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Vibrant Lab Spaces for Cross-Pollination

A functional lab maximizes potential for collaboration

Stephanie McDaniel, AIA,LEED AP

What makes a lab "exceptional" today?  

While a lab’s functionality has always been at the heart of an exceptional lab for the researchers who use it, today’s definition of functional differs from the way it was previously defined. In fact, in the eyes of today’s industry leaders, the test of a successful modern lab is how effectively the space meets the known requirements of today and the yet-to-be-identified needs of tomorrow.   

What was once a siloed environment where scientists quietly did their research is becoming a vibrant, cooperative community for intellectual cross pollination. Not to deny who many of these scientists are as individuals, this evolution of what defines a superior lab today is a balance of collaborative, research-intensive spaces inside the lab and quiet spaces to work outside of it. 

In both corporate and higher education lab facilities, where research is the competitive differentiator, labs have evolved as a strategic tool to do more than facilitate the research. Today, they are both high-performance spaces and talent-attraction tools, helping an institution attract and retain talent that is essential to product development and a return on these intensive investments. 

Whether grant funded or capitalized through operations and profits, the challenge is the same, be it in higher education or corporate environments: to create a high-performance space that gives organizations the needed advantage to compete in a fast-evolving research landscape.  

Here are 10 qualities and elements that can make your next project vibrant and exceptional.

Design for purpose

Visual and physical connections create collaborations that both corporate and academic organizations find strategically beneficial to the integration of research, itself, and research to other departments.
CREDIT: Brandon Stengel

Although it sounds obvious, identifying the work that takes place in the lab and accommodating that work can sometimes be overlooked by other requirements and the budgets driving the project. The definition of what makes a superior and exceptional lab can become dependent on who is providing the definition. Often, what an organization deems a need and strategic is not always in line with what the individual researcher identifies as necessary and appropriate to the personal work style. By identifying the work upfront, the other elements that help define superior and exceptional fall into place.

Outside of the lab, as many organizations move toward an open office environment to promote collaboration, there is still a need to provide quiet spaces for intense focus and support those who are more introverted. This can take the shape of focus rooms in the open areas outside of labs—private yet visible areas to support the collaborative objective that in-lab offices fail to meet. 

Design for ergonomics

Ergonomics can take a concerted effort to maintain through the design process and appropriately execute to enable optimum efficiency and research comfort. Adjustable benches, anti-fatigue mats, and chairs can enhance a space’s functionality, improve day-to-day work, and help researchers endure long periods of intense-focused research. At the same time, furnishings and amenities need to be durable enough to handle the daily use and movement that comes with an active lab environment. 

Design for flexibility

Many tools enable researchers to do their best work—in that same vein, the space itself is a tool to enable research. Looking beyond specific tasks can help a team avoid designing rigid environments that would lock in task-oriented operations and lock out modifications to meet the changing needs of researchers. Designing for flexibility creates a space that can evolve as the research activities and the tools to execute those activities evolve. As important, flexibility in the lab fosters creativity, giving freedom to explore new questions with the right tools.

Design for safety

Laboratories by their very nature pose a safety concern. In addition to providing proper safety stations in the event of an emergency, design must address several issues: 

  • Chemical: Understanding the range of chemicals used to create safe storage of chemicals, and proper selection and placement of fume hoods 
  • Biological: Understanding the nature of any organisms being studied, the protocols required for lab staff, and the required biosafety level. 
  • Particulates: Understanding the nature of any particulates being used and the potential for explosion

Agile infrastructure

Typically energy-intensive spaces, modern laboratories are pushing the boundaries to achieve energy savings (and LEED certification as in the Fortune 500 Lab building above) with strategies like low flow and variable air volume fume hoods, decoupled mechanical systems, high plume exhaust fan turn down, and air flow reductions when unoccupied.
credit: Brandon Stengel

A savvy design team takes a holistic view of the building to support today’s lab, including structural, mechanical, and electrical elements. An agile infrastructure system aligns today’s identified project needs and accommodates future change or expansion. Each lab can ultimately be customized for research when needed, saving the expense of providing those services to each lab at the onset. 

A major consideration of infrastructure cost is the number of chemical fume hoods, each hood adding at least $25,000 to the bottom line plus the energy to operate. Establishing a projected fume hood count with lab users early in the design process helps to accurately estimate the facility cost. Infrastructure can support future fume hoods, but first costs stay low by only providing those needed upon building completion.   


Energy recovery and low flow fume hoods are well established techniques to save significant amounts of energy in lab facilities, but more and more designers and facility owners are targeting dramatic energy savings by decoupling the ventilation air required to keep the lab safe from the need to heat and cool a space (thermal). This thermal load, once managed through air, is now being handled through systems like chilled beams and fan coil units, requiring significantly less outside air. Further reductions in air volumes may also be achieved through careful analysis of hazards in the laboratory and management of those hazards through procedures.  

Easily adaptable  

In addition to the day-to-day flexibility and functionality of individual spaces, the adaptability of the building over its life cycle is crucial. As new equipment, technology, and work styles enter the profession, adaptable spaces can undergo minor renovation to facilitate change. Future functionality allows spaces to go beyond the efficiency of multi-functional spaces in the present.


While "collaboration" is a word that, today, seems to be overplayed, historically lab facilities have been planned with specific research groups in mind, creating inefficient silos. However, a 2012 study by Paul Basken noted that scientists are 33 percent more likely to collaborate when assigned to the same building and 57 percent more likely when assigned to the same floor. Today, organizations seek design solutions encouraging researchers in different departments to not only integrate their ideas but also their space and equipment to the degree that their science allows.  

Infrastructure within the lab often defines its performance, but the infrastructure outside of the lab is what can help make the overall facility perform now and into the future. Electrical and plumbing services and damper/air valves in a service corridor can be extended to labs on either side of the corridor, saving first costs by not running the services into all of the labs and making those specific spaces more agile for future use.
CREDIT: Brandon Stengel

This goes beyond space planning and adjacencies to also include design strategies that create connections. If researchers can see one another, they are more likely to collaborate: glass walls within the laboratory can facilitate this strategy. Transparency can also have the added benefit of allowing researchers passive surveillance from computational space adjacent to (but separate from) their wet bench laboratory spaces.

Face-to-face communication is key for successfully accomplishing complex team tasks as well as transferring complex, context-specific information. This face-to-face interaction can be fostered by providing marker boards in the laboratory, dedicated space adjacent to the laboratory, and co-located office space. Circulation routes can also facilitate impromptu meetings and increase the frequency of these chance encounters. Distributed collaboration spaces outside of the lab capture this traffic and these encounters. 


Proximity and adjacency in today’s design language often is presented as a collaboration strategy, but the terms also present a cost-saving strategy when talking about instrumentation and work needs. By analyzing and programming for workflow, specialized instruments and other support spaces can become shared resources for complementing work and research functions, reducing redundancies in space and expensive instrumentation. Additionally, as these instruments are complicated to operate, a shared core facility can be operated by the best technician, yielding better results.

Dynamic meeting spaces 

While informal discussions can spawn some of the greatest "ah-ha" moments, most work environments still lean on planned meetings and discussions for advancing work and sharing ideas. These spaces are safest when designed OUTSIDE of the laboratory. More than conference rooms with a table and chairs, today’s spaces are intentionally designed to encourage engaging conversations and go beyond static presentations. Formal meeting space is most beneficial for focused discussions that occur when a group meets with a commonly defined objective. This is especially true for meetings that involve people from different departments or organizations when such meetings would be intrusive in the more technical spaces. 

As video conferencing technology becomes increasingly user friendly and as research becomes more cooperative across distances, virtual meetings take on a greater role in the office. A designated space for virtual meetings with large screens, good lighting, reduced glare, and seating for one person or a small group enhance these virtual meetings. 

Although the definitions of high-performance and optimal can change from lab to lab, the overarching theme of today’s modern lab environment is how much effort and resources will be required to stay modern over longer periods of time. Gone are the silos that used to separate research teams from the larger organization, but elevated are the elements that need to serve and empower the researchers to stretch the limits of their research.

Creating a flexible and adaptable environment protects the large financial investment organizations make in the space by accommodating both technological advances and evolving work styles. It moves the lab from being a rigid place for task-oriented activities to a dynamic environment catering to individuals and groups by meeting the needs of both through infrastructure and support spaces. It becomes that definitive vibrant laboratory for scientific exploration and cross-pollination. 

Stephanie McDaniel, AIA, LEED AP, is principal and director with BWBR.