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Top 5 No Cost Lab Design Strategies

Cost-conscious owners want facilities to meet their visions and business objectives while also including flexibility, efficiency, safety, and robust utility/engineering systems.

by Mark Paskanik
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Laboratory owners are constantly challenged to create new research environments with limited budgets and fewer resources. In addition, consideration has to be given to the “triple bottom line”—people, planet, and profit— within these strict budgetary constraints. Cost-conscious owners want facilities to meet their visions and business objectives while also including flexibility, efficiency, safety, and robust utility/engineering systems. Early on in the process, strategies can be used that have no financial impact on a project. These strategies come from the lab planner’s previous design experience and include options specific to the current project. Along with these strategies, incorporating initial and ongoing dashboards facilitate making informed decisions from the planning phase all the way through occupancy.

The following “top 5 list” is a guide to identifying practical strategies and making a project successful from inception to operations and the facility life cycle by incorporating more science into less space, reducing utility usage, and using innovative concepts.

#5—Leverage space

Once a new project has been identified, owners may question where it should be located. A master plan of the building is a good starting place for understanding the layout of all current space. Owning space gives an owner full control of the project, but it also has its downsides. Occupants may temporarily have to be relocated to complete a renovation. Moreover, research schedules may make it difficult to relocate occupants all at once and phasing requirements can be complicated and costly. Another option to consider is leasing space.

It may be less costly to renovate an old lab building and use it for office space. The cost to upgrade existing infrastructure and work with low floor-to-floor heights for a lab project may be better suited for a less infrastructure- intensive office space where the program and function fit more easily into the current space. If the space is available, leasing can reduce the overall design and construction schedule, but keep in mind that design flexibility might not be available with the leased space.

Another option to consider in this scenario is whether the occupants can be located remotely from the main facility. When working at different sites remotely, you may need to duplicate certain services or facilities. For instance, a glass wash area may have the capacity to serve the entire program, but if part of that program is remotely located, a second glass wash facility will need to be added.

#4—Standards versus requirements

It is important to understand the difference between the definition of “company standards” and “building code requirements.” Standards are generally accepted guidelines and requirements are law. However, over time, standards can be seen as actual requirements. A problem can occur when a standard becomes interpreted as a requirement and extra money is needlessly spent.

A common example is in regard to ventilation rates. Ventilation rates and system design must comply with mandatory provisions of related codes and standards. These rates are driven by lab safety, which is paramount when using hazardous materials. When using hazardous materials, there are two primary safety issues: health hazards (e.g., contaminant inhalation) and physical hazards (e.g., fire or explosion). To quantify the risks associated with these hazards and to support lab ventilation system design choices, an owner should carry out a hazard analysis that includes estimates of airborne contaminant concentrations and occupant exposure based on contaminant generation and removal rates, reactivity, and toxicity.

It might seem as though there are many regulations governing ventilation rates in U.S. labs. However, there are NO mandatory requirements for these rates other than the ones listed in ASHRAE Standard 62.1-2010 for educational laboratories 4, which has been adopted by many codes, including Cal-OSHA Title 8 Section 5154.1 for laboratory-type hood operations and for some particular instances in International Mechanical Code 2012 and International Fire Code 2012. Several other documents (e.g., ANSI/AIHA/ASSE Z9.5-2012 American National Standard for Laboratory Ventilation, OSHA 29 Laboratory Standard CFR Part 1910.1450, and NFPA Standard 45-2015 Standard on Fire Protection for Laboratories Using Chemicals) have made recommendations about lab ventilation rates, but compliance is voluntary. It is important to recognize that the industry is moving toward a more performance-based approach that relies upon lab-specific engineering data and analysis to determine the specific control techniques needed to ensure safety.

#3—Keep it simple

Laboratories can have complex, intricate systems and facilities that are being run by small staffing groups. The design of laboratories should integrate these systems in such a way that the cost to run the facility isn’t more than the budget can handle. Also, it should not require complex training for the staff to operate and control the systems. Typically, complex systems are not very well maintained and, over time, operation costs increase. The goal should be to reduce utility usage and consumption to create a sustainable building with simple systems.

A great strategy when keeping things simple is to integrate safety within the project. When applying concepts or strategies to a project, be sure to incorporate these in such a way that they enhance the overall project. Gas bottles and cylinders can be strapped to casework and equipment, but unless they’re properly positioned, they can cause safety issues. Look for ways to integrate safety cabinets and manifolds into casework systems to effectively manage the gases while keeping them in a safe place. The same can be said for fire extinguisher locations. Use good signage with these concepts to have an effective safety system that enhances the overall project, usually without any added cost.

#2—Use what works 

Integrated laboratory details.Photo credit: Mark Paskanik.Thomas Edison’s lab in Fort Myers, Florida, was built in 1928. The lab contained a chemical processing area, a machine shop, a grinding room, an office area, and a darkroom. It was used by Edison, along with Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone, to discover an alternative source for rubber to reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign sources. A few short years and 17,000 plant samples later, an alternative was discovered in the goldenrod plant at Edison’s lab. Not unlike the laboratory designs of today, this one used the following concepts: collaboration, interdisciplinary research, lean lab, open lab, and green chemistry. When designing laboratories, lab planners should look at the successes of the past and build upon these ideas for the future.

Many of us have had that “aha moment” or wondered “Why didn’t I think of that?” In a lab, even the smallest details can have a big impact on efficiency. A good lab planner will listen to clients and researchers and design a workspace specific to their needs. If a researcher is struggling to perform a particular task, for example, making a change to the architectural details of the lab space can improve productivity. Many innovative details can be used. Here are a few:

Maximize storage

Common setup: General lack of storage space.

Issue: Not enough of the right type of storage.

Better detail: Place storage in areas that take advantage of unused spaces. An example of this would be placing recessed cabinets next to thickened walls that hide services or low wall returns. 

Location of gas fixtures and electrical/data raceway at the bench

Common setup: Horizontal location of raceway and deck-mounted fixtures.

Issue: The raceway and fixtures conflict with deep benchtop equipment.

Better detail: Place both the raceway and fixtures vertically to open up the bench space. Another option would be overhead service panels in the ceiling. 

Integration of pure water

Common setup: Pure water devices are placed on top of the bench.

Issue: The location of the pure water system takes up useable bench space.

Better detail: By placing most of the system below the counter, the bench area is freed up. Another good solution is to place it on a drawer that slides open for easy access. 

Establish tour routes

Typical project: A project may lose momentum over time or not obtain sufficient funding.

Successful project: When planning your lab, include tour routes for potential clients and donors early in the design phase. This also creates an added bonus by providing safety in the lab.

Right-size flexible casework

Typical project: Not all projects need 100 percent flexible casework.

Successful project: Yes, flexibility is an important aspect in lab design. Keep in mind that this added flexibility can cost more. Keep flexibility simple and be sure it is necessary for the researchers. 

#1—Visioning in a day

An interactive visioning session.Photo credit: Mark Paskanik.How do we as designers use our knowledge of past projects to work with the client and create the client’s vision? In many cases, a high-level visioning process can be used in combination with practical approaches to create that vision in a day.

It all starts with a well-defined and well-laid-out plan. Yes, you can create a vision and concept design in a day, but it is the prework that will make the day more successful. With careful advanced planning and use of tools that are interactive and visual, the process itself can build consensus and be fun for the groups involved.

  • Prior to running a kickoff visioning session, information is passed along to the various user groups as a survey to generate ideas about the project. A pre-read can be issued and asks questions in an open format that forms the basis of the needs for the project.
  • Interactive polling is a great way to help with team-building consensus and to give good at-a-glance awareness to all those involved. In some cases, a vocal team member can steer a visioning session, but polling can allow others to provide their input without feeling open or exposed to other questions.

Halfway through your day, it will become clear what the driving factors are for the project. At this point, the concept design can be discussed, sketched, and formed, providing for a consensus-based design and a clear path toward a successful project.

These “no cost strategies” are only a few ideas that can be used to start a project. Just keep thinking creatively, stick to your vision, and have fun in the process!