Have you heard a good story lately? Did you read a book to your child? Have you heard the latest anecdote from your chatty coworker? Did you listen to a dramatic podcast? If you are still looking for a good story, you may want to consider the story of your own lab construction project. If you worked with an architect, the topic of mission statements or guiding principles may have come up—and for good reason: “The Story Of …” your lab construction project is a narrative that helps your team see beyond the operational program and gain a deeper appreciation of the project as a whole.

In architecture school, the astute student quickly learns that all projects must adhere to an “architectural concept.”  The architectural concept tells the story of your project—where the architect drew inspiration, why he or she made each key design decision and how this process defined the shape and nature of your building. All decisions fall back onto the concept.

Consider the following example: A student is tasked with designing a small independently-owned shoe factory and sales center. The studio instructor asks, “Why did you use brick in the façade of your building?” The architecture student answers, “I wanted to explore the art and craft of handmade products, so I chose brick because it is a natural, unit-based building material that is erected by hand in the craft of masonry.” The architectural concept is the story that bridges the gap between the metrics and data of the operational program and what really makes your project meaningful. “The Story Of …” also builds on its component parts to assist in decision-making, aligns metrics with goals and helps garner enthusiasm for future changes.

Fast forward to today: You have been tasked with shepherding your lab into a new, expanded footprint.  You have a rough understanding of magnitude (a partially developed program, perhaps), you have a budget that must be met and not exceeded, and you have a gaggle of designers, engineers, contractors, consultants and equipment vendors who will all look to you for direction and decision-making.  You will also have to work closely with existing staff—scientists, researchers, faculty and technicians who will have varying levels of excitement or trepidation about the project. If your architect is brilliant, they should help you generate a work-a-day version of the architectural concept. This is where the art of storytelling begins to work in your favor.

“The Story Of …” your lab project can be broken into component parts: the mission statement and the supporting guiding principles. The mission statement is the clear-vision concise statement that sums up the project—think of it as the title. The guiding principles are the artful components of your story which shore up the mission statement.

The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine includes welcoming and comfortable environments that encourage collaboration, like this pub/training space, filled with natural light and soft, inviting materials and furnishings. Image: Robert Benson Photography

Finding “The Story Of …” your lab project is a critical first step in aligning the success of your project with the broader client’s objectives. What drives your organization? Does your company have an established mission statement? How would you build on an existing mission statement, but at the same time create distinction and specificity? With the mission statement as the title of your story—would you select a beach-novel entitled, “42,000 Square Foot Dry-Lab Expansion”? (If you answered yes, I think you should turn off your computer and go home for the day.) 

The body of your story, the component parts, will require a great deal of soul-searching. Your architect will schedule multiple brainstorming sessions with many stakeholders, yielding a plethora of ideas and concepts. Honing them down to form the story of your project will take considerable effort. The most successful guiding principles are well written, easily grasped and have cadence, wit and pizzazz—all elements of a juicy story. Summarizing the guiding principles into bullet points, reading them aloud, and remembering the story of each one will reaffirm the objectives.

Guiding principles serve as decision-making tools during the program and design phases of the project. All projects encounter difficult decisions, and usually these decisions involve a lack of available square footage in order to meet a desired program, or budget-based problems such as value engineering decisions. When you have a strong story with specific guiding principles, you can measure various options against the guiding principles. The objective becomes: What solution best supports the guiding principles?

Take this example: A few users have been rumbling that there are not enough seats in the staff lounge. A proposed solution is to decrease the size of the training room to gain more seating. This solution is measured against the guiding principle: “Create a flexible, robust learning environment that all employees can access and enjoy during structured learning and self-directed learning.” By employing the story of the guiding principle to the dissatisfied staff, it reminds them of the original priorities, and it illustrates a possible solution and compromise—potential spillover from the lounge can be accommodated in the training room.  

The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine emphasizes teamwork and openness throughout the facility. Here, wet and dry lab space are neighbors, allowing easy movement and increased productivity between areas. Image: Robert Benson Photography

A good story also serves to assist in aligning known metrics with future goals. Today’s metric may be various lab departments that each require 200 linear footage of lab bench space, and 10 dry computational workstations immediately adjacent to their labs. This may get translated into a simple operational program: Four departments, 800 sf each. Adjacencies may get mapped, and efficiencies teased out to arrive at a lean lab program and schematic design layout. However, a riveting story—outlining a clear vision of the project with guiding principles to support the mission statement—will generate inspiring goals that will bring much more life, understanding and robustness to the project.

What makes a successful story? A good story will assist the team in the ways described above, but a great story has the potential to reach the wider public, generate some buzz and enthusiasm in your wider industry network—from MassMouth to Story Corps, people crave a new narrative. Create your own version of TED Talks—call them “FRED Talks” and practice them in your own organization! Celebrate your new space—both within your office and with your professional peers—by sharing “The Story of …” your own lab project.

Laurie DaForno, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, is an architect with Tsoi/Kobus & Associates in Cambridge, Mass.