How do we design labs for future uses that haven’t been defined? Today’s interdisciplinary approach to scientific research requires synergistic, extremely flexible lab spaces that accommodate the needs of diverse users.
To support the growing convergence of scientific disciplines and quickly evolving technologies, organizations must provide flexible research environments that allow for efficient short- and long-term changes. But because flexibility comes with a price tag, research organizations are challenged to balance the desire to create high-performance spaces with the need to comply with a fixed budget.
So, how do organizations make intelligent decisions as they plan for optimal flexibility in interdisciplinary research?
Designing a space that can efficiently adapt to the future involves addressing two primary issues: dynamic research teams (people) and evolving toolsets (technology).
In team research space, where biologists might work alongside chemists and engineers, the key challenge is accommodating the functional needs of each specialist. The labs need to be easily configurable for teams with unique requirements for ventilation, lab/support ratio, vibration and resources.
And in core research facilities, which house essential research tools and technology, the goal is to design these purpose-built spaces so they can shift as affordably as possible. Rather than customizing them to suit current research tools, they should be designed to function regardless of the hardware or equipment in the space.
Ultimately, flexible research environments must catalyze breakthrough innovations by enabling multidisciplinary teams to solve complex scientific problems.
Introducing scenario-based flexibility
Though flexibility is a universal goal for mixed-use research environments, there’s no established analytical process for optimizing flexibility or determining the ROI of an investment in flexibility. Instead, the prevailing approach has been to build in as much flexibility as possible and hope it pays off down the road.
Because it’s not financially feasible for most organizations to design each space with the potential to accommodate every possible function and activity, organizations must make difficult, high-stakes decisions with limited analytical guidance.
But a new research-profiling process is helping organizations translate a complex research vision into strategic space needs. The conceptual framework for this approach emerged from a “faculty phenotyping” system developed by the Stanford Univ. School of Medicine. This data, which defines the precise requirements of the university’s individual researchers, led to the development of a new programming tool that facilitates diversity modeling for interdisciplinary research (Image 1).
By outlining the unique requirements of individual researchers, lab designers can replace the current practice of planning generic blocks of lab space based on scientific disciplines with a more granular-scale approach bringing flexibility down to the bench.
Each researcher becomes the building block for team-based research space, enabling designers to develop precise models of space typology, including the distribution of open and closed labs, support space and collaboration areas. The tool also enables project teams to hone in on an ideal range of functional processes, including synthetic, analytical, cell-based, molecular and theoretical/computational activities.
Working with this level of detail during the programming process also helps an organization identify its strategic priorities. Understanding current researcher profiles and how they might change over time illuminates an institution’s core competencies and differentiators, recruitment and growth strategies, research and funding trends and external partnerships. These issues help define the ideal bandwidth of research diversity for the facility and organization.
What emerges from the process is a dynamic building program for multiple scenarios representing realistic variations from a center baseline of how the organization thinks its teams will work. Two- and three-dimensional models provide graphic analysis of the research environment to accommodate these flexibility ranges. Stakeholders can use these models to visualize and evaluate the effectiveness of each proposed space for their teams (Image 2).
The programming tool also provides an opportunity to calculate the space and cost implications of integrating additional flexibility bandwidth to accommodate a wider shift in future functionality.
An unexpected outcome of this exercise is that clients and project teams are discovering they might not need to build in as much flexibility as they originally believed. Instead, they are learning simple flexibility strategies can accommodate significant bandwidth in interdisciplinary research neighborhoods.
Though an organization may still opt to allow for more fluctuations in flexibility, it’s now a strategic business decision rather than a guess. And evidence-based tools can quantify the space and cost implications of these choices (Image 3).
HOK is currently providing design services for the complete renovation of a 75,000-sf facility which will house new, high-performance biomedical research labs for Stanford Univ.’s School of Medicine (Image 4).
Using the research-profiling process, the design team developed several lab neighborhood concepts with Stanford. The flexible lab model implemented combines wet and dry biomedical and bioengineering bench space with bioinformatics in a home base lab approximately twice the size of the previous models. This larger, open flexible lab will accommodate a wide variety of collaborative groups and programs for research teams as small as four and as large as 10 (Image 5).
The basement is the new beachfront
Technology-driven core research space requires a different approach to planning for the future. These centralized, shared facilities are often the most fixed areas of a research environment. Yet, they must continually adapt to rapidly changing technology, as well as an organization’s evolving mission, regulatory environment and economic priorities.
Preventing this valuable real estate from becoming obsolete requires the creation of an adaptable core platform based on a universal core-and-shell strategy. This foundation will allow the space to shift and grow to suit the long-term strategic research needs of the institution.
The basement has emerged as the new high-value “beachfront property” for research facilities. This ground-floor space is low vibration, secure, has unique floor-to-floor height and includes structural characteristics that support advanced technologies.
The 277,000-sf William Eckhardt Research Center, under construction at the Univ. of Chicago, provides the multifaceted core technology platform that embodies the flexibility aspirations of modern research (Image 6). Two below-grade levels of high-performance research space will serve as adaptable space that will be finished and fit-out as occupants of the facility and the advanced tools for research are identified. These levels are divided into four distinct high-performance zones with vibration performance ranging from VC-C to NIST-A. Within these zones, it’s possible to create different combinations of acoustic, electromagnetic interference, ventilation and shell volume capability. New technologies will be incorporated into the most appropriate environments, ensuring the best use of this core space throughout its life.
Because change is the most predictable characteristic of contemporary scientific research, the building program of the future can’t be static. Instead, a lab space needs to be capable of performing across a continuum of possible scenarios.
Through research-profiling methodologies, designers can create effective models for team-based science and help organizations optimize their flexibility investment. Also, by approaching core facilities as a strategic long-term asset, we can create high-performance centralized research space that efficiently adapts to an unknown future.
Randy Kray, AIA, OAA, MAA, is the director of lab programming and planning for HOK’s Science + Technology practice, based in Atlanta. With more than 20 years of experience in the strategic planning, programming and design of scientific facilities, he has planned and designed advanced labs for clients worldwide.