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Next-Generation Laboratories

New open-plan labs are meeting the need for more customized lab settings, including the ability to modify bench setup and support areas as needs change and increase interaction among researchers–now seen as preconditions for scientific breakthroughs.

by Victor J. Cardona
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Adapting Workspace to Science

Necessity is the mother of invention, and the open-plan laboratory is no exception.

The open-lab concept emerged in the mid- 1990s at schools of medicine where funding levels fluctuated rapidly and hundreds of principal investigators had to share facilities and equipment. The challenges were so enormous that the walls literally came down: Research institutions embraced the flexibility of labs with few walls and movable, modular furnishings. Big benefits followed: Done right, the open labs reduced costs, helped accommodate the churn and even boosted collaboration among PIs and their teams.

Today, open-plan labs are so common that institutions rarely bat an eye when faced with a new project. They know that closed research environments might not serve their needs long-term. The question they’re asking, however, is how to make open-plan labs better.

The secret of success, unsurprisingly, is to look at where science is going today. First, research is far more interdisciplinary than it was a decade ago. For example, as more computer simulations drive success in such key areas as biomedical science, there’s an impetus to bring wet labs and dry labs closer together. For their part, researchers expect more customized lab settings, with the ability to modify their bench setup and support areas as needs change, sometimes on the fly. The increased interaction among researchers and the physical adaptability of their workplace are now seen as preconditions for scientific breakthroughs.

Lab managers and administrators of research facilities must weigh the end users’ preferences, such as more acoustical privacy and physical security, against the constant need to reassign space and staff. The answer, more often, is to build or renovate to create highly adaptable spaces that promote collaboration—at a reasonable cost and in a way that is as energy efficient and environmentally responsible as possible.

Evolution of open-plan labs

It may sound like a tall order, but the openplan research floor has met these challenges adeptly and—in the views of many experienced lab managers and designers—their potential has not yet been fully tapped. Many of us envision a laboratory “dance floor” of the future that allows constant change and adapts intelligently to the needs of science.

Some features of this best-practice lab include:

    • Convertible wet and dry labs
    • Clustered offices for PIs
    • More lab support space per research team
    • “Plug-and-play” equipment zones
    • Adaptable, prefabricated casework systems
    • Fewer under-floor utilities (such as plumbing) and more access overhead (for electrical, data, vacuum and air)
    • Improved energy efficiency
    • Sunnier, more transparent spaces with more places to meet and collaborate

Is this nothing but a PI’s fantasy lab? In fact, it’s the emerging reality, and not just at the biggest and wealthiest Ivy League schools. To see how the dance-floor lab better supports science and research, it helps to look at each component in detail.

Open labs at the Arizona Biomedical Collaborative Building 1 provide flexible casework and benefit from controlled natural light and direct-indirect artificial lighting. Credit: Bill Timmerman, courtesy of SmithGroup

The first challenge is creating open labs that can convert from dry to wet with little investment of money or time. For example, today’s typical PI might have a team in which one of four researchers is doing computer simulations and the rest are using wet bench areas. Locating the computational/bioinformatics work off the lab floor might improve space utilization and reduce costly wet lab area, but the team will talk less—even if they’re very close and separated only by a glass wall—limiting productivity and creativity. In the future, look for novel “flex zones”: partial wet labs that can be modified to meet the space and HVAC needs of the dry lab.

There are already several other ways to organize lab space better. Among the most critical is to build on the inherent openness and transparency of the open lab to improve interdisciplinary researcher interaction, a goal outlined in NIH’s Roadmap for Medical Research. For example, while some architects have proposed decentralizing offices for PIs, today everyone agrees that clustered PI offices better promote interdisciplinary collaboration.

Pfizer Corporation’s Building 20 West was designed with a flexible bench configuration. Credit: William Schumann Photography, courtesy of SmithGroup

Studies such as our SmithGroup Lab 2030 report show that the most vital interaction occurs within the open lab and at the bench, so it helps to co-locate research teams and provide for collaboration space as close to the action as possible. Most institutions prefer an open-plan lab neighborhood for as many as six PI teams, or between 24 and 36 bench positions. Add to the mix tables or other informal meeting zones in the ghost corridor, and locate lunchrooms, lounges, and seating areas nearby as well as in corridors and stairs, where they will get the most use.

Arizona Biomedical Collaborative offers spaces for interaction. Credit: Bill Timmerman, courtesy of SmithGroup

By the numbers

In addition to the wall-free lab, the research dance-floor concept succeeds by providing the right amount of infrastructure and equipment where needs are most anticipated (see Benchmarks for the Open-Lab Bench, page 16). One useful measure is the ratio of labs to lab support space, which in todays lab is historically held at about 1:1. Yet equipment needs are expanding for todays sciences, and the open labs are becoming more generic while the support areas become increasingly specialized. Today, lab support space is typically divided up with about twothirds of the area devoted to dedicated supportfume hoods, lineal equipment, microscopywhile the other third is set off for shared support, split among a neighborhood of open labs. The key to making this work is flexibility.

A ghost corridor at the University of Michigan Life Sciences Institute loads sinks and equipment on a single side. Credit: Justin Maconochie Photography, courtesy of SmithGroup

An example of this shifting balance is the ghost corridor, which has traditionally been loaded on one side with sinks and equipment. Today, a number of leading institutions have built two-sided ghost corridors, expanding their capacity and area as a transition zone. Another way to enhance flexibility is to provide modular lab support areas with a plug-and-play kit of parts for evolving use needs. A half-module, measuring approximately 10 feet by 12 feet, might serve a dedicated function, such as tissue culture work, while others remain flexible for sharing among PIs, such as a 240-square-foot space for analytical instrumentation. Ideally, every other partition is a wet wall, so needed services are available throughout the lab support zone. The key is to strike a balance between customizing those spaces and minimizing initial and ongoing costs to the owner as rooms change from one use to another.

The University of Michigans Life Sciences Institute provides researchers with dedicated lab support spacean intensive lab services zone. Credit: Justin Maconochie Photography, courtesy of SmithGroup

Similarly, the bench is becoming simpler and more adaptable to change. Cup sinks have disappeared, and most of the needed serviceselectrical and data cabling, vacuum and compressed air pipingdrop down from the ceiling. In this way, the benches can be reconfigured without calling in every construction trade to rip up the floor.

At Arizona Biomedical Collaborative Building 1, segregated ghost corridors provide space for floor-mounted equipment. Credit: Bill Timmerman, courtesy of SmithGroup

New kinds of casework have emerged that take advantage of this planning approach. SmithGroup distinguishes between adaptable systems, which are generally floormounted and fixed in place, from movable casework, such as floor-mounted workbench components on casters or wheels. The ultimate system, which we describe as flexible casework, includes both incrementally adjusted and movable components, usually with segregated utility distribution from the bench and base. For flexible systems, utilities are distributed utilizing overhead service carriers (vertical drops or horizontal carriers) or by means of ceiling connection points.

Flexible systems may cost more initially, but they can offer the ergonomic advantages of adaptable casework and the ability to relocate the bench and storage case as with movable furnishings. The best thing about flexible systems, however, is that they make the dance floor even livelier: The furniture system can accommodate fast changes of location, configuration and services throughout the life cycle of the laboratory. As NIH funding ebbs and flows, for example, the labs can adjust accordingly.

Energy, environment and human factors

One well-studied drawback of the open lab is that, if not carefully designed, lab ventilation systems can make a science building an energy hog. NIH guidelines call for six air changes per hour (ACH), but by using demandcontrol ventilation, savvy engineers can cut energy use while enhancing safety and indoor air quality. This integrated sensing-and-actuation technology safely varies ventilation rates in lab zones from 4 ACH to 16 ACH, based on continuous monitoring of particulates, humidity, CO2 levels and the like. (A more novel approach is called multiplexed sensing, which routes air samples simultaneously to central sensors integrated with the building automation system. Web-based data collection and analysis make the information easy for lab managers to find and use.) Being able to cut the air changes based on need means one can co-locate more people in the lab, making it even more energy efficient.

Of course, energy efficiency is only one component of sustainability, a top-level goal for many research institutions and universities. Fortunately, the dance-floor lab helps position these lab owners for more points toward the U.S. Green Building Councils LEED ratings and other third-party certifications.

Whether or not recognition of ones environmental efforts is a top priority, the sustainability advantages of open-plan labs also tend to make people happier. More natural daylighting permeates these spaces, and if 90 percent or more of the occupied zones have daylight, a LEED credit may be earned. SmithGroup studies show that openness and transparency in the open work environment improve lab worker satisfaction, too, adding a sense of camaraderie and giving many a view to the outdoors. We are also using emerging building systems such as under-floor HVAC and chilled beams in some leading-edge projects. Imported from Europe, chilled beams combine radiant cooling with conventional overhead ventilation, ideal for spot applications in equipment alcoves and lineal equipment rooms.

The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Molecular Foundry provides natural daylighting conditions for laboratories in addition to transparency into labs from corridors. Credit: Timothy Hursley, courtesy of SmithGroup

At the IGC/TGEN headquarters in Phoenix, SmithGroup designed open lab modules to allow natural daylighting, which floods in from floor-to-ceiling windows. Credit: Bill Timmerman, courtesy of SmithGroup

Another European trend that may inform U.S. projects over the next several years is the move toward more prefabricated open-lab systems, including integrated service ceilings and factory-assembled furniture. The ceiling and bench frames are prebuilt and fitted with as much of the equipment, electrical and piping runs, finishes and fixtures as can be accomplished prior to shipping. In this way, labs are built mostly in the factory rather than on the job site, reducing waste and project duration while improving quality control. In the open lab, this works especially well and might push contractors and suppliers to adopt this new method. Lab support areas, on the other hand, will likely remain more customized on-site.

Cost, quality and scientific discovery

Regardless of the methods and means, the big question lab owners ask is, “Are open labs cheaper than closed labs?” SmithGroup’s experience over the last decade shows that the answer is a definitive yes. Open labs might look a bit different: They are airy, they buzz with activity, and some of the bench systems and other furniture may look simpler because they’re made to accommodate more kinds of end users.

The whole idea of the dance-floor lab, paired with dedicated lab support spaces and often designed to include flex zones, is to support the institution with flexibility, adaptability and reduced costs over the long run. Call it a hybrid lab or a next-gen research platform: By any other name it’s still a boon for scientific breakthroughs.

UCSF Genentech Hall collaboration spaces allow opportunity for informal interaction. Credit: Timothy Hursley, courtesy of SmithGroup

The biggest advantage of the dance-floor lab is how it supports the cultural and professional trends driving the best research teams. Getting PIs and staffers to be more communicative and responsive is a priority, a goal that’s not improved by walls, whether metaphorical or real. Perhaps that’s why the open lab has opened new doors for science across the country.

Benchmarks for the open-lab bench

Open-plan labs demand attention to space standards to ensure functionality and relevance for real-world needs, such as NIH funding criteria. A few examples:

Bench positions. SmithGroup typically assigns about 12 equivalent linear feet (ELF) of lab bench or floor space per individual bench position in the lab, of which 6 linear feet is usually a dedicated bench, and the rest is allocated as write-up desks, sinks, shared bench and floor equipment space in the open lab.

Desk location. The location of lab desks has been revisited as well. Today’s preference is for locating the post-doctorate desks outside the lab, near PI offices. For the most part, SmithGroup still locates undergraduate and graduate student desks within the open-plan lab area, allocating approximately 4 additional ELF of work surface per bench position.

Lab services.The open-plan lab has become more generic: Cup sinks and natural gas distribution have almost disappeared from these spaces. In our projects we usually provide electrical power, data, compressed air and vacuum—all utilities that can be routed from the ceiling cavity. To reduce cost, we limit pipe runs by placing sinks in the ghost corridors, adjacent to the lab support rooms that require wet plumbing services.

Lab support spaces. With the decreased utilization of high-level radioisotopes and the impending use of digitized images, shared lab support spaces have started to shrink. But increasing equipment utilization has led SmithGroup to plan most state-of-the-art biomedical research labs with as much open-plan lab as the dedicated and shared lab support areas, with a space ratio of 1.0:1.0 of open lab-to-lab support space.

While no two projects are exactly the same, reviewing these standards for application to a new or renovated research facility helps put needs into perspective. It also helps ensure that costs will be in line with needs and that the facility will be flexible enough to last for decades of service.