Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Trends In Research Lab Design

This week I am attending the Research Facilities conference produced by Tradeline, Inc. Aside from getting to enjoy historic Boston, I am also learning a lot about the current state of research lab design. It is impressive to say the least. While I work at a research institution, it is pure academic research focused on policy issues. Our “labs” are offices and conference rooms. Here, however, I am learning about research facilities in the life, materials, and bio science disciplines. It is a window to a whole new universe on one hand, yet reinforces common issues and solutions on the other. These folks deal with hard science requiring physical elements to their projects that we in the “office” world just don’t see, but at a practical level many of the issues are the same. Here are a few trends in the world of lab design that I have heard discussed.

“Dance Floor” labs are emerging as a team/project strategy. Labs used to be filled with fixed benches and hard piped utilities. Now, everything on the floor is mobile and can be reconfigured as needed, and utilities are located overhead in “service carriers” that contain water, power, and gasses.

In some cases, offices are being co-located inside labs, without walls to separate them. This places the researcher immediately adjacent their work, enables greater communication/collaboration, and increases productivity.

Eliminating visual barriers is becoming more important. New labs have a lot more glass in them, providing increased natural light, allowing visibility throughout large lab spaces. One point of conflict, as you might imagine, is the tension between this increased visibility and code requirements for two and four hour separation of some types of lab space. Glass in these environments is extremely expensive, yet more and more projects pay the up front construction cost penalty in order to capture the benefits in productivity, collaboration, and researcher morale. One important note – the competition for researcher talent is fierce and the recruiting / retention value of this type of facility and environmental investment is recognized and supported.

LEED certification has become next to mandatory for new labs. Scientists recognize the importance of the issue and will not accept anything less than an organization’s honest commitment to sustainability. While expecting every project to attain Platinum certification would be unrealistic, it is undeniable that there is a sense of “rightness” about doing everything possible to support the environment when building these facilities. This position has at least three legs: Scientific integrity requires recognition of the issue and an honest attempt to contribute to solutions; organizations that are in the business of creating products that take from, improve, or help us live in a faltering environment face a marketing challenge if they do not contribute, and; the talent these organizations depend upon require it.

Being here is educational and fun. I am meeting new people with new perspectives on some of the same issues I face every day. I am learning new things about work I have never thought of before, and beginning to draw connections to my daily experiences. All in all, not a bad way to spend a couple of days. It is a ‘High-ROI” experience, and I encourage you to look outside your normal channels for information.

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