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A transparent glass “membrane” between the wet and dry lab space at the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine allows daylight to penetrate into the floorplate, and allows research teams views of their partners. All images: Robert Benson Photography  

  

Do you have what it takes to provide input for the design of a new building? Good researchers and good user representatives often share similar qualities.

User representatives are the primary link between the designers and the functional requirements of a lab project. They provide the expertise the design team needs to shape the general planning parameters. The best user representatives combine the characteristics of a good scientist with a broad and decisive institutional view, and apply a creative and disciplined approach to the project. As a scientist, these are the characteristics you need to be a good representative:

  • Curiosity in the search for the best solutions.
  • Knowledge of your lab and its physical features.
  • Ability to think simultaneously about both large-scale and small-scale concepts.
  • Vision to see clearly and broadly the project’s and your organization’s financial, as well as scientific goals.
  • Attention to detail in both behavioral and physical aspects of labs.
  • Adaptability to new and changing conditions and working methods.
  • Decisiveness to commit your group’s future, recognize good solutions and keep the process moving.

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Flexible casework design and ceiling-accessed utilities allow for rapid reconfiguration of the research space at the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine to suit shifting needs and scientific focus.  

  

Lab projects always include a programming and design phase that occurs well ahead of occupancy: Usually the design is complete 18 to 24 months before move-in. Planning for the future is a challenge, but an experienced architect and engineer can help design space that’s flexible enough to accommodate changing needs. The nature of science is unpredictable, but the facilities that support it are more forgiving. Current standards in lab design include more flexible generic space, and less customized space; but specific sciences and organizations often need some degree of special space.

If you are a first-time user representative, you will need to make the best prediction possible based on existing data. If you are selected to be a user representative as part of a project planning effort, here are some key tasks you’ll have to shoulder, along with several specific tips for handling them.

Understand the real needs of your group colleagues
This includes everyone from the department head to the bottle washer. Space needs, equipment needs, shared functions and spaces, behavioral patterns and interaction with other groups all must be understood and considered. The best way to understand this is to talk with everyone in your group, and observe their daily work.

  • Try sitting at someone else’s desk for a day.
  • Notice where supplies and waste materials are kept.
  • Count the number of outlets, utility connections and even pieces of equipment that have never been used in your lab.

Anticipate the future
Whatever you’re doing today, it will probably change. Many labs exist in old space, renovated space or space designed for earlier needs. Recent trends for more equipment, automation, increased safety requirements and interdisciplinary work patterns aren’t always accommodated in existing labs.

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The dry lab, or computation space, at the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine looks much like a modern open-plan corporate office. Areas of respite and writeable back-painted marker board glass adjacent to the large “collaboration corridor” allow for impromptu discussion and a change of scenery.  

  

If the primary reason for your building project is outgrowing your space, it’s likely people are cramped, equipment is crowded into bench space and the lab in general is sub-optimal in most respects. Ask yourself the question: “What’s the best arrangement?” If you are planning to purchase new equipment or add staff, think ahead by as much as five years.

  • Consider how the ratio of principal investigators to staff scientists has changed during the past five years.
  • Ask your colleagues if they plan to purchase robotic or large equipment in the next few years, or if there’s strategy in place for shared resources.
  • Count the number of times you visit other groups in a typical day, and whether their location is convenient. Proximity to collaborating groups can impact operations and cost.

Have all the facts
It’s critical for the design team to understand the factual data related to your lab. Accurate and complete head counts, numbers of people in each position, quantities of supplies and chemicals and especially equipment information is essential. The designers need to provide spaces for offices, seating, benches, equipment, utilities and any necessary support spaces or amenities. If you don’t have all the facts, or are predicting the future, make the most rational guesses you can, or suggest the project team assemble an experienced advisory group.

  • Confirm head counts with management to be sure the organization will support your plans.
  • Find the current equipment manuals for all analytical equipment in your lab.
  • Notice the type and voltage of the electrical outlet for your most essential piece of equipment—the designers will need this kind of exact information as well.

Be open-minded
Today’s labs often involve layouts and features that differ from traditional labs, and the economics of building and operating lab space have become strong drivers of design. For government-funded programs, space efficiency and a high net/gross ratio will be most advantageous for an organization. For private users, lab space is often leased, and the efficiency of rented space is critical to the economic survival of the company. This translates into new layouts, and especially into open, flexible or shared space. Although the physical surroundings are important, keep in mind the balance between space and science when thinking about success.

  • Think about the best lab you’ve ever visited, and what features distinguished it.
  • Notice where people interact most frequently, and think about how this works in other building types.
  • Look in the bottom drawer of your lab casework, and think about whether those items have been touched in the last two years. Consider whether you need fixed casework at all.

Take the institutional view
The best user representatives balance the broad goals of their organization with their own specific needs. Remember that your lab may be someone else’s in two years, and funds used to re-customize that space are then not available for science.

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The “collaboration corridor” at the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine connects private offices and touch-down meeting spaces with the dry/computational lab, offering clear views of the activity in the wet lab.  

  

Today’s trend in most organizations, both institutional and corporate, is to provide more open and flexible space, rather than the highly defined turf boundaries of the past, and to provide isolated spaces only for compelling safety or environmental reasons. The mobility of scientists, especially in academia, precludes excessive customization, and most organizations prefer not to redesign labs just before occupancy because the investigator has moved to another institution.

Imagine yourself as a visitor, potential staff member, donor or investor in your organization who is touring the building to observe the potential successes.

  • Recall the last renovation of your lab, and what physical features would have made it easier. Consider what minor modifications you could achieve safely yourself, without facilities staff involvement.
  • Think about the way your organization should balance science, time and money to meet its goals.

Challenges and rewards
Having a clear understanding of the user representative’s roles and responsibilities, and following these five guidelines will not only help the designers articulate and apply your goals, but will also make the lab design process rewarding and interesting. Your input as a good user representative is essential to the project’s ultimate success.

Erik Mollo-Christensen, AIA, is a Principal at TK&A Architects. A lab and vivarium design specialist, Mollo-Christensen is a project manager of advanced technology facilities.

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