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A central gathering space at the Loeb Laboratory at the Marine Biological Laboratory encourages interaction and conversation outside the lab environment. Image: Robert Benson Photography
 
  

Lab design has experienced a surge of high design in recent years. As a parallel, the perception of “mad scientists” reclusively tinkering in hidden lairs has shifted. Today, the expanding climate of scientific discovery demands researchers collaborate and engage more with society and nature. There’s a trend away from solitary work towards strategic partnerships and cross-discipline sharing, and the built environment is changing to meet this focus. Research buildings are designed to evoke collegiality, inspiration and to attract the best and brightest talent, while expressing the science conducted within. However, the move from "warehouse" to the "penthouse" hasn’t been short of controversy.

A perfect example of this shift is the 1998 razing of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)'s Building 20 to make way for the Pritzker Prize-winning Frank Gehry's Stata Center. Here, a highly flexible temporary shed that was idealized by its research occupants was leveled to make way for a nuanced "virtuoso" design solution, championed by the institution. The Stata Center became an instant architectural icon; however, many of the researchers it was meant to inspire felt the building's design exuberance was lost on them. Scientists desire spaces where research is unencumbered by nuances (intrinsic), while institutions, with an extrinsic viewpoint, often want to make a grand marketing statement to attract talent, donors and to emanate success. There exists a dichotomy between the scientists’ need for flexibility and functionality and the supporting organization’s focus on branding, name recognition and for "monuments". These sometimes competing considerations must be balanced in order to achieve successful buildings. Below are two project examples which show 1) how a purely functional solution was re-imagined to help an institution expand its capabilities and to inspire creativity and 2) how a new construction project was planned to successfully balance the dichotomy between an institution’s desire for brand recognition and the delivery of a highly successful research environment.

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Custom graphic walls and panels display ongoing work important to the researchers and students in residence at the Loeb Laboratory at the Marine Biological Laboratory: Students are able to display their photography in a prominent public location. Windows into the research and teaching labs put science on display. Image: Robert Benson Photography
 
  

In 2010, TK&A completed the renovation of the Loeb Laboratory at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Mass. This particular building is interesting because it represents the "Building 20" end of the research environment spectrum. It was a modest four-level building packed full of research space: a simple, functional shed. The original structure was built in the early 1970s as a seasonal building (single-paned glazing, un-insulated), but from its opening was used year-round. Although the building served the campus as it stood for over three decades, it represented a purely functional pedagogy, devoid of modern spaces and amenities supportive of how research is conducted today. The decision to renovate the building provided an opportunity not only to increase occupant comfort, but to realize a new destination for the campus as a whole.

The renovation upgraded the thermal envelope to exceed modern energy codes, but more importantly, it was able to down-size the amount of "hard" program space (wet labs, dry labs and mechanical rooms). As a result, more "soft" program (lounges, displays, etc.) were introduced. The result was astonishing. Suddenly, students began to spend more time in the building because they had space to work informally, and because the spaces were comfortable for prolonged periods of focus. The "soft" space was transformed into a functional gallery to display student photography of the different organisms being studied. This renovation was accomplished within the existing footprint of the building, while increasing energy savings through the right-sizing of program and envelope upgrades, which contributed to the project's LEED-NC Gold certification. Interestingly, the smarter use of space made the building more celebratory of the research conducted and of the learning process as it unfolds, all while increasing functionality and inspiring new traditions.

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The two-story light-filled lobby atrium at the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine sets a welcoming tone for lab visitors and occupants. Views to the lab bar and courtyard immediately communicate the design goals of visibility and transparency. Image: Robert Benson Photography
 
  

It’s possible to have a highly flexible, functional design while also creating inspiring architecture. TK&A in partnership with Centerbrook Architects just completed the new Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine in Farmington, Conn. Although this project was "tabula rosa" so to speak, the brief fully mandated the project meet the need for ultimate flexibility within a design scheme that would attract top global talent to a new program in a quiet suburban community. Another challenge was the design needed to be phased so the institution could grow gradually over time without sacrificing the desire for a central, cohesive location open to staff and visitors. The team’s solution was a highly efficient, flexible lab bar connected to conical/circular "commons" via a double-height atrium overlooking a newly vegetated outdoor courtyard. The "commons" houses "soft" programs, such as conference rooms, a 200-seat auditorium, lounges, education and training rooms and executive offices. In addition to serving as the front door for the institution, the lobby is a critical space in achieving the goal of "putting science on display." It links the lab bar and "commons" at grade and level two, serving as a space where the general public and scientists can comingle easily and naturally, articulated by inviting, daylit stairwells. At level three is a private, south-facing outdoor roof terrace overlooking the new courtyard.

The "commons" is also planned as the link to a future second phase of the building, which will double the square footage of research space and allow for MEP connections to pass through seamlessly. The "commons" is the heart of the new genomic research campus, the form of which is directly indicative of the work conducted within. This strategic programming freed the lab bar to be as efficient as possible, housing PI offices, labs, mechanical rooms and IT. Great care was given to right-size the labs, as well as to ensure flexibility for wet and dry labs to easily convert backwards or forwards, anticipating unknown future demand.

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It’s anticipated that Phase 2 of the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine, a mirrored lab bar connected via the “commons” and enclosing the courtyard, will be realized within 10 years. Image: Tsoi/Kobus & Associates
 
  

Anticipating less "wet" research needs, "dry" write-up space was taken out of the more energy-intensive labs and placed into nodes located centrally along the main circulation corridor of the lab bar. This area serves as open office space to increase casual encounters amongst researchers and to allow natural light to penetrate through the deep floorplate. The move towards open office spaces for computational scientists was a big shift since the client was transitioning from closed, private offices; however, the researchers seem happy in their new home with access to light, views and proximity to colleagues. PIs still have private closed offices located along the curving lab bar wall. Amenities within the lab bar include a gym, a library/pub space (coffee bar and lounge) and a full-service cafeteria overlooking the new courtyard with ample outdoor seating. The cafeteria is an important space because it operates as a place where scientists, visitors and the general public can easily congregate during normal business hours or for special events.

The architectural exuberance indicative of contemporary lab design isn’t simply born of a desire for mere novelty. Labs are getting leaner, freeing up space and capital for amenities and features that inspire ideas across researchers and their communities. Labs are leveraging design to attract and retain top talent. Traditionally, researchers have spent a great deal of time at the lab bench, just as office workers spent a great deal of time tied to their desks. Just as technology and the desire for collegiality in recent years have liberated office workers from their cubicles, so too has the contemporary design of labs encouraged researchers to think outside of their benches.

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