Lab Design and Furnishings

Navigating Dynamic Lab Design Decisions

Plan for future flexibility and ensure safety in lab environments

Malena Aquino
Providing adequate space and support for operations and maintenance will reduce overall operating costs in addition to increasing safety and reliability. Pictured: SUNY (State University of New York) Upstate Medical University at Syracuse

With scientists around the world racing to find solutions for the emerging public health challenges related to the COVID-19 outbreak, the ability to reconfigure laboratory space to accommodate new research protocols has become a critical success factor. Lab spaces in universities, pharmaceutical companies, and government agencies require flexibility for different reasons. Grant funded research in academia can change every year, necessitating flexible laboratory design. In addition, using their facilities to supplement research supporting emergency public health needs requires flexibility. For instance, there are currently discussions to explore opportunities to use PCR labs from universities to augment facilities available for COVID-19 testing. Pharmaceutical firms need the ability to flexibly reconfigure lab facilities to expedite development of promising drugs in their pipeline. And as the recent headlines illustrate, government agencies like the CDC, NIH, and FDA must be able to quickly reassign their lab resources to meet emerging public health demands. While flexibility is important, lab safety is equally essential in all laboratories. The best time to plan for future flexibility and to ensure safety in lab environments is during the programming and early design phases of lab facilities.

Drivers and challenges

Below are insights into the challenges, solutions and key considerations to help lab users navigate design decisions to enhance flexibility, improve productivity and ensure safety in lab design.

Determining needs vs wants. It is important for all stakeholders to have a clear understanding of how procedures will be conducted in the lab, including materials, workflow and the processes that will be used in order to design a lab that supports flexibility, safety and productivity. Stakeholders should include lab users, management, safety, security, operations, maintenance, constructors and all design disciplines.  

Lab users are often working in facilities with outdated designs and come to the planning process with preconceived “wish lists” that may not be the best solutions for the procedures they are performing. Project design leaders should begin by asking what lab workers are doing and why, rather than asking what they want. This helps users understand and evaluate their needs versus the “nice to haves” and facilitates creative solutions that efficiently reflect real needs. Early definition of functional requirements before the design process begins helps establish realistic scope, schedule and budget documentation as the foundation of an efficient design process. Confirming risk assessments early in the programming and planning process will ensure that safety is effectively integrated into the design. Operations and maintenance support should also be integrated into the planning and design process from the beginning. A thorough programming activity to identify functional requirements should be conducted with all stakeholders before the architectural design process begins.

Bigger is not necessarily better. Wider modules waste valuable space without adding usable working areas or equipment. Pictured: Barbados National Medical Reference Lab

Understand the geometry of lab designLaboratory designers and users both recognize the value of implementing a modular approach to lab environments.  A standard 11 ft. x 11 ft. module dimension supports a lab configuration enabling a three-foot bench with equipment on each side with five feet of open space between benches. This design configuration provides adequate workspace for people to work without conflict and meets ADA turning radius requirements as well.  

Bigger is not necessarily better. Wider modules waste valuable space without adding usable working areas or equipment. Extra space may also encourage storage of material or equipment store in areas that could impact function and safety. Smaller modules do not provide adequate space between benches and limit the use of both sides of aisles for productive equipment and work surfaces. This modular approach has proven so successful that the NIH Design Requirements Manual (DRM) requires a waiver if a researcher wants to deviate from the module size.

Dive deeper for details. Project leaders and stakeholders should listen carefully and ask follow up questions when developing a functional program and equipment list for a new lab. For example, when a researcher says they need a hood, it is important to identify critical details on what type of hood is required to support the work they will be doing: chemical, perchloric, laminar flow, or biosafety cabinet? It is also important to coordinate safety risk assessments with equipment selections and lab design requirements. Biosafety levels, BSC types, room configuration, finishes, and air movement systems must be appropriate to safely support the agents and protocols for work to be performed in the facility. When storage is identified, determine whether the material to be stored is toxic, flammable or if it requires special temperature and humidity requirements. This level of detail will ensure that everything included in the design serves a purpose in supporting lab users’ safety and productivity. As a result, workers will have the equipment and materials they need to carry out their tasks.

Benchmark your throughput requirements. Before embarking on the programming or design of a new lab space, the throughput requirements and equipment required for lab workflow should be benchmarked. Having this data will help ensure the right number and type of equipment is specified. For example, track the number of people that need to use a microscope regularly in a biology lab should be confirmed. It might be helpful to consider a second microscope if providing only one microscope would require researchers to wait for availability. However, overestimating and purchasing ten would be wasteful. The same approach applies to fume hoods. A small number of fume hoods could suffice in a general chemistry teaching lab, but the number should be increased if future needs call for organic chemistry teaching labs.

Minimum requirements, equipment measurements and clearances are criticalIt is important to identify and assign space for servicing and maintaining equipment to insure there is enough room for personnel access and servicing. Documenting the specifications of all equipment (i.e., weight, dimensions, electrical connections, temperature and humidity requirements, etc.) will help the design team understand exactly what infrastructure and utilities will be required in the new space. This is a critical planning step that reduces the risk of costly changes after occupancy. For example, make sure that the new table can hold heavy benchtop equipment and that the freezer has the correct voltage. It is also helpful to evaluate opportunities to provide additional capacity and flexibility for future changes in requirements.

Consider ceiling-fed utilities. Consider locating utilities above the ceiling in your lab design or in the perimeter of the lab. It is a cost-effective approach that supports future flexibility, allowing the relocation of benches, desks, and equipment with minimal renovation. Doors and walls should be designed to support future flexibility to allow the space to be expanded easily should a larger lab be required. Subdividing large open labs into smaller labs to support new research may also be a future requirement. This is especially important in academic research environments where grant funded research is a key driver of lab size. The configuration and capacity of electrical, mechanical, plumbing and data systems should also be planned to support future flexibility.

Selecting the appropriate finish materials for casework, walls, floors, ceilings and doors depends on the type of work to be conducted. Pictured: Bryn Athyn College Doering Science Center

Importance of finishes and material selection. Lab environments can be harsh. Selecting the appropriate finish materials for casework, walls, floors, ceilings, and doors depends on the type of work to be conducted. Will corrosive chemicals, high temperatures or LN2 spills be a potential challenge? Will sterile environments, heavy equipment traffic or special cleaning procedures in animal areas be required? Will lab surfaces require decontamination—if so, what kind of disinfectant will be used? The answers will impact finish and material selection.

Vinyl Composition Tile (VCT) is often specified for most labs due to its low cost and array of colors. However, in BSL3 and BSL4 environments as well as surgical and clean room environments, a monolithic floor is required. A critical construction element for monolithic floors is the quality of the substrate material, especially in epoxy floors. Special attention to concrete preparation is required to ensure it does not bubble up and fail. Also consider the location of office and administrative/write up space to laboratories. While it may be appealing to keep all finishes the same, cost may dictate aligning the material selection with the room needs.

Safety extends beyond the lab bench. Lab environments require a range of personnel to operate: scientists, support staff, students, administrative personnel, maintenance workers and animal caretakers. When designing lab environments, it is important to follow the guidelines for each specific program area. For example, a lab equipment could be hazardous if not properly handled. Vivarium workers require proper PPE and decontamination facilities just as researchers do. Following safety and operational protocols is paramount. Personnel using or maintaining the labs need to be fully trained to operate the equipment and have full knowledge of the materials they are handling.

More expensive is not always the best solution. As stated earlier, it is important to understand the type of work being conducted in a lab environment, not just from an equipment perspective, but from a safety perspective as well. Determine the biosafety level of the research being conducted and design safety protocols accordingly. Higher biosafety levels have large cost impacts and may also impose protocols that make work processes less efficient. Biosafety levels should be appropriate to support risk assessments but should not be higher than required.

Carefully factor routine maintenanceMany project budgets are developed using “first costs” rather than “life cycle” costs because they do not take into consideration the cost of routine maintenance. Often a design or engineering solution will be discarded because it is more expensive to purchase. Consider an example: A recent project in a coastal area replaced stainless steel rooftop mechanical components with galvanized steel for cost savings, not realizing that the laboratory’s location relative to the salt water environment caused the galvanized steel to rust quickly and entire units had to be replaced at considerable cost.

Modular lab design configurations with service corridors, while more expensive to construct, make it easier to replace and maintain gases and MEP systems because facility maintenance personnel do not need to enter the lab space. Providing adequate space and support for operations and maintenance will reduce overall operating costs in addition to increasing safety and reliability. Providing space to access and maintain lab support equipment outside of containment can reduce the training and PPE requirements of maintenance workers and limit disruption to working lab areas. Providing full headroom and service elevator access to maintenance spaces can increase the productivity of maintenance workers.

 Navigating decision making

For many scientists, the chance to design a new laboratory is a once in a lifetime experience. Before the design process begins, consider having the project team present a “how to” seminar on what to expect during the design process that addresses key issues such as safety requirements, minimal clearances, storage needs, throughput benchmarking, ergonomics and ADA accessibility requirements. Workshops should not only include the scientists but also facility, maintenance and security personnel.

This integrated project team approach of including all decision makers and stakeholders throughout the planning and design process will ensure the right information is communicated to navigate the dynamic lab design decisions required for flexible, safe, and productive labs. 

 Malena Aquino, AIA, is principal and senior lab planner with Page. She can be reached at Steve Milby, architect, contributed to editing this feature.