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Most labs at the Neuroscience Research Building at SUNY Upstate Medical Univ. are open, multi-user spaces with extensive daylight and plug-and-play overhead services, allowing the casework to be easily modified or moved. Image: David Lamb  


Each year, many entries are entered into R&D Magazine’s Laboratory of the Year competition; but only a select few win. However, each entry exhibits trends in modern lab design. From flexibility to sustainability to collaboration, these trends showcase the best design options for lab facilities today and the future.

The state of lab design
In the academic environment, the lack of increased funding from federal resources, such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF), and state resources has changed the types of environments needed for research. With this change, there’s a greater focus on computational rather than experimental approaches to research, which requires a different type of lab than wet bench science spaces. “While domestically we see the physical research environment changing to cope with the ‘flat-funded’ situation, we have also seen a significant amount of off-shoring of research to countries such as Japan, Ireland and England where investment in experimental research has significantly increased,” says Jeffrey Zynda, Science Practice Leader, Payette. These shifts not only change how, but where research is conducted.

Due to the current economic constraints in university-based research labs, there are demands in programming due to new funding mechanisms with strict time constraints. “In particular, Research Grants for Innovation give rise to new equipment being delivered in a ‘just-in-time delivery’ model,” says Stephen Jones, Senior Architect, COLE + Associates Architects.

Design must adapt quickly to include this new equipment, and base building must be more flexible to provide custom servicing to this highly specialized equipment. “The coordination involved in providing specialized servicing is very intensive due to the rapid rate of technological invention, and a greater commitment is required in lab programming,” says Jones.

As projects are done on shorter schedules and tighter budgets, there’s more renovation and phased work so operations can continue while in construction. “Even so, with renovation projects we are seeing clients that value design ideas for clean, modern labs that have natural light and great spaces that attract the best researchers,” says Sara Eastman, RA, Laboratory Planner & Architect, EwingCole. Recruitment and retention of researchers and employees is a big concern, and whether through new builds or renovations and fit-outs, firms must make this a focal point to lab design in a university setting.

Companies are increasingly moving into clusters located in urban environments near universities, hospitals and related science and technology companies. This clustering approach helps attract and retain the best and brightest recruits, as the new generation of scientists and researchers want to work and play in stimulating environments populated by thought leaders. Clustering also creates the opportunity for interaction with other centers of thinking; offers access to interdisciplinary collaboration plus more diversity and quantity of data; and facilitates the goals of translational medicine.

With companies moving to urban clusters, real estate costs go up. So companies must use their lab space more efficiently. The idea that every person has a designated desk or lab bench seat is changing. This also is true of academic lab settings.

As today’s science is moving at a rapid pace, clients must plan ahead for change from day one. Adapting spaces quickly and easily is a must in the scientific process, and that capacity must be designed into all aspects of a lab. Design features, such as removeable partitions and lab furniture and interchangeable plug-and-play ceiling utility systems, make adapting space easier.


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At the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine, the current lab space represents a 50/50 ratio of wet to dry space, with “flex” lab space in between the wet modules to allow for growth of either the wet or dry programs as needed. Image: Robert Benson Photograph  


Many research disciplines are seeking a new synergy, where collaboration and interaction between different research groups is promoted to foster technology transfer and knowledge and idea exchange. “This has a bearing on the design of the facility to seek openness within lab settings and provides zones for sharing equipment and spaces that can foster interaction both inside and outside the lab,” says Jones.

Flexible labs
Clients have asked for flexible labs for more than 10 years; and this year’s Laboratory of the Year entries show this trend will continue. The drivers for flexible labs have historically been the long-term reduction of renovation costs and lab downtime. The more flexibility built into a lab building, the more it costs upfront. However, this built-in flexibility offers cost savings over time.

At the same time, lab owners are looking for a deeper understanding of flexibility, one based on how a program’s needs will evolve and how buildings will adapt to them rather than relatively straightforward modularity and flexible services infrastructure.

In flexibility, a dichotomy has arisen. When it’s appropriate, labs are large and open with as few walls as possible, which is a great strategy as long as thought is given to appropriate support and core facilities and how people actually work.

As a reaction to large, open labs that have been increasingly built over the last decade, many clients are looking at other solutions, such as neighborhood concepts or “partitioned” laminated schemes, that allow institutional flexibility, while still providing a suitably scaled environment for research. “With the move to comparatively more dry research, clients are looking at renovation of existing building stock for non-air-intensive uses in lieu of demolition and replacement,” says Gary Cabo, AIA, Associate Partner, ZGF Architects LLP. Instead of planning 10 to 12 open module labs, firms are now planning five to eight open module labs. This planning strategy still allows large enough lab spaces to maintain flexibility, but small enough spaces to foster collaboration.

There is still a need for open wet lab space, and clients are employing solutions where these labs are equipped with movable benches that connect to overhead services. This allows the flexibility to re-configure space to accommodate alternate research configurations or large equipment without incurring the expense of renovation. “Many institutions are using core labs to foster interaction of multiple groups from different facilities,” says Cabo. “This allows them to make the investment in expensive shared equipment, which otherwise might be duplicated in multiple locations on campus, maximizing both the usage of the asset and the opportunities to collaborate.”

However, overall, there seems to be a “push back” against the idea of total flexibility internal to the lab. Movable casework and plug-and-play ceiling outlets that allow ease of change on a moment’s notice are seen as not necessary, as facilities managers have discovered users don’t really change the lab around much. Many clients have observed the additional cost of these features as overkill, and not worth the expenditure.


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The South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI)’s exterior blends into the urban environment around it, becoming a focal part of the neighborhood. Image: David Sievers  


Yet, with the evolution of science, labs are no longer designed as discrete spaces, but are thought of in terms of the entire process both at the facility level and within each lab itself. “Labs are designed to be flexible enough to support business model changes over time,” says Bryon Sutherly, AIA, Senior Project Architect, Hixson Architecture, Engineering Interiors. “And lab configurations are more standardized and supplemented with lab-specific equipment.” This allows for repurposing and conversion of labs with more ease than in the past.

Sustainability solutions
Sustainability and “green” approaches to lab design are areas that most clients have prioritized as universal. As energy costs increase in most locations and greater awareness of the impact of carbon rejection on the environment increases, the issue of sustainability becomes the “battle cry”, according to Zynda, of the current generation in lab design. The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC)’s LEED program is commonly used as the de facto standard many clients follow. However, a growing number of clients are less interested in only LEED certification and more interested in maximized energy programs. Some aren’t interested in paying for certification at all.

Overall, the idea of sustainability is important in an educational environment, as best practices set sound examples for the next generation of scientists. Modern labs should demonstrate the vision to a more sustainable and efficient future, and these options are important to graduates and can attract the best candidates to a university’s research efforts.

One of the most prevalent trends in lab design is related to energy consumption within labs. Rather than an “it is what it is” attitude toward energy consumption, there’s a greater awareness about it and an active approach to energy reduction by design leaders in the industry. Interest in planning approaches and equipment that reduce energy use, particularly related to the conditioning and use of outside air, has become widespread among facility owners and end-users.

One of the biggest things in terms of sustainable HVAC systems in labs is taking greater advantage over the ability to control and monitor energy use using building management systems. In addition, as the technology has evolved, energy management has now become not just lab specific, but application specific. “For example, the amount of air changes per hour required for venting/airflow may be able to be reduced when a task isn’t in progress,” says Sutherly. The ability to tie energy use to a specific task helps drive improvements that can result in cost savings over time.

There is an active discussion about appropriate air change rates in wet labs in occupied and unoccupied modes. While safety remains the critical factor, there’s significant data that indicates labs can reduce their air change rates and maintain safe environments. Many academic institutions are actively monitoring air quality in labs to control their air change rates, which has a direct and positive impact on lab energy use.

Not so long ago, labs required 12 ACH regardless; and 99% of the time, that rate was excessive. Now there’s a movement toward cutting that rate back to 8 ACH for occupied labs. And, when there’s a problem, the system ramps up. When a lab isn’t occupied, it can drop to 4 ACH. And this degree of control and efficiency translates into energy and cost savings, without sacrificing energy.

Variable air volume environments are becoming increasingly more prevalent in lab settings to increase savings on energy costs. And modular air-handling equipment with chambers for humidification and HEPA filtration are now manufactured with robust materials and high-quality variable motors. These units are suited for photonics research, where quiet systems are desired. Other equipment such as variable frequency drives on exhaust and supply, lower face velocity on lab fume hoods, variable-volume fume hoods and updated controls help improve energy-conservation practices throughout lab facilities. Venturi valves can also help maintain pressure between critical spaces.

Along with the trend toward VAV solutions, variable refrigerant volume (VRV) technologies have also appeared in lab settings. These technologies provide room-by-room control. And this is essential as proteomics facilities require constant control within a range of +/- 0.3 degrees, according to Luke Pendergast, Project Architect, Conrad Gargett.


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Designed to achieve LEED-Platinum certification, J. Craig Venter Institute is the first net-zero energy biological lab in the world. Image: Nick Merrick/Hendrick Blessing Photographers  


In recent years, heat-wheel energy recovery has become more prevalent in HVAC lab designs due to the additional latent savings. In general, owners are more open to aggressive energy savings strategies to reduce operational costs, even with a five-plus-year payback.

Only recently, very high-efficiency fin-tube heat recovery (Konvekta) has become an alternative to heat-wheel energy recovery in lab settings. “The advantage of the fin-tube approach is it maintains separation between intake and exhaust streams,” says Bernard Dooley, Director of Laboratory Planning, Goody Clancy. The technology allows for LEED prerequisites, while achieving high energy recovery rates.

Other strategies such as reclaimed heat on exhaust air systems, such as strobic fan corral chambers, and heat exchangers at the coupling between base building system chilled water and dedicated equipment chillers have also become prevalent in sustainable lab HVAC design.

Traditional air systems have been slowly replaced by hydronic and chilled beam systems, except in hood-driven environments. “This segregation of cooling from ventilation greatly lowers air change rates,” says Cabo.

While five years ago it was revolutionary to put chilled beam heating and cooling in a lab, chilled beams are the new norm, often not incurring significant premiums over more conventional systems, according to Blake Jackson, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, Associate, Tsoi/Kobus Associates. The concern about the use of chilled beams centered around air not moving through the pipes at the necessary exchange rates. Humidity was also a problem with chilled beams early on.

With chilled beams becoming the “new norm”, designers simultaneously desire to open interiors to greater amounts of daylight via larger glazed areas. “One innovative technology to mitigate this, while balancing visual comfort, is an interior radiant fin tube/light-shelf combination, which bounces light deep within the lab without incurring direct sun onto the chilled beams,” says Jackson. This avoids condensation issues on the beams and exterior glazing. Labs are also putting their public spaces to work, using them to introduce natural ventilation for swing season comfort and smoke evacuation.

A collaborative environment
Collaboration is the key to today’s science. And in today’s labs, research collaboration has expanded from interdisciplinary scientific collaboration between departments to cross-disciplinary research. This encompasses traditional scientific departments, as well as broader research communities involving computer research, public/health policy, business and economics and private industry, according to Cabo.


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Touch-down seating and tables, as well as writeable markerboard glass invites impromptu sharing and collaboration. Image Robert Benson Photography  


Research labs are designed to accommodate different types of work within the same lab, as evidenced by fields like biochemistry, biophysics and geochemistry. Academic labs are now interdisciplinary and are rarely designed solely for one discipline. To some extent, the degree that collaborative environments are designed into labs is culturally driven—determined by the specific company culture and the types of work done. But overall, the trend is toward more collaborative and less private space.

Collaboration spaces are essential in today’s labs. Small discussion/conference areas are placed in immediate proximity to lab areas, creating ease of motion from one zone to another, thereby fostering spontaneous collaboration. Writing surfaces are important within these spaces, and interior glass windows often function as writing surfaces.

There is also a trend away from programmed “huddle spaces” along corridors and toward more general-purpose amenities like coffee bars. Research on the sociology of buildings indicates that people gravitate to the interaction spaces they prefer; so firms favor providing a wide variety of spaces to encourage social activity.

With an emphasis on amenities and science on display, institutions are realizing people are their major assets; and making their lives more fulfilled is as important in recruitment/retention as the research, according to Jackson. “The growing emphasis on place-making and design is a testament to this ‘build it, and they will come’ mantra,” says Jackson. Researchers are becoming stars, and globalization means conferencing and extroversion is part of their job. Collaboration between colleagues and the public has inverted lab design from secretive “vaults” into communal “hotspots” with destinations fostering community and discourse previously unseen.

For more information on lab design trends in materials, lighting and future lab design, as well as lab design pitfalls, please visit

Lindsay Hock is Editor of R&D Magazine and Laboratory Design Newsletter.