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Prioritizing Staff Input in the Lab Design Process

Well-defined project team roles are crucial when planning a lab facility

by Fred P. Mason, Jr., RA, LEED AP,
Rob Consalvo, PE, LEED AP

Rob Consalvo, PE, LEED AP, is project principal with HDR.

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Ryan Lowe, LEED GA

Ryan Lowe, LEED GA, is vice president, projects with JLL PDS.

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The number of participants in each of the project team representative groups may vary dependent on project size and/or complexity. NOTE: Photos were taken prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While a lab design project may be described by specific measurable factors such as square footage, cost, or production output capacity, the most impactful factors are often the aesthetic and functional experience. This is often what is most frequently referred to by visitors and remembered by users. But creating successful experiences and environments takes a lot of teamwork, collaboration, and active participation from many different stakeholders, including the laboratory staff. Selecting the right team, collaborating throughout the design process, and developing a shared vision and project narrative can be a driving force in determining a project’s long-term success.

The lab design project team

Project team roles may vary with project or organization size and complexity; however, it is typical that personnel in each of the following categories are represented:

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  • Business and scientific program leadership: Most often defined at the executive level, this role provides input related to emerging market opportunities, visioning for the organization of teams, and leveraging the interactions within the business unit and/or across geographies. The contributions of the business and scientific program leadership may include input at the strategic level on culture, interaction between R&D communities, emerging products, and technologies and future company goals.
  • Corporate real estate leadership: Corporate real estate brings both project execution leadership and integration of current best practices in program, square footage, and interaction with other existing research programs or business center residents. They also bring knowledge of overall capital program budget and schedule management. Clear alignment between the business and scientific program leadership and corporate real estate leadership contributes to team confidence and can assist in setting design budget parameters and goals.
  • Scientific research team leadership: The scientific research team leadership brings broad and long-term experience in the business R&D community and effectively expresses team needs, team knowledge/expertise, and opportunities for synergies. They also bring knowledge of the most definitive levels of needs (space, personnel, level of scientific infrastructure, and equipment) in the research environment. Typically, a senior user representative acts as a key participant, translating specific user needs into design vision and tracking alignment with program and real estate leadership.
  • R&D facility operations and engineering: The R&D facilities operations and engineering stakeholder helps integrate facility engineering and operations practices into the process, assuring that best practices for everything including workplace furniture, lighting, safety, building systems, and laboratory services are aligned with both the project needs and current best practices for effective and resilient long-term operation. Representing the facility needs and requirements, this team is critical to supporting the R&D requirements with responsibilities ranging from lab safety to material management.
  • R&D planning and design: The R&D planning and design partner brings a deep level of experience in the R&D environment, with in-depth understanding from programming and project definition through design and construction administration. Their role is to help translate the team’s thoughts and innovations into viable design solutions that can be refined so that the project team can reach consensus on a path forward.

The number of participants in each of the representative groups above may vary dependent on project size and/or complexity. Groups such as scientific research team leadership and R&D facility operations and engineering may contain sub-groups representing specific interests or technical need. However, group leadership should be maintained and a clear process defined for decision making on sub-group issues.

The shared process

Input from the project team is incorporated in phases throughout the project. The role of staff in each phase may vary slightly based on project needs.

Phase 1: Identify current state and desired future state

This first phase includes interviewing key management stakeholders, senior technologists, and lab owners, determining lab utilization rates and gaining a better understanding of lab culture. This process may include an informal open discussion or a series of surveys. In either case, it serves to develop a larger understanding of the project need. This first phase contains components that may begin prior to R&D planning and design team involvement and extend after they have joined the team.

Phase 2: Develop and apply design principles to form a hypothesis and proposed strategy

Reflective of a traditional concept development phase, this phase includes developing key objectives, design principles, project program development, key adjacencies, and block and stack strategies.

Phase 3: Schematic and design development

During this phase, leadership teams develop and identify additional project team participants. When possible, cross-category teams can be structured to reflect shared priorities, such as work process, technology, process transformation, delivery platform, etc. Team membership should also be inclusive of a variety of skills, experience, leadership, and creativity. To maintain team efficiency and reduce design review and rework time, the participation of compliance personnel (e.g., risk, HS&E, quality assurance, materials management, etc.) should be involved whenever possible. Their active participation can reveal considerations and solutions that can greatly benefit overall design, such as developing and reinforcing clear lab safety processes and strategies.

Phase 4: Complete final design

As final details put overarching design principles to the test, the project team continues to meet to address challenges that arise and that may affect the developed project narrative. During the construction phase, the project team should act as design stewards, assuring the project meets established qualities and goals.

Phase 5: Culture transformation

As the R&D planning and design team involvement and construction come to an end, the energy of moving into the new facility may include excitement and apprehension. This is when the active staff involvement in the design process comes to bear. Organizational representatives involved in the design process might pivot toward meeting to discuss new work processes, re-organizations, implementation, and developed change management processes. Over the course of the construction process, which can be extended for some large projects, the developed vision and narrative can get muddled. Reflection and discussion of the project’s shared vision and narratives can reduce the concerns with change and help amplify the excitement of all participants.

The shared vision

The goal of collective visioning is to create a shared set of objectives for the project. NOTE: Photos were taken prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It takes a collaborative team, where each member can balance the details of their knowledge and past R&D experience and simultaneously push any preconceived notions aside, to imagine a connected, creative, and highly productive research space and experience. Collective visioning can be executed in many ways, from large group exercises to a quick question-and-answer session at the project kickoff. The goal is to create a shared set of objectives for the project. While team members may agree that safety is the universal first goal, other important goals might include capability, collaboration, utilization, productivity, efficiency, and value. To support a creative design process, other more abstract concepts such as playfulness may also be investigated. For most project team participants, the visioning session may represent the singular opportunity to affect a change to their built environment and to explore opportunities to change the underlying work process. It is equally an opportunity for the R&D planning and design team to share new, exciting opportunities and address the challenges of code requirements or constrained work processes. It is during this time that a sense of team trust can be developed.

To make the visioning process as meaningful as possible, it is helpful to mock-up proposed work processes in the existing areas, encouraging the users to experiment and report back to the design team. All supporting processes should also be integrated into the mock-up. For example, if the new lab material flow is dependent on staged storage options or just-in-time delivery, the lack of these functions can quickly lead to issues in the proposed process and undermine the design effort. Recognizing the uniqueness of the design process and inviting the project team to participate can reinforce collaboration, expose specific challenges to be addressed, and incorporate some fun into the process.

The shared narrative

The shared design narrative is an informal yet critical component in the propagation of understanding “why was this done.” Active inclusion of the design professional with user representatives can help promote ideas of innovation within the lab and a shared understanding of how and why decisions were made. It is inherent within the design process to be forward thinking, to not only solve for currently identified issues, but to also include predictive measures. Reflective of this, it is the project team participants that become the stewards of the design intent. For example, if the concept of laboratory flexibility is a shared project goal, the user groups at the time of move-in may find significant workplace, infrastructure, and facility management changes. Successful move-in and adaptation may fall to the project team participants who can share the developed narrative and explain work process changes. It is reminiscent of taking ownership of a new car, and the process of the sales person walking the new owner through the features of the new vehicle, quickly building confidence and excitement in the possibilities. The shared narrative should be inclusive of both an honest understanding of why changes may have been implemented as well as the vision of the implemented solution.

The shared project success

While many may understand the traditional step-by- step process of developing a project, project success is often measured by the long-lasting intangible feelings the occupant maintains after the design and construction process. The shared vision and narratives that staff participate in creating during the process can help occupants understand how to best use and adapt to proposed changes. Sharing in the design process can build a sense of trust and excitement for a project while developing a more complete understanding of the team needs, leading to our shared project successes.