Effective laboratory design puts a priority on occupant comfort while providing the flexibility needed to do successful work.
By Robert Skolozdra, AIA, LEED AP, Svigals + Partners
Too many in the healthcare and technology sectors find out the hard way that laboratories are not all created equal. Lab-facility owners, entrepreneurs, and scientists all have experienced what it’s like to work in less-than-ideal conditions. To achieve inspired breakthroughs in science, research organizations demand more than just workbenches, bright lighting, and powerful vent hoods. These clients deserve better, and they should expect more, too.
Learn more about what architects and designers at Svigals+Partners do to create effective research facilities in our interview with Robert Skolozdra.
Research space should be built around the pursuit of scientific discoveries and advancements. Stakeholders also fundamentally view research facilities as workplaces. Because the stakes are high, competition is fierce, and the outcomes potentially paradigm-changing, application of the principles of good workplace design in the research sector can be critical to the success of a research project and, by extension, of the research organization itself.
Studying client work habits, we recognized years ago that most researchers spend long hours in the lab, making their offices and lab facilities effectively a home away from home. As a result, the design approach should deliver lab buildings that are healthy, welcoming, and enjoyable places in which to live and work.
Another key aspect draws on our experience in the design of not only labs but also corporate offices, education institutions, and nonprofit organizations: That is to view research settings as productive playgrounds—environments of open participation and creative play that truly foster the productivity, innovation, and inspiration critical to breakthrough science.
Consider these general principles when designing research and science facilities that support all aspects of organizational breakthrough:
• Inspire greatness. Svigals+Partners has worked with many different research-sector clients, and they all report that inspiration strikes outside the lab more often than in it. In fact, casual interaction with colleagues and others during informal discussions and collaboration seem most frequently to produce the unexpected avenues of thought that lead to breakthrough discoveries.
The key is using the planning and design phases to explore possibilities for creating spaces that foster informal interdisciplinary or interdepartmental interaction. Carving out a share of the facility’s footprint and designing it to offer a space for relaxed interaction and creativity is typically very cost-effective, and will likely have a negligible impact on the organization’s goals for the facility program and the project budget. Considered carefully and early, the inclusion of breakout space can offer a potential cauldron of game-changing ideas.
• Compete for top talent. Research organizations do not need to be reminded how competitive their sector is, but they may be blind to some architectural choices that blunt the competitive edge. For example, recruiting and retaining talented scientists is usually a foremost priority, yet it’s easy to overlook the impact the research facility—the scientist’s workplace—has on recruitment efforts.
Talented researchers know their value and, all other factors being equal, will choose to work where there’s a sense of prestige. While not all researchers view “prestige” in the same way, typically those in the scientific community place a premium on exactly what one might expect: an attractive, comfortable space with desirable amenities, and lab facilities that boast robust systems and equipment for their field of research. Additionally, many scientists perceive that sustainable-design features contribute to a facility’s desirability, especially natural finishes such wood, ample natural daylight, and exterior views. Even a thoughtful recycling program and/or common areas with beautiful works of art, help differentiate the facility and may make the difference in attracting talent.
• Use branding and artwork. Another way to create an air of prestige is to capitalize on an organization’s brand identity or corporate culture in visual and architectural ways. Integrating artful branded elements can be a cost-effective way to reinforce an organization’s identity and mission among staff while also creating a lasting impression on visitors, likely recruits, and potential donors or investors.
Several of our clients have had success with this approach in the corporate and institutional research sectors. For two separate projects for a major soft drink and snacks company we incorporated colorful branding into reception areas, employee break spaces, and “ideation zones” designed for informal interaction. Meanwhile, for a lab renovation on Yale Univ.’s West Campus, we applied hexagonal patterns inspired by a particular research area and etched them onto their glass partitions. The resulting features offer partial privacy as well as a branded aesthetic that reinforces the lab’s mission.
• Design labs to be healthy, inspired workplaces. Since laboratories serve as a tool for research scientists and their place of work—in some cases, a place where they spend more time than at home—applying sustainable design principles is critical to their success.
As an example, it’s important to maximize natural daylighting—which promotes occupant health and productivity in all types of workplaces—throughout the facilities. This includes using more windows to allow daylight into laboratory zones whenever the research modes permit. It’s an imperative in all nearby common areas and offices. Careful planning and design can accomplish a great deal. For a Yale Medical School renovation of a legacy building’s interior, we used partial dividing walls that brought natural daylight into 90% of the facility’s interior. Where possible we also try to provide views to the outside, especially in break rooms and other gathering areas.
Likewise, we specify low-VOC furnishings and finishes and optimize ventilation and airflow, especially in the laboratories. It’s another way that providing a healthy, comfortable environment supports the well-being and morale of research scientists and their support staff, contributing in small but important ways to fostering breakthrough science.
• Watch the bottom line. Sustainability makes economic sense, too. Trying to shave design and construction costs could have a long-term negative impact on the bottom line, which is critical for institutional organizations and commercial enterprises trying to eke out a competitive edge.
Working with a design team with significant lab expertise can help navigate the choices and find a cost-effective balance between start-up costs and operations budgets over the long haul. The research group may find that it’s worth it to pay slightly more for infrastructure upgrades, low-VOC casework, LED lighting fixtures, or for high-efficiency HVAC systems. Savings on life-cycle operational factors such as energy consumption, maintenance, and staff absenteeism make a huge difference down the road. Experience shows how this benefits owners of commercial R&D properties, whether they are considering renovating or building from the ground up.
• Focus on flexibility. Organizations know change is a constant, but few want downtime in their lab modules. Is there a way to adapt to change without losing capacity? Can construction crews make changes to the lab space with limited adverse impact?
Experience has led us to consult with clients in the planning phase to determine what kind of design flexibility may benefit them long-term. Improvements to rolling casework and new, modular infrastructure systems organized around plug-and-play “pods” have made it possible to provide robust support for sensitive modes of research while also offering the flexibility needed to quickly adapt to new research modes.
In some cases, facilities staff can make the needed changes, and sometimes even the research staff themselves can rearrange the lab on a moment’s notice. Too much flexibility might be costly at start-up, so the architects should consult on the best balance. It’s important during the planning phase to determine just how much flexible design will likely be needed during occupancy, and how much can be introduced to best support the research—and the talented people behind it.
Regardless of the lab size or function, making occupant needs and comfort a priority in the design process can be a difference maker in attracting and retaining skilled researchers. Most important, people-oriented designs can remove a lot of barriers to successful research.
Robert Skolozdra, AIA, LEED AP, is a partner and lab-design specialist with Svigals + Partners, New Haven, CT, an integrated architecture, art, master planning, and interior-design provider specializing in research and educational facilities. Skolozdra is an expert at creating lab environments that are responsive to present needs and capable of accommodating future demands.