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Two important innovations that emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic have sped up and improved lab design and construction: advances in cloud-based software capabilities, and the willingness of lab owners to try out new project delivery methods.
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Using Digital Delivery to Streamline Lab Design and Construction

Improving the efficiency of building information modeling

Matt Edwards,Vince Naviello

Construction 4.0—a combination of innovative technologies, data, and digital tools—is transforming the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry, particularly in the development of life sciences labs. A survey conducted by engineering, architecture, construction, and consulting firm CRB found that 40 percent of the 500 executives in the life sciences industry who took part in the survey identified speed-to-market, not cost, as their number one priority. Applying digital tools to streamline lab design and construction is a key part of shortening the time it takes to get new drug products to market.

Anyone involved in the design and construction of a lab in the last 10 years will likely be familiar with building information modeling (BIM). But what may be news to some lab managers is that BIM is just one small piece of what is now possible with digital delivery. Today, using digital technologies to integrate work processes and connect stakeholders removes barriers and allows the design and management teams involved in the project to save time, communicate clearly with each other, and deliver excellence on capital projects.

“Applying digital tools to streamline lab design and construction is a key part of shortening the time it takes to get new drug products to market.”

“BIM has countless advantages while designing laboratories, ranging from data visualization to systems coordination, but the one that is paramount is its ability to clearly communicate design intent with laboratory management and scientific users,” says Matthew Decker, architect and lab designer with CRB. “Designers are too familiar with design documentation and sometimes forget to translate into a language our scientific partners can easily digest, but BIM helps us collaborate effectively. We need to clearly communicate with our partners to successfully design and construct these complex facilities.”

Digital delivery of design and construction has evolved

Two important innovations that emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic have sped up and improved lab design and construction: advances in cloud-based software capabilities, and the willingness of lab owners to try out new project delivery methods. Traditionally, AEC firms designed an entire lab project before releasing it to fabrication and construction teams. Separately, these trade contractors traced over and (in many cases) heavily modified the model to achieve a fabrication level of detail. An integrated project delivery mindset and virtual design and construction (VDC) processes allow architects, engineers, subcontractors, and vendors across multiple locations to work together using a single model, both simultaneously and in sequence.

Integrating trade partners and co-authoring design and construction models early is important to the faster delivery of better projects. While the AEC firms create the overall vision and own the model, construction trade partners offer invaluable feasibility input and can help fully develop the model to constructability during the design phase. This approach creates a shared sense of ownership and helps preserve the design intent while eliminating duplication of work.  

Utilize new advanced technology tools

“Digital delivery is the future of this business, and the future is here today.”

Thanks to advances in technology, design teams can now work in intelligent 3D design models, allowing them to share work in real time between multiple offices and stakeholders. There are several options available: 

  • Advanced 3D authoring tools aid in the analysis and understanding of layouts, points of use for utilities, and where to route systems. They also allow teams to identify conflicts in models to prevent potential issues during construction. 
  • Reality capture tools are important to consider when renovating or fitting out existing buildings. Photogrammetry, light direction and ranging, laser scanning, and 3D mapping are all tools that can help accurately capture existing site conditions and infrastructure by producing a rendering that is integrated into the 3D model. 
  • Augmented reality and virtual reality help eliminate bottlenecks, improve collaboration, and allow lean delivery. For many project teams having to deal with local lockdowns or travel restrictions during 2020, these technologies went from excellent options to mandatory tools. 
  • 4D BIM adds detailed scheduling to the construction sequence and installation of a proposed lab or plan the phased occupancy in a renovation, retrofit, or addition. 5D BIM adds cost estimation to the model. 4D and 5D BIM allow AECs to generate accurate model-based quantity take-offs and cost estimates throughout the project’s entire lifecycle. Estimators can develop and confirm estimates based on the model, measure performance against targets, and anticipate any changes in timing and costs before they occur.
  • Tablets, drones, construction cameras for live feeds and time-lapse videos, and 360-degree cameras that stitch together photos and tie them to the plans are all examples of field technologies. These tools provide a vital link from the field to the AEC firm and its partners, as well as information on construction quality, safety, and security. 

Hannah Underwood, an intern architect at CRB, says that her clients have responded positively to the use of BIM, since the system allows them a glimpse of what their lab will look like before the building process even gets underway. This greatly reduces costly downtime and do-overs if something doesn’t meet their expectations. “Our clients have embraced the BIM design plans,” she says. “It has become common for my clients to request to walk through the 3D version of their space with their users to ensure that their users are getting everything that they need when it comes to casework and equipment layout and visually see how they can use their space before plans are even sent off for permit review and construction.”

Digital delivery is here to stay

Advanced technologies, a global pandemic, and a growing need to focus on speed-to-market for life-saving treatments have significantly changed the AEC industry. Digital delivery is the future of this business, and the future is here today. Collaborating with experienced partners early in the design process and leveraging VDC has changed the way companies work by making the construction and fabrication considerations an innate part of the design. Designing with construction in mind delivers the best of both worlds: lean projects completed faster.

“The great aspect of designing in BIM is how easy it is to quickly show different design options for a project. Industries and technologies advance at a rapid speed. It is a guarantee that the equipment needs of the client on day one will not be the same in years to come,” says Underwood. “BIM allows us to efficiently show the potential of the client’s space and how they can act when these unknown changes arise, instead of being in a position to have to react to these changes.”