For so many clients, building new ground-up lab space isn’t an option. From an economic standpoint, the duration of new construction doesn’t serve the immediate need; and often, an appropriate site is unavailable. In our dense urban centers, the desire for researchers to be co-located with their peers and their heroes, makes the competition for space a real challenge. Assessing existing under-utilized or vacated space, the proximity of possible research collaborations and “speed to market” in making the necessary space modifications are all factors in determining renovation potential. The timing for providing those critical space needs will determine the level of demolition, modification and upgrade. Construction durations can vary from a few weeks to several months, depending on square footage, condition of infrastructure and level of change required. A phased approach to construction can allow for occupancy in discreet portions of the space. Relocating research is disruptive and time consuming, so limiting the number of staff and equipment moves requires thoughtful planning.
Here are some of the many considerations that must be addressed, in order for small, fast lab renovation projects to be successful.
The idea of fitting “more” in less space is an economic driver that has translated into the following commonly observed design themes: the shrinking of linear feet of bench assigned to each researcher, the elimination of small customized labs, the sharing of expensive scientific equipment and the centralization of core functions.
Over the last three decades the lab bench space assigned to each researcher has changed from eight linear feet to today’s five linear feet per researcher. The pressure to grow research groups within their existing boundaries can present real challenges, particularly when there’s the perception amongst team members that some get new and some get “old” renovated spaces. It’s important to provide not only a cosmetically aesthetic, cleaned-up space, but also a space that reflects current thinking—for example, upgraded, modular benchwork; equipment zones that can be properly conditioned to address heat loads; glazed wall separation between the “dry” tech workstation and the “wet” lab which allows for food and drink to be consumed while still maintaining visual connections to the lab area. These are some obvious changes/upgrades that can go a long way in gaining a positive user reaction to being relocated to renovated space.
Renovating existing space: What’s the vision?
Prior to direct contact with the user groups, the architect needs to be given the “ground rules”.
What are the project goals and outcomes that have been agreed to by the finance and the facilities group? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the current building(s) or individual spaces being considered for renovation? What infrastructure dollars need to be allocated to meet today’s lab-ready space? What is the “drop dead date” for occupancy? What opportunities exist for integration of brand identity and key institutional messaging?
Programming: Hear them out
Architects find themselves in the center of the discussions about who will be moving into renovated space; space that, at first glance, looks impossible to repurpose. From the start of user programming, it’s critical to “hear them out”.
Designers must understand the skepticism and the difficulty most people have imagining what could be accomplished in less than ideal conditions. This early discussion phase requires diplomacy, patience to allow the user to vent their doubts and the ability to offer successful renovation transformation examples. Being able to walk clients through exemplar renovated spaces can serve as the “picture worth a thousand words”. Benchmarking your existing portfolio, or similar noteworthy renovations helps to ease the users’ resistance to change, and generates excitement and buy-in around what is often perceived as “second class” space.
Existing conditions: What are we working with?
The evaluation of the building’s existing conditions and determining what stays, what goes and what MEP systems can be accommodated all need to be investigated. With today’s existing conditions survey equipment, it has become easier and more accurate to determine what’s under floors, behind walls and above ceilings of these dated buildings that likely have limited or no existing conditions documentation. However, not every impediment will be uncovered until well into the demolition/construction process. Occasionally, the unknowns are pleasant surprises, like uncovering boarded over windows that become instant amenities. Having a construction budget contingency to address unforeseen conditions is critical and should be part of the original budget development.
I recently managed a fast-paced renovation for the Brigham and Women’s Hospital located at the Boston Lying-In [BLI]. The catalyst for the improvements was the result of a new men’s health research program. This program focuses on clinical research to inform the management of chronic disease, metabolic disorders, endocrine and fertility complications. The project scope of work for the Men’s Health program included a full gut renovation of the fifth floor to accommodate exam and consult rooms, and support offices. Renovations to the third floor included an Exercise Physiology Lab, office space and technical support spaces. Located on the second floor of the BLI, the Eugene Braunwald Research Center benefitted from updated lab spaces to support Biophotonics and a Hormone Assay lab.
New windows and updated lighting fixtures created energy-efficient spaces with access to natural light and sweeping views of the Harvard Medical School quadrangle. Key private offices are located along the window wall with private exam rooms located at the core of the building. Patient waiting and open-plan office spaces benefit from the natural light and views to the Longwood Medical Area. Wayfinding cues are integrated into the interior finish materials, providing patients with intuitive navigation from the public areas to the private exam, testing and consult rooms.
With the understanding of what the building can support, development of the program, testing the diagram and obtaining user “sign-off”, the design process can move ahead. The parameters are established and the transformation begins. The use of color, materials, finishes and furnishings should reflect an agreed upon aesthetic. This “frosting” is the final chance to meet and, hopefully exceed, user expectations. Providing a needed amenity such as a refurbished conference/gathering space will go far in producing a positive outcome for reluctant users.
The “before” and “after” effect, along with the ability to move into space within months, versus years, can be strong drivers when deciding to renovate existing buildings. Getting everyone “on the same page” and ensuring there are realistic expectations is the crucial starting point for a successful, fast renovation project, and it’s no small feat. Whether the renovation square footage and scope is small or large, the impact of repurposed space is both sustainable and architecturally satisfying. Seamless relocation of research group(s) into a well-executed makeover—space that can “wow” and delight the most dubious of occupants—can result in a gratifying outcome for all involved.
Barbara A. Carpenter is an Associate Principal, and has 15 years with Tsoi/Kobus and Associates. She has more than 30 years of experience in planning, programming and managing numerous complex lab projects with an eye toward superior client service. She is highly regarded for her collaborative, thoughtful approach to creative problem-solving.