene sequencing, genetic testing, and early detection of illness with rapid results.

Design/planning response: Separation of spaces with a unidirectional workflow is preferred for this type of work. Understanding the user’s needs, equipment, and ventilation requirements to reduce contamination will be required.

Reduced chemical use

As we shift toward more cell-based work, the chemicals used are more benign and less hazardous. Processes and equipment require smaller quantities of less hazardous chemicals and, in some processes, can be eliminated completely. As a result, fume hoods, which are the primary containment device for chemical use, are not used as frequently and, in a biomedical environment, can be shared amongst users. 

Design/planning response: Pull fume hoods out of main labs to reduce overall risk. Create a fume hood support lab or alcove that can be used as a shared resource. Plan the flow of chemicals with ventilation in the laboratory to respond to the idea of minimized risk.

Hotdesking and the blurred lines of the workplace  

While work in the lab environments may go back to “normal,” the idea of hybrid work models does not seem to be going away. As we look at ways to improve overall space utilization and space quality, we are seeing a shift to more hotdesking where one can pick a space based on their specific needs, whether it is proximity and visibility to a lab bench and/or a desire to feel safe, both physically and psychologically, by keeping distance from the next person. As work processes become more digitized and automated, time spent in the lab proper will likely be reduced.

Lab with fume hoods separated from another lab by a glass-walled hallway
Credit: HDR © 2020; Lawrence Anderson

Integrative research environments should be inclusive of the traditional office and workplace. Accommodating a variety of workplace environments that allow for focused work, collaboration, experimentation, and computation with varying amounts of technologies and qualities of spaces will allow staff to choose the appropriate workplace setting based on the task to nurture innovation, collaboration, transformation, and foster a positive culture. 

Design/planning response: The typical 50/50 lab to office ratios will need to be reevaluated. Holistic approaches to create integrated research environments where wet lab and dry workplace can be interwoven with varying amounts of technology and qualities should be considered.

Plan for storage (of all kinds)

Storage needs are often underestimated, and unfortunately these needs are not going away. While paper is becoming electronic, the just-in-time mentality for consumables and chemicals may need to be reconsidered. Researchers continue to have trouble securing basic consumables due to supply chain issues resulting in disruptions to research and lab work. Long-term planning and ordering early may be the best way to cope in the meantime. Beyond that, bulk purchasing supplies has its benefits. Users can see cost savings on bulk orders, handling is more efficient, packaging material is typically less, and overall transport emissions are reduced. 

Design/planning response: It is understood that space is limited; however, storage needs should not be underestimated. Longer-term storage should be considered in the overall solution, even if it is not part of the main building/floor.

Equipment is getting smaller, faster, safer, smarter, and more powerful

Instrument miniaturization has allowed scientists to do more with less. Advanced equipment is “double the performance, half the size.” Not only does this result in a smaller footprint, it’s also faster due to automated work processes. Additionally, it is safer because it typically will use fewer amounts of reagents and accommodates closed systems that ensure a safer work environment. Modern equipment is smarter and more powerful since it eliminates human error and can produce loads of data sets at a time. 

Design/planning response: Consider reevaluating space allocations per scientist as newer equipment is procured.

Flexibility and adaptability

As research priorities continue to rapidly shift, it is essential for labs to be able to adapt and pivot quickly to accommodate changes in workflows or equipment. Thus, flexible laboratories that allow for easy reconfiguration are becoming not just a trend, but a necessity to adapt to a new scientific direction without having to invest heavily. Flexibility features should include the ability to reconfigure within the lab by the same users as well as adaptability features, including HVAC capability, to allow for new users with different requirements. As we shift into digitized and automated equipment, there likely will be less need for wet plumbed utilities (i.e., vacuum, gas, compressed air) with more of an emphasis on additional electric and data capacities.

Design/planning response: Utilizing overhead service carriers or panels to supply electric power, data, and plumbed utilities in conjunction with mobile adaptable casework table systems allows for interchangeable furniture and equipment.

Trends and demands in these integrated research environments will continue to evolve. The planning and design of these environments should aim to address people, processes, technologies, safety, and culture, while also addressing space utilization and optimization. In some ways, lab digitization and automation, along with reduced chemical use, have opened the doors for lab research environments to become more humanized, where designers and planners can blur the lines of various research activities while still promoting safe and efficient scientific work and establishing a positive organizational culture.