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How to Become a Lab Planner

How to Become a Lab Planner

Different educational, career paths can lead to the same goal

MaryBeth DiDonna

There are many different fields within the design/build industry, such as architecture, construction, engineering, and more. A subspecialty within this industry is laboratory planning. But what exactly makes one qualified to be a “lab planner?” There are no specific requirements or exams necessary for one to call oneself a lab planner—much of it, it turns out, is learned on the job. 

“There is no license or certification required to be a lab planner,” Glen Berry, AIA, NCARB, senior lab architect with HERA laboratory planners, tells Lab Manager. “Because lab planning is an integral part of the building design process, many lab planners are licensed architects. Some lab planners who are also licensed architects prefer to reference their profession as a ‘laboratory architect,’ instead of a ‘laboratory planner,’ in order to make the distinction between being licensed as an architect versus not being licensed. Generally, anyone who thinks that they are qualified to be a lab planner can say so.”

“The role of a lab planner is a very specialized one in the building design industry,” says Doug Dorney, a senior lab planner in HOK’s Washington, DC studio. “However, I’ve found that the training and experience of a sound lab planner should be as holistic and diverse as possible, from both architectural and engineering disciplines. Lab planning interfaces with nearly every engineering discipline—sometimes all of them—on one project.”

Educational backgrounds vary

Many colleges and universities across the globe offer architecture degree programs for both undergraduate and postgraduate students, which is a beneficial choice for those who decide from a young age that they would like to eventually become a lab planner. Regal Leftwich, AIA, AICAE, LEED BD+C, an architect and laboratory planner with CannonDesign, says he “unofficially” got his career started during high school. His school’s Technical Student Association offered training in technical drawing, computer-aided design, electronics, engineering, and architecture. After gaining some initial experience in the high school programs, Leftwich went on to earn a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s degree in architecture. 

“It was only after I had completed my master's degree and worked at architecture firms for several years that I discovered a firm that specialized in laboratory planning. It was a happy accident that I stumbled across the east coast's oldest laboratory planning firm and was trained by the best in strategic science and technology planning,” he says. “The stars aligned and I was able to put to practice my skills in design with my passion for science.”

That being said, an architecture degree, while useful,  is not a requirement to eventually become a lab planner. “Any form of education in architectural design would be helpful. Having a science background is helpful too, but not as critical in my opinion,” says Berry. “At the end of the day, what matters in the success of a lab is the design, not the science. The science happens after the building is built. The design will either enhance or detract from the science.”

Ellen Ignacio, an architect and senior lab planner with HOK in Atlanta, Georgia, is an example of someone who didn’t start her educational journey wanting to be an architect. “I excelled at science and math in school, and was pre-med for a minute in college, but followed my love for drawing into architecture,” she says. “I spent four years as an intern in general architectural practices, but even the experiences there informed my current skill set—laying out repetitive residential apartment complexes was a strong foundation for understanding lab modules. Working on campus planning exercises, where I found swing space for different destinations within existing facilities, prepared me for long-term visioning/planning for flexible lab spaces and interdisciplinary consortia.” Ignacio began her lab design career with the renovation of a 1938 classroom building into teaching and research space for the school’s earth sciences department, and from there she has designed labs focused on environmental testing, forensics, bio/agriculture/food research, imaging research, and vivariums, among others. 

“Lab design is like travel—each design experience is unique, exposing me to different work methodologies, social structures, and thought cultures within the vast world of science,” says Ignacio. “I’m driven not just by the people or the science in its vacuum, but how the people do the science, how they apply it to our current and future condition. This challenges me as a designer to support them with flexible/multiple pathways to discovery.”

On-the-job experience is key

Many lab planners, especially those who didn’t necessarily start out intending to be lab planners, have found their career paths rather unexpectedly—sometimes even after diving into lab architecture on a whim. “I would advise those who are interested in the field to test the waters,” says Leftwich. “Most people are attracted to this career because they have been involved in the lab design process at some point. If you are a designer or engineer, try working on a few laboratory projects to gain experience. Or perhaps you are a lab technician or manager who has been involved in a few planning projects and want to pursue planning full-time.”

Others have gotten into lab planning after viewing it as a sort of higher calling. “My reward is not just in the usual ticking of architectural boxes—delight of the forms, or meaningful organization of programs, or the symphony of building systems that work together—but more when I see the user's/client’s excitement when released into a new environment that fosters creativity and innovation,” says Ignacio.

Altair Galgana-Wood, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, is an architect with Studio8 in Austin, Texas. She earned a Bachelor of Architecture degree from the University of Houston and secured an internship, where she found a passion for lab architecture because it requires “both a depth of experience and a mindset of constant innovation, and having an eye for detail while keeping in mind the bigger picture.” She, like Ignacio, views lab planning as a benefit for all. “I enjoy lab design because it allows me to take part in the cutting edge of the future,” says Galgana-Wood. “I also like to think of it as my contribution to humanity. I'm not a scientist, so it's unlikely that I will invent ‘the next great thing.’ However, I am an architect, and I can do my part in designing these buildings to help usher in a better, brighter future.”

Advice to future lab planners

There are a number of resources available to those who think they may want to become lab planners someday, or those who are just starting out in the industry. The most useful tip, say many lab planners, is to reach out to others in the field to make connections and ask for help. 

“There has never been a better time to become a lab planner. When I started my career, there were only a handful of firms that had lab planners. Now, almost every large design firm has an in-house lab planning expert,” says Leftwich. “With social media, it is much easier to take a tour of the work out there and connect to firm culture and values. Almost any conference venue for lab design will include design firms, so take note and connect with those actively engaging in the conversation.” He continues, “It’s a very small field and most lab planners know one another. I would say, don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for recommendations.”

Another thing to keep in mind is that it will take time and experience to learn the trade, which is normal. “The advice I would give to someone starting out is that it's OK not to understand everything right away, and that lab design is a career many years in the making,” says Galgana-Wood. “As an architect, our training is in design and not science, so a lot of the terminology, operational processes, and design strategies for lab buildings will be unfamiliar, and will require some time to learn even just the basics. In addition, every lab project is unique due to its goals and constraints, and the processes that it must accommodate. But with continued experience, patterns will slowly begin to emerge which allow us to interpret, predict, and respond to the continually evolving needs in lab design.”