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Starting Out: Designing for the Unknown

Safety is the prime consideration when designing for laboratory workflows

Angelo DePalma, PhD

Angelo DePalma is a freelance writer living in Newton, New Jersey. You can reach him at

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Securing project funds is the first step in the process, and an initial “visioning” workshop with the core team is a good way to establish a budget, notes Mark Paskanik, senior associate at Perkins+Will (Cary, NC). “The visioning workshop helps to align the team members and build consensus on goals.” Once this scope is defined, project managers may leverage business strategies already in place to begin selling the idea to the board or steering team that is usually responsible for establishing or approving the initial budget. “Many times, when there is not enough focus on this first step, the project will not have enough momentum or buy-in to go forward.”

Safety is the prime consideration when designing for laboratory workflows. “Consideration should be given to placement of emergency devices and how materials enter and leave the space,” Paskanik comments. “A good way to work through workflow design is to first understand the existing labs by observation. We like to sit in the lab for a day or so and observe the activity.” 

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Designing for human factors is essential for keeping workers happy and retaining skilled talent. “Replacing midlevel-knowledge workers equates to one to two times their salary, and increases exponentially as their level increases,” Paskanik says. “Amenities and programs that increase employee satisfaction are increasingly common and embedded in an effort to both attract and retain.” Examples include labs and offices with access to views, conference rooms with easy-to-use technology, break rooms with comfortable seating and coffee (or a coffee shop), design and finishes that enhance the sense of brand in the environment, efficient layouts that increase production and improve workflow, and informal areas for gatherings and parties. 

No preconceptions 

John Kapusnick, principal at Studio of Metropolitan Design Architects (Philadelphia, PA), never enters an initial meeting with preconceived notions of what the design should look like. “I prefer to sit down with end users or managers and talk about their science,” he says. “If you begin by asking about their preferences for physical layout, they’ll go back to what they’ve always had. Instead, I ask about a typical workday or experiment, and how they would set it up.” 

Lab workers have a very poor concept of space requirements for equipment and architectural features like doors and walls, not to mention clearances and working footprints for instrumentation and equipment. “They think that walls and doors have no dimensions,” observes Kapusnick. The operating footprints of instrumentation and equipment can often be two or three times the size of the physical footprint due to air circulation or heat dissipation requirements or to the positioning of companion devices such as computers, temperature controllers, heating baths, or backup power systems. 

After taking detailed notes on workflows, Kapusnick investigates the lab operations on his own to uncover inefficiencies. He also notes any complaints regarding lab ergonomics: benches that are too high or crowded, not enough space for computer-related work, workflows scattered around the lab instead of being concentrated. 

Workflow-based questioning could lead to simple but effective implementations, such as adding space for a glassware drying rack, adjusting placement of utilities, and adding benches or desks that accommodate sitting instead of standing employees.

Kapusnick recommends adjustable casework to accommodate both disabled access and changing workflows. For a lab design at the University of Pennsylvania, he specified Corner Alpha adjustable casework (Kewaunee Scientific, Statesville, NC) for a center island with adjustability of about ten inches. Including prep, emptying drawers, and restocking, lab workers can adjust such casework in about one hour, without calling in mechanical trades. 


Flexibility is at the top of the list of lab design trends. Flexibility accommodates the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of modern research, particularly at universities. “You don’t build a lab anymore that’s not flexible in terms of furniture, mechanical capabilities, systems, and cleaning modules,” observes Robert Skolozdra, a partner and LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) design specialist at architectural firm Svigals + Partners (New Haven, CT). Flexibility is related to sustainability (discussed in depth later). “If you can build your facilities to be more sustainable, you’ll use less energy, and you can do more with less, which is the goal of flexibility,” Skolozdra explains. 

Designing for the unknown is a main driver in modern laboratory design, says Paskanik. Since labs may ultimately function differently from how designers envisioned, flexibility should be built into casework design and layouts, estimates of electrical and heat loads, assumptions for air exchanges, etc. In some cases, labs may evolve across or into scientific disciplines. “A standard tissue culture lab eventually evolves into a BSL-2-level facility, or a cold room may be used for cell culture,” he adds. 

When implemented correctly, flexible design allows for these unknowns while keeping costs down. For example, piping for a sink can be installed to anticipate conversion of the hypothetical tissue culture lab to a BSL-2 facility, but the sink base can be omitted until it is required. Similarly, the walk-in chamber can be designed to accommodate both warm and cold functions. 

Is there a danger in overdesigning the lab—in spending time and money on functionality that will never be utilized? Paskanik says yes, but the rewards outweigh the risks. Using his sink example, he explains that “if you put the plumbing lines in the wall now, you can simply add the sink base later without a major renovation. Otherwise, tying in the new lines would be very costly and could also put the lab out of commission for an extended period of time while the plumbing work is being done.” 

Designing for lab culture 

“How we proceed in lab design depends on the culture of the client—on the people, how they work, and what they are working on,” says James Childress, a partner in Centerbrook Architects (Essex, CT). “The constant discussion is how to foster creative leaps to new discoveries.”

Each lab has its own idiosyncratic way to nurture creativity, and designers need to listen diligently to uncover it, Childress says. “We don’t want to force something that works in one place on another place because, like snowflakes, no two labs are identical.” 

At Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (Long Island, NY), a leading molecular biology research center, the culture has long been to catalyze creative discovery through informal isolation. Researchers here have their own dedicated enclaves where they can close the door and shut out the outside world. 

The institution’s Upper Campus laboratory, for example, is a collection of six buildings arranged around a central courtyard, each accommodating groups of ten to fifteen scientists. Collaboration with colleagues, who are spread out across the sprawling campus, occurs in various communal spaces or in random encounters about campus. 

By contrast, the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine (Farmington, CT), slated to open in 2014, operates under a different ethos. Jackson, which will concentrate on translational medicine, will rely on close daily collaboration among numerous disciplines. “This approach demands a larger mix of people close at hand,” Childress observes. “They, too, require a place to shut the door and think, but they also need to open the door to take advantage of the messy vitality of a large group of experts.” 

At Jackson, 30 to 40 scientists will share a single floor. Offices border on the side of a long rectangle, with space for computational work in the middle of the floor and the wet labs along the opposite side. While researchers can enjoy privacy, they must pass through the main lab space to get around. “Jackson’s design aims at engendering collaboration among a larger, more diverse group of researchers,” explains Childress. 

A word on retrofits 

Leveraging existing space is usually the main driver in deciding to retrofit or build new. A retrofit always involves a shorter timeline and lower costs, and timing can be a big factor in deciding whether to renovate or find new space. But as Paskanik notes, in some cases a building may be well past its prime for lab use and not worth the retrofit investment. “Some lab retrofits are better served by converting the old lab space into usable office space instead of trying to salvage or retrofit an old lab,” he says. 

Figure 1Paulina Bugyis, senior laboratory planner at BSA Lifestructures (Chicago, IL), observes that as with new construction, owners are usually in a hurry to see a plan or drawings: “I often hear, ‘We have 2,700 square feet. What can we do with this space to improve our operations? Just give me three options.’” 

According to Bugyis, the goal of design firms is not to sell prepackaged design services, but rather to use a comprehensive approach by which labs go about solving design and space issues. “Many labs are bursting at the seams and have no idea of what is possible with the space they have,” she explains. “We work with current data and extrapolate it to design for the future.” 

Her three-step plan, outlined in Figure 1, involves due diligence, analysis, and proposal. The first stage involves documenting the current state of the lab, area allocations, where groups are actually working, their adjacencies to equipment and other workers, and group goals. The analysis stage involves categorizing those factors by function and group, identifying areas of rapid or slow growth, and offering solutions for responding to the goals of the due diligence step. 

Clients are nevertheless wary of drawn-out plans, because the fee clock is running. “But at the end,” Bugyis says, “the road map approach is more cost-effective for them.”