Lab Design and Furnishings

Today's New Innovation Spaces: Seven Emerging Trends for Research Facility Design

Adopt a team approach to meet the needs of researchers

Around the world, organizations are building the next generation of research facilities intended to foster communication, collaboration, and creativity. These facilities run the gamut from relatively small-scale makerspaces to larger, highly regulated pharmaceutical manufacturing plants and specialized high-containment laboratories. But even with these differing purposes and footprints, there is one common denominator: building an innovation space that is effective, successful, and productive involves departure, often significantly, from traditional R&D processes. 

New approaches are required to overcome the complex challenges looming at every stage, starting with site assessment, architectural design, and construction, and continuing all the way through to ongoing maintenance and operation. These hurdles stem from the fact that today’s research facilities are increasingly: 

Multi-functional and multi-disciplinary. Scientists are typically trained in a single discipline; however, most research projects now span multiple specialties and skillsets. It is not unusual that a laboratory space might need to accommodate biologists, chemists, engineers, physicists, and/or others—all working together, but with different approaches. Each one of these disciplines can have different needs—and not just for equipment, but also for infrastructure (electrical, ventilation, etc.), information technology (IT), workflow, and compliance. Then, as the research progresses, those needs will inevitably change. Modern research facilities must be designed with the flexibility and adaptability to keep pace with researchers’ ever-evolving advances. 

Regulated. The complexities of compliance can be especially onerous, particularly for clinical research facilities. These structures often need to incorporate biocontainment precautions that could involve airflow systems, containment rooms, sealed container storage, and strict security capabilities. In addition, they may need to be constructed in compliance with Good Laboratory Practice (GLP) regulations, Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) regulations, as well as other mandates from the local, state, and federal jurisdictions. Navigating regulatory boards and obtaining approvals can be time-consuming and expensive. Sometimes the process can take five years, or even double that, which increases the risk that research priorities shift or that key staff moves on to other projects.

Responsive to worker needs. Years ago, laboratories had a reputation (often deserved) for resembling basements or closets. But today, the health and well-being of the workforce is a primary concern, and research facility design prioritizes air quality, natural light, workplaces that enhance productivity, and related aesthetics. The multi-disciplinary aspect of research has also increased demand for open, shared work environments. 

Technology intensive. Technology needs differ, depending on the type and scope of research; however, at a minimum, facility design needs to incorporate solutions for data acquisition, control, management, and security. Internet of Things (IoT) integrations are becoming more commonplace, adding another layer of complexity to technology infrastructures. 

Collaborative. There are many reasons why the best business decision may be to share laboratory space with another organization. For instance, certain research can only be conducted in settings that meet strict biosafety requirements. But rather than build a facility suited for these types of projects, an organization may find that it is more beneficial to enter into a partnership, collaboration, or lease agreement with an organization that already has one. Sharing a space can mitigate compliance headaches, reduce costs, and stimulate innovation, although those advantages need to be weighed against downsides, such as the loss of control, lack of customization, and the need to protect intellectual property.  

Climate conscious. Research spaces are generally energy intensive. They usually contain extensive ventilation systems, lots of heat-generating equipment (and complementary cooling solutions), sophisticated sensor networks, uninterrupted power supplies—as well as backup redundancies for all of these components. Sustainable research facility design typically centers around power and water consumption, but other factors, such as siting, architecture, and material selection, can be key drivers, as well. 

Overcoming the challenges associated with these seven emerging trends can seem overwhelming at first. That’s why it is essential to adopt a team approach. Enlist architects, engineers, builders, and others who have the experience and expertise to guide you through the process. With their help, you will be able to create an innovation space that will meet your research needs today, and for years to come. 

Tolga Durak, PhD, PE, ARM, CSP, is Managing Director of the MIT Environment, Health & Safety Office (EHS), and co-instructor of the MIT Professional Education course, “Enabling Innovation: Designing Research Facilities.”