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‘Collaboratory’ Academic Labs

Fri, 04/05/2013 - 4:30pm
Tim Studt, Editorial Director

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It’s not just about open labs anymore; new labs are creating spaces where scientists and engineers can openly communicate.

A shaded glazing system on Georgia Tech’s Carbon-Neutral Energy Solutions Lab maximizes daylight views while incorporating photovoltaic panels for renewable energy. Source: Jonathan Hillyer/HDRLeading-edge lab designs are empowering academic scientists and engineers to collaborate in conducting new life and physical science research. The editors of Academic Sourceguide recently reviewed a number of award-winning research labs to discover the current trends being used by lab planners, managers and architects to design and construct these new labs. 

The labs reviewed included new designs and construction, lab renovations, adaptive reuse facilities and combinations of these. The academic lab designs reviewed were primarily located in the U.S. and Canada, although offshore commercial lab designs were also included. About three quarters of the labs reviewed focused their research on life science and biomedical areas, revealing where most of the new/renovation work is now being done. The labs ranged in size from 5,000-ft2 renovations to 300,000-ft2 new construction projects that cost from $1.5 million (renovation) to more than $200 million (new construction). The average cost per square foot ranged from $290/ft2 (renovation) to nearly $900/ft2 (new construction).

Owners of smaller renovation projects generally opted not to apply for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, while all new and even larger lab renovation project owners/managers did pursue LEED certification. About half of the projects obtained Gold certification and the remaining projects were surprisingly equally split between Platinum and Silver certification programs. Many academic research lab projects are showcase facilities and designers look to optimize their environmental designs rather than just going for minimal sustainability designs. Of course, the designs reviewed were submissions for a lab design award program and those projects are likely to be more elegant than ordinary new lab design/renovation projects not submitted to any award program.

Designs for collaboration

The new and renovated academic lab designs reviewed were decidedly focused on building and enhancing the collaborative and interdisciplinary aspects of the labs. This was so much of a focus that instead of calling facilities laboratories, the designers actually refer to them as “collaboratories,” such as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CRIM) in La Jolla, Calif., created by the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine and the Molecular Engineering & Sciences (MolES) Building at the Univ. of Washington, Seattle.

Bi-level break rooms are popular venues for meetings and relaxation at the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine in La Jolla, Calif. Source: Steve Keating/Fentress Architects.

“If we bring these people together in a really creative way, then we will exponentiate—bringing them together in a way that allows them to multiply instead of just adding,” says Matt O'Donnell, Dean of Engineering at the Univ. of Washington. The MolES has impromptu collaboration spaces including benches, small-group lounge seating and collaboratory boards spread throughout the building to encourage cross-pollination of ideas. Even the smallest details are designed to support the spontaneous exchange of knowledge. Upper cabinets in break areas, along hallways and at the end of each lab bench are faced with dry-erase boards. Chalkboard paint on a wall in the basement begs to be scrawled with research and discovery. MolES deliberately downsized formal meeting spaces in favor of casual interaction zones. On each floor, instead of a walled-off break room, there are open areas for lunch, coffee and casual meetings. A glass-walled main staircase is adjacent to these break areas so employees can see who is gathering and stop to collaborate as they move between floors. Of course, conference rooms are also available for larger group interactions.

The Collaborative Research Center (CRC) at Rockefeller Univ. in New York City was conceived to create a research environment that builds community and promotes the exchange of ideas among researchers throughout Rockefeller Univ. This renovation project transformed a series of obsolescent, cell-like laboratories into modern, open laboratory space with shared support spaces. The CRC fulfills the university's goal to foster greater intellectual exchange by providing opportunities for spontaneous, easy interactions and reaffirms the university's founding principles of scientific collaboration and excellence.

The Smith Cardiovascular Research Building at the Univ. of California, San Francisco had “maximize collaboration” as one of its major goals. Its open lab suites are connected by support shared spaces that communicate with the PI (principal investigator) office suite located centrally on the L-shaped floor plate via conference and lunch spaces that encourage “chance interactions.” Building massing and programming/planning were developed simultaneously around the concept of collaboration. “Faculty can receive instant support and talk through issues in person, which is often easier than phone or e-mail communications,” says Clarice Estrada, the Cardiovascular Research Institute's administrative officer. “Co-location and the open and consistent floor layouts allow for easier access to the PIs and administration.” PI office pods are tied vertically by an open four-story interaction stair, which facilitates direct communication between levels.

The desire for openness, interaction and an overarching spirit of collegiality was also a design concept at the Univ. of California's Sandler Neurosciences Center located in San Francisco's Mission Bay district. The Sandler Center allows neuroscience PI's that were once spread across several buildings on two campuses—due to a lack of office space—to again be co-located as a group in the same building to effectively communicate and collaborate with each other.

The canitlevered corner of Pennsylvania State Univ.’s Millennium Science Complex extends above the main lobby for the Materials Sciences and Life Sciences wings and the open garden. Source: Jeremy Bittermann/Rafael Vinoly Architects.

Sustainable designs

As noted, most of the lab designs reviewed were made with LEED certification in mind. The Georgia Tech Carbon-Neutral Energy Solutions (CNES) Laboratory was created as a model for carbon-neutral designs—hence the name—and in so doing was certified as LEED Platinum, the highest rating available. CNES sets a new standard for high-performance sustainable design by optimizing passive energy technologies, reducing electrical demand and maximizing the use of renewable energy. A collaboration of Georgia Tech, the architect (HDR) and the construction company (Gilbane) set goals for a rational, no frills design, while maximizing flexibility and establishing a net-zero energy demand. 

Rigorous energy modeling was used throughout the design phase of the project to frame the parameters for determining which energy-saving systems should be incorporated into the design. A matrix of energy-saving options was created while evaluations were made on first costs, life-cycle costs and carbon savings for each element. The design team also incorporated a rigorous value-engineering program based on sustainability objectives. The overall design includes energy-saving concepts for a high-bay area (30 ft high), mid-bay area and office/computational lab areas. It also includes sustainable designs for a hardscape, permeable (parking) spaces, water collection and greenscape. Two sets of roof-mounted renewable energy systems (140 KW crystalline photovoltaic (PV) and 49 KW crystalline PV) were also included in the CNES lab design.

The Millennium Science Complex (MSC) at Pennsylvania State Univ., University Park, is also designed with energy efficiency and green technologies in mind. MSC includes a 60,000 ft2 green roof, storm water recycling, heat recovery wheels to recycle air and adsorb waste energy, and deep-set windows with etched glass to reduce summer heat loads and admit light in the winter. MSC is a LEED Gold certified building with 275,000 gross ft2 of space. MSC is one of the first buildings in the U.S. specifically constructed to support the integration of the physical and life science disciplines, again fostering collaboration between these two groups. Characterized as the largest materials research university in the U.S., the MSC features a 150-ft cantilever roof at the main entrance with an opening to allow sun to reach the garden plaza beneath it.

New construction at the Collaborative Research Center at Rockefeller Univ. provides a bridge between two existing buildings. Source: Jeff Goldberg, Esto/Mitchell/Giurgola Architects.Bio designs

Also as noted earlier, the majority of the labs reviewed were based on life science and biomedical research applications. This includes plant science, cancer research, neuroscience, cardiovascular research and even energy bioscience. As noted in the previous section, the Penn State MSC converges engineering, physical science and life science with the Materials Research Institute and the Huck Institutes for the Life Sciences in one large facility. This facility empowers experts from many disciplines to coordinate their technologies and knowledge to produce exponential advances.

The Molecular Plant Sciences Expansion at Michigan State Univ., East Lansing, had three strategic goals: 1) allow MSU to recruit and retain world-class plant scientists, 2) enhance the Great Lakes Biofuels Research Center research grant renewal, and 3) revitalize the plant biology and soil sciences research quadrant in the university. To accomplish these strategic goals, the design team looked at maximizing the multidisciplinary lab space, supporting collaboration throughout the proposed structure and creating research core amenities to support research activities on the entire complex. Accomplishing this involved design flexibility, especially since the specific user groups involved in the building were not fully established at the start of planning. This flexibility requirement was accomplished by establishing a modular approach to the lab spaces, allowing MSU to assign and reassign space easily, while maintaining an orderly approach to the lab configurations.

The Life Sciences Building at York Univ., Toronto, Ont., Canada, was designed to have open labs to enhance collaborative research and innovation among its users. The central core of these labs comprises some general and some life science-specialized rooms. This includes tissue culture rooms equipped with biosafety cabinets, X-ray researcher equipment, biocontainment rooms, radioisotope rooms with stainless steel ducted fume hoods, RNA research rooms, mass spectrometer rooms, mounted equipment rooms for centrifuges and shakers and a sterilization suite for glassware washing. Other specialized life science equipment at the York Life Sciences lab includes an environmental scanning electron microscope, fluorescence cell sorting systems, confocal microscopes and a peptide spot synthesizer. All of these are specialized for life science applications and are generally available at other labs as well.The fourth floor chemistry lab in the Life Sciences Building at York Univ., Toronto, accommodates walk-in and low-flow fume hoods. Source: NXL Architects.

The James L. Sorenson Molecular Biotechnology Building at the Univ. of Utah, Salt Lake City, has a number of specialized instrumentation and equipment capabilities, like other bio-based labs. Sorenson also has a nanofabrication core that provides lithographic, deposition and etching capabilities that are required to fabricate and characterize the nanoscale electronic devices and mechanical structures now used in bio-based research and experimentation. Sorenson, as in numerous other bio labs, also has a flexible, multi-species vivarium to support the bioengineering and biomedical research in this facility and elsewhere at the Univ. of Utah campus. The vivarium also includes procedure rooms for use by PIs and the husbandry staff along with a USDA-approved surgical suite for large and small animals. A quarantine room isolates animals from incoming and unknown sources prior to being placed in the main colony.

The Sorenson lab also includes a small animal imaging core to provide translational information that is central to advancing new discoveries, and is increasingly being found in more and more life science labs. This particular facility has a 3-Tesla large-bore MRI, an ultra-sound room, a PET/CT/SPECT room, a 7-Tesla small-bore MRI, radiation chemistry and numerous wet chemistry labs. Researchers at Sorenson use an instrument development lab to study and develop new imaging technologies and tools, information which they share with private corporate partners.

New labs are no longer just good looking architecture—granted that’s still required to attract world-class researchers—but they’re now stronger empowerments for innovative, leading-edge research utilizing all the tools available to the research community. 

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