Laboratory space has struggled to keep pace with the advances in technology and science, as well as the changing demographic of the researcher.

Over the last several years, discussions have been taking place on the needed evolution of research labs across the U.S. These labs would traditionally include storage cabinets, fixed workstation benches, several pieces of heavy, bulky experimentation equipment, with glass testing equipment and hardly any room to accommodate meeting space. Experiments in these labs would be science-specific.

Everything from what they should look like to the amount of flexibility they provide to researchers and faculty has been debated.

We don’t have to wonder anymore. The new age of laboratory design has arrived.

The new and renovated lab spaces delivered in the last few years have featured a new look and feel that both promote collaboration and offer greater flexibility to easily transform traditional workstations.

The two main drivers of this shift toward open environments that we are witnessing today can be attributed to the growth of big data and the Millennial generation. Both concepts have had a tremendous impact on how labs are designed and constructed. 


Technology has changed the way research is conducted. The advancements in process, speed and efficiency, among other things, has greatly benefited researchers, and also opened up an opportunity for designers to reimagine how facilities are configured and designed. A transition from more wet labs in traditional facilities, to more dry labs, where there are less fume hoods and experimentation materials, allows more room for design creativity within a space.

The result: smaller, efficient, less bench space, shared workstations with fewer office space and more collaborative gathering areas. These spaces also feature flexible lab concepts including informal meeting spaces; impromptu collaboration zones; flexibility and adaptability with mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) systems; unplugged zones for researchers to be able to have contemplative areas outside of the lab environment; robust IT systems to provide infrastructure for growing data and global collaboration demands; and scientific equipment optimization to employ the sharing of high value assets that tend to be underutilized in traditional labs.

The MEP systems are designed and constructed with flexibility and adaptability to accommodate a reasonable level of change in scientific requirements without the need for costly delayed system modifications. This is accomplished by strategically placing service panels for lab gases, normal power, uninterruptible power supply power, standby power, tele/data, process cooling, centrally supplied solvent systems and exhaust ventilation.

The lab stations themselves become integrated chemistry and biology labs with modular lab furniture systems, as opposed to fixed furniture in traditional labs, and modular wall systems to provide a greater degree of flexibility for specific lab layout requirements without the need of disruptive shutdowns. This allows for a relatively short transitional period to adapt to several different layout configurations, for example, biology to chemistry, or research space to office space.

This means two things: labs can now accommodate change over time as research programs change; and they can adapt easily to accommodate the specific needs of each researcher. When a researcher finishes one research and development task and moves on to the next, they are not losing time and money converting their spaces.

The lab facilities are also designed rich with high-end amenities, including gyms, showers, cafes and coffee shops. These features, which feed into the likes of the Millennial generation, a workforce that seeks live/work/play environments, aim to keep researchers on the premises.

Recently, the Cambridge research facility of a global pharmaceutical company underwent an expansion totaling 795,000 sf of mixed-use lab and office retail development. The two main biomedical buildings, one seven-stories and one eight-stories, are built upon a common below grade parking structure accommodating more than 450 vehicles. The two new buildings, expected to achieve LEED Gold certification, include research spaces, collaborative work areas, administrative space, auditorium and dining facilities. In addition to retail and dining space on the ground floor, including restaurants and a yoga studio, the Community Exploration and Learning Lab invites middle- and high-school students to gain hands-on science experience.

While the new age of lab design reflects an evolution in the methods of research, it too takes into account the changing demographic of the researcher.

By 2020, Millennials will account for 50 percent of the global workforce. This is a cohort, which consist of people born within the years ranging from the early 1980s to early 2000s that seeks an employer with a strong culture of collaboration. They are a purpose-driven generation.

Building lab spaces around this concept of collaboration is good business, both because it drives productivity and because there is a strong belief that it sparks creativity and innovation. It also creates a more engaged workforce, helping to attract, and—just as important—retain top talent.

At the end of the day, the goal is to bring new medicines to patients faster and more effectively. Providing an environment to achieve these goals is imperative.

The research space at the Cambridge research facility of a global pharmaceutical company can adapt easily to accommodate the specific needs of each researcher.


While the design of lab spaces is changing, so too are business models for pharmaceutical companies. For years, large pharmaceutical companies traditionally handled everything on their own, from research and development to marketing and sales of a new drug. This includes identifying a new medicine, testing it via clinical trials and promoting it. This approach to generating profit is what PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) calls a “profit alone” business strategy in its recent report, “Pharma 2020: Challenging business models.”

This strategy no longer meets the market’s needs. Disruptive innovations across industries have challenged this model, with new players entering the market, targeting the least profitable customer segments and gradually taking more and more market share.

For the large pharmaceutical companies to continue to thrive, they will need to improve their research and development productivity, reduce costs and switch from selling medicines to managing outcomes, which takes a joint effort to accomplish. The PwC report calls this new approach “profiting together.”

“By 2020, no pharmaceutical company will be able to ‘profit alone.’ It will, rather, have to ‘profit together,’ by joining forces with a wide range of organizations, from academic institutions, hospitals and technology providers to companies offering compliance programs, nutritional advice, stress management, physiotherapy, exercise facilities, health screening and other such services” (Pharma 2020 report).

Collaboration, therefore, is extending outside of lab spaces, with pharmaceutical companies and academic institutions, as well as other organizations inside and outside the sector, aligning—driving discovery and delivering new, effective medicines, faster.

As a result, pharmaceutical companies are growing in the core life sciences markets—Cambridge, Massachusetts, Mission Bay, San Francisco and San Diego—and will continue to benefit from being next to academic institutions leading life sciences research and development.

Therefore, we can expect to see other markets, such as Seattle and the re-energized Research Triangle area, emerge as growth areas for pharmaceutical companies since these markets already have a life sciences presence, with academic institutions and workforce.

Don Crotty is the National Director of Life Sciences Center of Excellence for Skanska USA.