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Flexible and modular shared open lab view.
Flexible and modular shared open lab view.

Planning for Mid-Design Disruptions to Your Lab Project

Modular planning allows flexible labs to accommodate research with minimal disturbances

by Mark Allen, AIA, LEED AP,Deepa Balgi, AIA
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Changes during a design process can be disruptive to any industry, whether it is industrial and product design or space planning and building design. It is a universal axiom that a successful design process can manage disruptions without re-starting from scratch. Mid-design disruptions can include situations such as budget cuts, new leadership, and other changes in laboratory plans.

Modular planning can help clients face these challenges. This article will provide examples of how to overcome these circumstances, and provide tips for how lab managers and design teams can communicate and work together to avoid or recover from such interruptions.

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“Modular planning is also a benefit to existing buildings, and a key component to minimizing the effects of mid-design disruptions.”

Laboratories, where technical requirements and the relatively high cost of construction are always primary considerations, are among the most sensitive building types to disruption. Flexibility in the basic planning of the space is therefore essential and can be achieved by organizing the available space on modules that can accept change both during the design, and after the space is occupied. Setting lab floor plates to a regular module that is complementary to the structural grid of a building is a central philosophy of modular lab planning. For life sciences laboratories, this module is often 11’ x 30’, or 11’ x 33’, as recommended by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the comprehensive NIH Design Requirements Manual. Lab planners utilize several variations, including modules at 10’-8” wide or as narrow as 10’-6” wide. 

Meeting everyone’s needs

An example from work with a confidential genomics research institution highlights the advantages of modular planning. A project with this institution included work with their facility planners to convert a large existing office floor plate into lab space. As specific users were not initially identified, the design team collaborated with “surrogate users,” who advised on the likely makeup of lab requirements. These included a large, shared open lab with mobile benches, and dedicated lab support rooms for tissue culture, microscopy, instruments, and other support programs. At the close of the construction documents phase, two user groups emerged to share the space. For one of the groups, the designed space fit perfectly; for the other group, which uses genomic sequencing and CRISPR gene editing techniques, several changes were requested.

While the original layout met most technical needs, the large size and research culture of the CRISPR group led to several refinements. In particular, requests for lab support areas included a large BSL-2+ tissue culture room, a second cold room dedicated for protein work, and a suite with ante-room for in vivo procedures. The solutions to quickly and efficiently accommodate these requests with minimal disruptions to finalizing the project design leveraged the modular planning approach applied to these lab support areas. The institution’s lab managers, space planners, and design team collaborated in interactive workshops where they could “pick up” and “drop” modules on the floor plan layouts—allowing users to comment on layout reconfigurations in real time. Single module tissue culture rooms were doubled up for the BSL-2+ room, and half module general lab support areas were re-mapped as one-third modules for the in vivo suite. The design for long-term flexibility remained, with the potential for partitioning the BSL-2+ room back into separate rooms in the future.

Communication is key

Modular approach to managing lab support changes.

Modular planning is also a benefit to existing buildings, and a key component to minimizing the effects of mid-design disruptions. Designing laboratories in buildings originally not built for lab use can be challenging, particularly where existing structural grids may not align with efficient lab modules. As one example, work for a regional genetics lab in San Jose, CA needed to accommodate a 25’ x 25’ structural grid originally designed for office programs. Implementing equipment zones as “slip modules” and locating structural columns into fixed wall locations were solutions to maintaining a flexible lab planning module in an unusual building. The importance of this approach revealed itself midway through the design, in a transition to new lab leadership. As part of this transition, new approaches to workflow and equipment were implemented. Fortunately, modular planning and robust programming had established a framework that could accommodate these changes without a major redesign. 

The initial programming phase centered on workshops where detailed room-by-type review of requirements were recorded in room data sheets, and matched with room diagrams set to modular planning standards. When the new genetics lab leadership requested changes, the room data sheets and room diagrams were invaluable in demonstrating the drivers for the initial design. These sheets were a useful tool for examining where refinements could be implemented by room type. As with the CRISPR group example above, the overall layout was fine-tuned by swapping room module locations—gaining the technical and workflow improvements sought by leadership without major disruption.

“Flexible laboratories, which allow for a diverse set of operational needs, not only drive innovation and collaboration but also provide for resilience and growth.”

New leadership also brought another priority: cost-savings to meet a reduced level of funding brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. The focus on room type (such as a tissue culture room), in lieu of every individual instance of a room, in the room data sheet process was also useful here. The team examined where cuts could be made by room type, and then implemented these at every module where these occurred. Examples included reduction of power receptacles for future equipment in lab support areas, particularly where that future equipment was not part of a near-term procurement plan. The number of 42-inch automated sliding doors in lab support rooms were substantially reduced, replacing these with 42-inch manual swing doors. There is a trend toward greater use of sliding doors in lab spaces, and the genetics lab users had been enthusiastic about sliding doors for workflow, ergonomics, and space savings. However, the consensus formed with new leadership was to reserve the use of these doors for locations where there was the highest demonstrated benefit. Based on feedback from other lab clients, a recommendation was shared to maintain the automated sliding doors at tissue culture rooms, where frequency of use, contamination control, and material flow are enhanced by hands-free door operation. The room modules for other uses were modified for swing doors and incorporated into plans as cost savings.

Adapting to changes

Even where leadership and funding levels are constant, buildings of this nature can take several years to plan, design, and construct, during which time the original perceived users may not be the ones moving into the building. In such cases, if the laboratories are not adaptable, it will trigger a redesign and renovation immediately after the building opens.

To address this, modular lab benches can be utilized to accommodate different sizes of research teams in different configurations. Similarly, utility hookups embedded into ceiling service panels in a modular way allows for more flexible usage for different types of research—wet, dry, computational, etc. This allows for an environment that is agile enough to respond to dynamic needs while avoiding expensive and disruptive renovation as users take occupancy. This approach was used in the preliminary design of the Center for Advanced Materials & Clean Energy Technology at University of Washington where the research teams were not yet identified. 

Flexible laboratories, which allow for a diverse set of operational needs, not only drive innovation and collaboration,  but also provide for resilience and growth. Essentially, this allows design teams to future-ready the space by utilizing modular utilities and modular furniture, so the space is easily adaptable to accommodate future research needs.

In planning for future and inevitable interruptions during design or after completion, modular planning will help lab managers avoid major disruptions and allow the flexibility for the space to accommodate new research with fewer disturbances to the surrounding lab space. Paired with room data sheets, changes are less likely to affect the project cost and schedule for maximum lab efficiency and discovery.