Take a look at most academic campuses with animal research programs across the United States and you are likely to identify some commonalities: animal facilities dispersed throughout campus and at satellite locations; outdated buildings and equipment that lack flexibility and expandability and/or fail to meet AAALAC standards or NIH guidelines; and animal housing spaces that are far from being utilized to their highest and best use. Ultimately, critical physical resources are being squandered in any number of different ways at a time when programs are challenged to tighten their budgets.

It is a problem faced by even the best animal research programs in the world and the pressure to address it has only been exacerbated by the turbulent economic environment that academic research institutions have faced over the last several years. Since 2003, the National Institutes of Health has lost 22 percent of funding capacity. As another sign of the times, it is forecasted that the U.S. will relinquish its historical lead in international biomedical research in the next decade. This reduction in funding has quickly had a domino effect—less funding means fewer grants. Fewer grants means fewer grad students, post docs and researchers which ultimately means fewer discoveries. The result for many institutions means the pressure to reduce costs on campus is that much greater.

Simultaneously, competition is as fierce as ever. This competition comes from many sources, other academic research institutions, private pharmaceutical and bio-technology companies, and foreign entities, all competing for the same limited resources, funding, academic talent, and the best students. In order to be competitive, institutions must offer the research infrastructure and support required to attract the next generation of investigators. This includes providing animal facilities with competitive per diem rates and dedicated procedure space required for today’s specialized research.

While maintaining the status quo is not an ideal option, it can be difficult to identify a solution with minimal drawbacks. Solutions must address both the animal facilities themselves and the operational directives established by the overall animal program. A reduction in central institutional support can lead to lower staff morale. Increased per diems can disincentive the research that ultimately differentiates programs. Maximizing small animal density can be a start, but does not address the entire cadre of issues on campus. Ultimately, organizations need a plan for consolidating and optimizing all animal facilities and their operations across campus—and this is where developing a vivarium master plan will provide a roadmap for both operational and facilities optimization.

Vivaria master plans can provide institutions with the following:

  • A better overall understanding of campus-wide capabilities with a level of information that an institution would never have time to collect on its own
  • Concrete data to verify or challenge the guidelines that program leaders and directors have about space and resources required to meet demands and regulations.
  • Thoroughly vetted options for future planning with paths forward that take into consideration different schedules and costs.
  • Identified opportunities for improving operational innovation or efficiencies to provide solutions to improve the overall animal program.


When hiring a third party consultant to develop a vivaria master plan, it’s important to understand that a successful process and outcome will be dependent on several factors:

Engaged stakeholders

First and foremost, all key stakeholders must agree on the overall premise underlying a vivaria master plan: change is needed. From there, an inclusive dialogue must take place that includes all parties:

  • An executive steering committee, including all critical stakeholders, facilities department leadership, and research leadership. This team is responsible for making high-level institutional decisions.
  • A core team which includes representatives from the critical stakeholders (or similar), the animal resources group, campus planning (facilities), and architectural or engineering leadership. This team is responsible for supporting the day-to-day activities required to complete the planning exercises.
  • As necessary, additional specialists such as security, service, parking, etc. depending on the need.

Defined project goals

Like any planning process, definitive end goals help to keep all stakeholders focused on the developing outcomes that address the end goals. These should be informed by the institution’s research goals and strategic plans related to the overall research enterprise. Example project goals might include:

  • Create a roadmap for future development with long range capital planning that supports the institutions research enterprise
  • Complete an assessment of facility performance, define upgrade/renovation strategies, and include tools for communicating findings to key stakeholders.
  • Improve facility utilization, assuring that key spaces are put to their highest and best use.
  • Increase the flexibility and adaptability of space so that it can be more easily repurposed.
  • Achieve regulatory approval (e.g., AAALAC accreditation).

Transparent process

In order to keep stakeholders engaged and working together toward project goals, institutions must commit to a transparent process. When everyone has a sense of inclusion and ownership, it is less likely there will be major opposition. Keeping project goals at the forefront and adhering to a regular schedule of meetings and updates that includes all key stakeholders helps assure all parties involved, that there are no hidden agendas at play.

Understanding of risk vs. reward

Leadership and decision-makers involved in the master planning process need to be prepared for the level of commitment it requires. They should realize that this will require a financial investment both up front and after a plan is developed. Consolidating facilities across a campus often requires some level of space creation, commonly known as “Swing Space,” and this is often necessary whether the consolidation recommendations are operationally based and/or facility based. It is rare that the perfect facility to support the consolidation an institution is looking to achieve will already be available on campus—renovations and/or additions to existing facilities or new construction will likely be required.

All key stakeholders will need to realize that the outcomes they look to achieve will not be realized overnight. Time is required to conduct activities in a way that will pay-off for an institution in the long run. It is not uncommon for additional studies to be required after the initial master plan is complete. Building consensus around what direction to go can also take time. Assuring that leadership understands these things up-front can help avoid hang-ups in the long run.


When having a third party conduct a master plan, several key components should be included:

On-campus space use study

This assessment will serve as an inventory of on-campus space dedicated to specific functions such as lab, classrooms, offices, general use, specialized use, and support. In the vivarium, assessment and optimizations should address animal holding, procedure space, cage processing areas, and staff support areas. The allocation of space, research model(s) used, and the location of those research services on or off-campus can all be benchmarked against peer institutions to compare or contrast different strategies and solutions used.

Historical animal use analysis

To better understand space needs going forward, institution’s need an accurate assessment of the animal census on campus, which typically requires data going back as much as ten years or so. This should be broken down by large animal compared to small animal quantities, or by each species. Mapping this data should help an institution better understand what direction they are trending in terms of space needs for the future.

Faculty forecast and campus distribution

For a more comprehensive understanding of how animal census might change, faculty growth and change, along with the goals of the overall research enterprise, should be documented over time.

Facility assessment

One of the most significant activities that will be undertaken as part of the master plan is the individual facility assessments. This will require the core team of consultants, campus planners and Animal Resource Departments to visit every vivaria space on campus to document the condition and lifespan remaining of the physical spaces, the MEP systems, and the operational equipment (e.g., sterilizers, washers, racks, etc.), the existing animal capacity and density, and the availability of core facilities. These visits should include discussions with both the animal facility operational managers to better understand the activities the space currently supports and with the facility engineers to determine the conditions of and challenges associated with the current infrastructure.

After the information has been collected, each facility should be given a rating for both (1) the physical building itself (bricks and mortar) and (2) the operational functionality. The building grade should reflect the physical state of facility finishes, engineering systems, and overall vivarium space designs. The operational grade should reflect the overall facility’s ability to provide appropriate protocols such as material, animal and waste flows, animal census needs, expansion opportunities, and geographic location. A review of the consultant’s findings on the facility assessments is an often missed critical step, in that each individual stakeholder may have a different opinion on the operational or physical condition of a given facility, and together with the consultant, consensus must be reached before moving forward with hard recommendations.

Information from the facility assessment can then be incorporated into a campus summary that includes key information such as each facility rating, year built, operational performance, and potential for various program uses. The campus summary can then be used to identify any regulatory challenges that the current condition are presenting. Additionally, financial implications for various conditions can be determined.


After all of the information has been gathered, the consultant should present the executive steering committee with a “toolkit” that includes all relevant documentation, facility recommendations, a gap analysis indicating the current state of the institution compared to where they want to be, and a priority list cross-referenced with cost and resource considerations. Final recommendations should be put forth that have been thoroughly vetted with all stakeholders in order to illustrate to institutional leadership that these recommendations are supported by the committee tasked with developing the master plan. The recommendations can then be taken back to institutional leadership as a decision-support tool for future projects on campus. In some cases, additional studies may be required in order to get a more granular understanding of specific issues.

Once decisions have been made about a direction, the information gathered as part of the master plan can be used to help set benchmarks and measurable goals for improvement moving forward.


The following case studies represent three institutional vivarium master plans at various points in their development that illustrate both the planning process and potential solutions. It is essential to understand that each institution is unique and facility and operational improvement recommendations will vary to support their unique characteristics.

Commissioning the Plan

In 2015, the University of Michigan was at a crossroads. From an institutional perspective, they had a goal of recruiting 50 new scientists. But with animal facilities spread out across campus, available space in existing animal facilities at a premium, and a planned conversion of one existing vivarium to laboratory space; there were concerns about the university’s capacity to house all of the animals the new scientists would need to use. As a result, the Medical School Administration requested an external review to determine if additional vivarium space is needed, or if consolidation efforts in existing vivaria can provide the necessary animal housing and use space.

After extensive review, following many of the steps outlined in this article, HDR (i.e., the external consultant) found that some consolidation was possible. However, they also recommended that considering institutional growth projections, specific programmatic needs (e.g., for more germfree mouse space), and the proposed closure of some facilities; additional space would be required.

The University of Michigan is now in the process of working with their leadership to determine which of the planning recommendations can and should be implemented. It is likely that a fixed funding level will determine the extent of the renovations/upgrades that can be implemented over the short to mid-term; while longer term recommendations will await additional funding.

Making the plan actionable

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s (UNC) research programs have continued to grow over the last ten years, both overall and in animal research specifically. However, they have faced some of the same funding challenges that many public institutions across the United States have faced, resulting in a push to consolidate and repurpose space on campus as much as possible.

After updating their master plan in 2015, they were presented with three possible solutions for increasing capacity, however all solutions required new or significantly renovated space, as there is simply no growth space currently available. Solutions were backed up by review of all operations, both costs and protocols; facility assessments for all processing and major equipment in 15 separate facilities; cost analysis on income and expense streams; and a plan for a full cost recovery option for their operations. Improvements in operations and equipment needs were also a part of the final recommendations.

In the end, UNC was able to garner institutional buy-in to proceed with a detailed study for the development of new, centralized vivaria that would accommodate several consolidations, facilitate research growth, and to provide space for state-of-the-art surgery, high containment space, and other centralized specialized animal procedural services.

Measuring impact of the plan

When the University of California San Diego (UC San Diego) began exploring whether the equipment processing function could be reimagined to more efficiently support research, they developed a solution to advance a Centralized Research Services Facility located within a mile of 80 percent of research facilities on campus that use animals. When the building was completed in 2016, the design of the equipment processing function emphasized a “one-touch” system in order to eliminate inefficiencies that come from handling each piece of animal holding equipment multiple times. Cages requiring processing are placed on logistic carts at multiple research sites and transported to the Central Research Services Facility. Upon arrival, automated systems including conveyers, diverters, lifters, flippers, dispensers, scrapers, stackers and washers go to work to process and sanitize the equipment.

Today, after two years of being operational, the University is going to great lengths to measure the impact of this consolidation effort. They are looking at and tracking savings in facility space, utilities, maintenance, and operations—comparing the costs of running the centralized facility to those if operations were decentralized. Already, they are able to estimate a conservative savings of $23.4 million to date. Their ability to track and report these numbers allows them to demonstrate impact, giving them credibility and support to proceed with future plans that are aimed at improving efficiencies and lowering costs. In addition, UCSD is now embarking on the repurposing the original cage processing areas that will support animal housing, procedure areas, and other vivarium support functions.

Special acknowledgement to Robert Dysko, DVM, DACLAM at the University of Michigan, Craig Fletcher, DVM, Ph.D., DACLAM at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Philip Richter, DVM, Ph.D., DACLAM at the University of California San Diego.

Mike Mottet, LEED AP, is a Principal Planner and Associate Vice President at HDR. He has over 25 years’ experience in the science and technology marketplace with a strong background in the planning and design of lab and animal environments. He has a strong background in the underlying principles and detailed technical requirements of scientific research facilities and their complicated architectural and engineering systems. His main focus is the application of these principles in the creation of productive, safe, reliable, and adaptive facilities that enhance the quality of life within the laboratory.

Jerry Percifield, a Project Principal at HDR, has over 40 years of experience designing complex research facilities for Institutional, governmental and corporate clients with a focus on research laboratories, animal facilities and specialty core areas that support a wide range of research activities. Biomedical research, materials characterization and other engineering disciplines, clean rooms and support for the micro-electronics industries are areas of his focus. Jerry is a thought leader in the rethinking and re-engineering of facilities for life sciences as basic and clinical fields converge. A prolific author, he is a frequent speaker at national conferences.