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Lab Design and Furnishings

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Optimizing Laboratory Design

Build a flexible lab to stand the test of time

Laboratories are specialized spaces which require a significant financial investment. Whether it be for a private corporation or higher education institution, laboratories that can be quickly and easily adapted to a variety of uses will make the most of that investment.

In the past, functional work protocols were separated into individual laboratories that often resulted in duplication of resources, space restrictions and limited opportunity for collaboration. Today, with an eye toward optimization of available space and budget, leaders are embracing an adaptive strategy in laboratory design that focuses on flexible spatial arrangements, uniform utility infrastructure, and robust material selections. 

Specifically, an adaptable environment utilizes modular furniture, casework, and common use equipment; a uniform utility infrastructure and modular distribution system; uniform structural support at walls, ceiling, and floor to readily accommodate relocation of equipment and furnishings; and use of materials that meet the highest level of finish required for cleanliness, safety, and longevity of the work space.

Finding hidden potential—pilot plants

“Pilot plants” are often thought of as a separate entity exclusive of the laboratory to be used for small-run production and testing. With foresight and planning, the pilot plant can be readily adaptable for use as an extension of the general laboratory. 

A company that specializes in small-run production may have pilot plants with rooms sized larger to accommodate specific process equipment. In contrast, pilot plants that are used for specialty experiments may be smaller and more suitable for singular tasks. Planning for an adaptable pilot plant will increase potential for a variety of uses including readily available expansion for the general laboratory function.

Best practice when planning for and programming the pilot plant is standardization. Using the general laboratory design as a starting point, the pilot plant’s minimum size is determined by the established structural bay dimension (the distance between structural column supports) and volumetric allowance (ceiling height). Once intention for the pilot plant is developed (i.e., overall size required for small run production activities is accommodated), the minimum size assumptions may be expanded to the dimension and volume needed to create an adequate return on investment (i.e., the pilot plant(s) are usable for laboratory expansion, small run production, and/or specialty experiments).

The optimal location for the pilot plant(s) is on the ground level. Access to the exterior at grade via an overhead door or other large, industrial door allows for efficient loading of supplies, equipment, and shipments arriving on pallets that need assistance from a tow motor or forklift. 

Ideally, each pilot plant room enclosure is structurally isolated, including the floor with soundproofing located in the walls and roof/ceiling. The objective is to isolate the room, which allows for the option of conducting research that may be vibration and/or sound producing/ sensitive, without disrupting others in the building or on-site. The same strategy can also serve the reverse purpose of protecting the pilot plant from noise and/or vibrations from the general laboratory that could interfere with sensitive research. 

When size, location, and structural parameters for the overall pilot plant(s) is determined, the room fitout will be in keeping with the adaptable strategy used in the general laboratory, but with the caveat of using the most stringent requirements defined for probable activity at the pilot plant(s). Specifically, providing uniform structural support at walls, ceiling, and floor to not only accommodate laboratory FFE, but also necessary process equipment; utilizing a uniform utility infrastructure of type, load, and interval accessibility suitable for both laboratory and production; and providing the highest level of finish.

Safety first

At the pilot plant(s), the mechanical systems/HVAC should be a separate isolated system. Air changes, ventilation, indoor air quality, and environmental discharge to the atmosphere should accommodate the worst case conditional use of the space. Plumbing requirements may include sinks, showers, hose bib connections, floor drains, future access, and/or separators for waste discharge. Gases may be piped or made accessible via portable canister. The electrical service should be sized and area classification determined for potential hazardous risks. Class 1 Division 1 is recommended, as it is a hazardous materials classification that deals with flammable, combustible materials and ignitable gases. Electrical distribution and lighting is protected from ignition under this standard.

Hazardous material storage/use (open or closed systems) should be considered for location, maximum allowable quantities, explosion mitigation, containment, and ventilation requirements. Fire protection may include fire suppression, portable fire extinguishers, and alarms.

For highly sensitive materials, infection control, and cross-contamination risks, finishes that are cleanroom adaptable will repel the buildup of dust and particles, and will be easiest to keep clean. At a minimum, the room should be easy to keep clean, no matter the type of research. However, pilot plant(s) that deal with personal care items or food products require a more restrictive environment and need to be built to cleanroom standards, including separate HVAC and ventilation for the room. 

Insights for cost savings

Planning for adaptability increases efficiency so it inherently provides cost savings as a return on investment. However, outfitting the pilot plant(s) for multiple uses can be expensive. As with the general laboratory, pilot plant(s) space has a high price per square foot to construct. An opportunity to optimize available space and budget is in the way storage and resources are utilized.  

Resources from consumables to lab equipment or even meeting/collaboration areas can be shared. The amount of storage required for consumables is reduced when inventory is not duplicated. Lab equipment can be consolidated when shared so unused equipment is limited. Less space is required overall if meeting and collaboration spaces are continuously occupied.

Off-site storage for furniture, casework and equipment not in regular use is a way to optimize available space by reducing the amount of storage in the general laboratory or pilot plant(s).The proximity of off-site storage required depends on how often the facility space is turned over. If, for example, the pilot plant(s) is reconfigured monthly, closer storage in a neighboring building on the property might be used, whereas a semi-annual change could easily be handled with equipment stored miles from the site. 

In addition to building flexibility into the laboratory itself, taking a flexible approach to planning and design allows teams to employ creative solutions to come up with optimal design schemes that result in agile lab spaces for the present and the future.

Deborah Suzan Huff, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C, is a Master Architect and Senior Associate at SSOE Group, a global project delivery firm for architecture, engineering, and construction management.