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Scientists are from Mars, Designers are from Venus

Scientists and designers need to appreciate the differences each brings to the design process.

by H. Michael Smith,David I. Meyer, PhD
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With a wink and a nod to John Gray's enormously popular book of 1992, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus , it can be argued that differences in communication styles and project perspectives between scientists (laboratory users) and designers (architects and laboratory planners) can be the cause of challenging, frustrating and often failed experiences in the laboratory design and construction process.

The good news is that it doesnt have to be that way. The simple truth is that scientists and designers have been known to think differently.

Scientists by nature tend to be analytical thinkers, while designers tend to be intuitive thinkers. Although there are exceptions to this rule, scientists believe that structure predicts function.

This type of thinking leads them to conclude that if they provide their designers with the essential facts, they can be assured of a successful outcome. They know better than anyone what they need in their laboratory environments, usually based on the experience of working in other laboratories and knowledge of what they need to conduct their experiments.

However, scientists typically do not understand the designers world in terms of what is necessary to achieve a successful laboratory design. Issues such as building codes and regulatory requirements; the cost, time and information- gathering process associated with design and engineering services; agency review; approval and permitting; and the construction procurement and delivery process are all foreign to their daily lives. It can be like being from a different planet, as Gray might put it.

Designers, on the other hand, believe that function predicts structure. They know what services to provide based on their architectural training and their prior experience with similar projects. While, admittedly, designers typically do not understand the science involved, they do have an acute sense of the environmental and technical needs of scientists.

Appreciate the differences
Based on the Mars/Venus analogy, to effect a positive outcome in the laboratory design process, both scientists and designers need to recognize and appreciate the differences that each brings to the design process; and in order to be successful, they need to effectively communicate their knowledge and informational needs to the other. They must strive to understand what is essential to the other and work together in the spirit of cooperation to achieve a common goal.

Scientists must make known their programmatic needs and design criteria. This can include space type, function, adjacency and specific environmental requirements, such as air changes, temperature, humidity, cleanliness, power, lighting and vibration control. These all can have ramifications for project scope, budget, schedule and aesthetics.

Designers must take this information and use it to communicate to the scientist what is possible in terms of building codes, regulatory requirements and existing conditions, whether new construction or renovation, within the organizations budget and schedule. Throughout this communication process, each must approach the other with an understanding that both hold essential knowledge that the other must accept and trust.

Understanding the value
Often, perceiving the value of the design services can be a big stumbling block for scientists. It can be difficult for scientists to understand the value of a designers services and the cost associated with the design and construction process. They can have a difficult time understanding why it costs so much and takes so long to accomplish the goal of designing and building a laboratory facility. Questions like these are common: How can this laboratory remodel cost $500 per square foot? and Does it really take eight months to design a new lab?

With this in mind, it is important for the designer to share with the scientist the relative costs associated with the highly complex building systems required by laboratories, such as the heating, cooling, exhaust and plumbing systems, and the power requirements of sophisticated laboratory equipment.

In order to address this type of thinking and to reinforce a relationship of trust with the scientist, the designer must be sensitive to the scientists perspective and strive to communicate the drivers that impact the design of a laboratory and the costs involved with the complicated building systems they require.

Often it is prior experience that will lead a designer to an early realization that a clients budget does not align with its programmatic needs and desires. In this instance, it is important for the designer to inform the scientist of this disparity, to provide creative solutions to the challenge, and to help the client make decisions that will bring the cost and budget into alignment. Value engineering, a process whereby the costs of various building systems are estimated and evaluated independently on a cost/benefit basis, can be one solution. Also, the designer can help the scientist change old ways of thinking about the laboratory environment in order to create more efficiency and costeffectiveness through shared, flexible and collaborative work spaces.

Know who the client is
Often when designing laboratory facilities, a designer will interface with an institutions CEO, CFO and COO, in addition to the facilitys end users, such as the chief scientific officer, principal investigators, post-docs and laboratory technicians. They all will have their individual perspectives on the project and their own wish list. Unfortunately, not everyone will have the authority to make the final calls. It is extremely important to determine who has the authority to make decisions that will affect the outcome of a project and will effectively communicate those decisions to shareholders.

Collaborate successfully
Ultimately, it is the designers responsibility to lead the scientist through this process to an acceptance of what is possible based on the limiting parametersall in an atmosphere of understanding and trust.

By effectively communicating each others needs and understanding the essential knowledge and information that each brings to the process, scientists and designers can successfully collaborate to make the outcome of the laboratory design and construction process a satisfying and rewarding experience for both the laboratory users and the design professionals who serve them.

The two authors have worked together as scientist and designer, client and consultant, on a number of laboratory design projects, most recently an animal barrier facility at the House Ear Institute in Los Angeles, where Dr. Meyer held the position of executive vice president of research.