There has been much speculation about what the academic scientific workplace of the future will look like. As young scientists enter the post-doctoral and faculty ranks and recent college graduates enter graduate school, architects and lab planners will need to re-think the way we design research environments so these facilities will best serve the next generation of scientists. An in-depth look at both learning and workplace trends can help identify the guiding principles to transform lab design in the next few decades. Learning, workplace and technology trends are closely intertwined. The development of emerging technologies and how these technologies will be adopted by the lab users are important factors to consider. Evolving workplace structures, such as the flattening of the organizational pyramid, will also have an impact on the spatial relationships of lab functions.
Organizational structures and team work
The next generation of scientists will be a group inclined to collaborate and share ideas. The traditional organizational pyramid will flatten to give place to a more horizontal workplace structure where team work prevails over old hierarchical structures. To understand what these new structures might look like, it is fitting to examine recent learning trends. Interactive education and a preference for team-based learning hint to evolving workplace structures. In interviews conducted by SmithGroupJJR, students ranked peer-to-peer interaction as essential. Today’s students value collaboration and favor spaces conducive to team-based learning.
Student-faculty interaction also ranks high on their list. According to the American Society for Engineering Education, two of the most significant factors affecting engineering student engagement and retention are the quality and extent of students' interactions with faculty. Students across American campuses are interacting with faculty in social and informal settings, breaking the traditional boundaries established by earlier generations. It’s expected that as recent graduates begin their scientific careers, their influence will lead to a structural re-assessment of the scientific workplace. The new generation of scientists will favor highly flexible work environments where the boundaries between the lab, the office and the social hub will blur to accommodate spaces that are able to be reconfigured to the needs at hand. The compartmentalization of lab functions will be replaced by multi-functional spaces, with labs extending into public and social areas to foster interaction and collaboration. At the Univ. of California San Francisco’s Regenerative Medicine Building, the labs merge into social hubs, allowing for a seamless integration between the interaction and research areas. At the Univ. of California Merced’s Science and Engineering Building II, prototyping labs are located on the ground floor. Large glazed folding partitions open to a covered colonnade, which is part of the campus’ primary pedestrian system. This planning scheme enables robotics fabrication and testing to "spill” into the colonnade area. Curious students often stop to share ideas and participate on research projects. The trend calls for labs that are open to the entire academic and research community to foster interest and participation.
Technology and the mobile scientist
The next generation of scientists will be part of a group who views technology as an integral part of their identities. Autonomy, motivation and self-assurance, along with an unhindered approach to technology, will characterize the next generation of scientists.
Academic labs have long relied on graduate students and post-doctoral researchers to perform repetitive, tedious experimental tasks. The next generation of scientists will demand more autonomy and greater opportunities to participate in the creative and intellectual phases of research.
New developments in lab automation and informatics, such as Laboratory Information Management Systems (LIMS) and Electronic Laboratory Notebooks (ELNs), will facilitate the cultural shift. While the use of LIMS and ELNs is widespread in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology sectors, adoption by academic labs has been slower. According to a recent study conducted by Atrium Research & Consulting, less than 25% of institutional labs have adopted some type of lab informatics system. The inclusion of ELN content in undergraduate curricula and the availability of systems specifically developed for the academic sector will likely change this trend.
An increased level of collaboration between institutional and private labs will also help accelerate the pace of ELNs adoption. In recent years, major universities, including Yale, Cornell and the Univ. of Wisconsin, have adopted Web-based ELNs to serve their research and teaching labs. The most basic ELNs replace the traditional lab paper notebooks, allowing scientists to digitally log, track and search experimental data. More sophisticated systems can be programmed to set up, run, control and analyze experiments through automated workbenches and to receive experimental data directly into mobile devices.
Widespread adoption of lab informatics systems and instrument automation will allow scientists to spend less time on repetitive tasks and more time collaborating and brainstorming. Instrument automation will lead to the miniaturization of lab processes, allowing experiments to run using smaller amounts of compounds. ELNs can be set to track chemical inventories, enabling the reduction of the size of costly chemical storage rooms, and making the lab a safer place to work. Process miniaturization and reduced chemical inventories will free lab space for other critical uses. As lab equipment and instruments become smaller and more automated, the lab spaces will become increasingly compact, with areas for interaction and idea exchange taking center stage. The use of artificial intelligence on lab processes will lead not only to a shift of open lab, support, and interaction area ratios, but also to new spatial relationships between the computational and the experimental lab. Recent trends indicate that computational simulation and prototyping will not be exclusive to engineering or materials sciences labs. We will likely see an increase in simulation and prototyping in biological labs as well.
Scientists at the Univ. of Minnesota’s Center for Cardiovascular Repair “grew” the first artificial beating heart in the lab using a bioreactor that simulates heart physiology. 3-D printers are used in labs to create prototypes to engineer the architecture of organs. The interplay between computational and experimental research will dictate a higher integration between the wet and dry lab. This integration will bring new design challenges. While much of the latest trend in lab design has been to separate computational and wet labs to attain energy and cost efficiencies, designers will need to figure out how to efficiently integrate these two lab types into highly flexible spaces that can function as dry labs, wet labs or a combination of both. And it might be precisely emerging technologies that will allow designers to solve this conundrum: Similar to wireless data transmission, wireless power transmission will allow the reduction of fixed utilities in the lab. Advances in the development of ductless fume hoods, which rely on carbon and bonded gas phase filtration to remove chemicals before discharging air back into the room, will enable mobility of a traditionally fixed piece of lab equipment. Benches and sinks mounted on wheels, equipped with highly flexible piping allow portions of dry laboratories to be reconfigured into wet labs in a snap. At the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Molecular Foundry, the lab casework is mounted on wheels and equipped with quick disconnects. Utilities distributed in overhead service carriers allow for a fast reconfiguration of the lab spaces to best serve the scientist’s immediate needs.
As the scientific workplace rapidly evolves, one question seems timely: What can architects and lab planners learn by deepening our understanding of how the next generation of scientists will engage in the research process? In the last two decades there has been a shift in the approach to laboratory design. The inclusion of important design principles—such as sustainability, access to daylight and views, energy efficiency and spatial flexibility—contributed to that shift. Moving forward, it will be critical to understand how both evolving trends in workplace culture and emerging technologies will impact building metrics and functional adjacencies. It can be inferred that the scientific workplace of the future will be a highly mobile environment which will accommodate the desire to work in teams, both physically and virtually. We will see a higher integration between computational laboratories and wet labs, as well as a growth in multi-functional spaces. It’s likely that the new spatial model will include innovation hubs where multiple functions, such as basic experimentation, computer simulation, prototyping and interaction, will be accommodated in one space. Transparency will provide desired connectivity when acoustical controls are a must. Movable partitions will provide opportunities for space reconfiguration—from private to semiprivate to open and back—as needs dictate. Flexibility and adaptability will be less about movable casework and “plug-and-play” systems, and more about research processes and the ability of spaces to adapt to evolving technologies and preferred workplace structures.