The planning of research spaces is driven by the type of client and institution, and its users. The majority of public/ government agencies, academic and research institutions have well-established standards and requirements architects can use in the planning process. On the other hand, private and independent research entities might rely on architects to guide them through the process, and even assist in establishing standards. Two other significant factors in planning research facilities are the nature of the research/ type of lab (teaching/computer, chemistry, biology, physics), and user needs: the balance between generic spaces where users aren’t defined, versus highly customized research spaces with defined users and specialized research focus.
Planning and designing for facilities that employ ever-changing science and technology as the core of their practice is always a challenge, but one worth taking on. This constant change applies to science and technology facilities, as well as healthcare and academic buildings. Often, “successful” design becomes a question of customization. But how do you strike the right balance? When do efforts to radically customize a space render it almost immediately obsolete? How do you prevent an overly generalized lab from falling short of user expectation, when the users are eventually identified? I have experience in designing for both extremes on the customization spectrum.
Specialized research spaces with defined users
In my experience, these users require highly customized spaces where every inch of the bench is designed for a specific reason. Every switch, outlet and gas drop type and location is assigned and fully blessed by the principal investigator (PI). The planning and vetting process requires extensive coordination and back and forth between my team and the end users. This happens in the form of several user group meetings and workshops, constant communication and several versions of room criteria sheet packages. The room criteria sheet package is used to track all changes and modifications to ensure all users' requirements are met. The final package is submitted for official sign-off by respective PIs and client representatives.
Generic labs with no defined users
This process can prove to be more challenging than the first, as the client often has yet to assign users to the spaces. Our team needs to walk a fine line between designing “generic” spaces, while still providing enough “specialized” features that can attract users with various specialties. They can then further customize their spaces for their specific needs. In these instances, the clients often rely heavily on our expertise and previous project experience to help guide them in their decision-making process. Our planning process involves looking back at our benchmarked projects and using that data to create the most efficient and flexible space that can be easily modified to meet the needs of its future occupants. Similar to the previous example, we use room criteria sheet packages to track our process. The lack of “assigned” users means that the client's facilities team ultimately signs off on the space layouts.
Looking at these two examples, several questions come to mind:
- What happens if the PI whose lab was entirely customized decides to relocate to another facility and the new PI has their own different set of requirements? Does this mean a full redesign and rework of the spaces?
- Touching back on the ever-evolving, unpredictable and partially unknown nature of science and technology, how would an architect design a facility that is highly adaptive and flexible? How is future flexibility defined for each client?
- How is the line between “generic” and “customized” defined? How do designers strike a balance between the two?
- Who ultimately makes decisions about generalizing or customizing? Is it the client, the end user, the architect or a combination of all parties?
- How can the architect use his/her expertise to guide the client throughout the process?
Realistically it’s safe to assume that neither the architect, nor the client or end user would have answers to all questions. Frankly it’s sometimes impossible to define these criteria and “draw the line in the sand”. However, the process should be streamlined to produce an efficient and flexible solution that can satisfy the facilities' current and future needs.
To respond to these issues in my daily work, I persistently employ the lean design principal of “value add” and challenge my team to rethink and re-evaluate our process by offering to re-imagine the trajectory of our planning and design, and ensuring that we are all committed to doing things right the first time. In following this principal, everything that’s not a “value add” is “waste” and should be eliminated from our process. Some best practices to follow include:
- Understand the client's mission and how your solution can help emphasize and underline this mission. Think lean. Add value by giving the client exactly what they have paid for, exceed expectations where possible.
- Understand the nature of the facility in terms of the type of research focus and planned user population. Think lean. Add value by doing it right the first time.
- Help the client and end users think outside the box. The number of times we have all heard in meetings "But this is how I have worked for years" is countless. As one of the experts in the room, it’s the architect's job to offer alternative solutions to help users adopt new ways of conducting their work. Think lean. Add value by changing the format of the process or shape/quality of the product.
- A client’s own pre-defined standards and requirements are helpful in the planning process. The architect can also pull from his/her past experience to help refine and improve the requirements and process. Think lean. Add value by implementing change that’s proven to yield results and cut long-term costs.
- Flexibility is key. Continuous changes in technology and the fast-paced, evolving nature of scientific research requires adaptive and flexible environments. Think lean. Eliminate waste by not over-planning and over-producing. Some strategies that have consistently proven effective include these considerations:
- Modulated spaces offer the highest level of future flexibility.
- Maximize open lab layouts and incorporate modular, movable benches, ceiling mounted panels for flexible service hook ups, etc.
- Core lab functions and support spaces generally require partitioned-off, enclosed rooms. Centralizing these spaces not only allows for the rest of the floor to remain open and flexible, but also permits teams to share core lab functions and support spaces.
- Design spaces to promote collaboration and multidisciplinary teamwork. It has been said over and over again that scientists in research facilities—similar to nurses and physicians in healthcare facilities—exchange valuable information in workrooms, lounges, etc. Sprinkle collaboration spaces throughout the floor to promote these opportunities.
- Communication is the most important component of any project. Ultimately, for a successful outcome it’s critical to ensure all parties are on the same page and the clients' needs and expectations are met. Think lean. Add value by doing it right the first time.
Maryam Katouzian is a Project Architect with experience in a variety of project types and a strong leader in Tsoi/Kobus & Associates’ Healthcare, Proton and Science & Technology groups. Her excellent communication and coordination skills, attention to detail and dedicated work ethic place her in high demand with clients and colleagues.