Congratulations! Your startup is ready to move out of that incubator hub and begin leasing your own space. Funding is secured, employees are being hired and now it’s time to scale up operations.

These are exciting and challenging times, especially for those new to running a lab facility. The procedures and techniques that work fine at a small scale may have trouble transitioning into a larger process.

So how do you determine how much space is needed? It’s a simple question that can get complex fast. Finding the right space can have a significant impact on how efficient the lab works, or even in attracting and retaining critical employees.

The first step is understanding how your lab performs. Not just the science, but all the behind the scene operations that keep the science working properly. Think The Wizard of Oz—it’s time to pull back the curtain and see how everything really works.

In the rush for space, new companies tend to cobble together any bit of information they can find just so their brokers can get started. Unfortunately, this tends to cause confusion down the line during fit planning when the accuracy of the information is questioned. Ideally, the collection of information should begin much sooner. Consider tracking basic information at key incremental steps, such as when you expand from leasing a bench to a suite. Key data should include:

Equipment list: One of the more difficult aspects to managing a lab is maintaining an active equipment list. The main purpose of the equipment list is to ensure that each piece of equipment receives the utilities that it requires and that it has adequate space. They also act as a living document for tracking which department the equipment belongs to, where it is and the manufacturer and model number for each piece. Most facility managers have a love/hate relationship with equipment lists. They are a fantastic tool so long as someone is managing them. They also tend to be the biggest wild card during the programming and planning phase. Start by tracking general information such as the manufacturer and model, and the required utilities—types of gases, does it need water, exhaust, or emergency power, Data, UPS, vacuum, etc. As your company grows, more categories can be added, such as department, location, size and required clearances, and maintenance needs and schedule.  

Chemical quantities: This is another hidden influencer on deciding which space is the best fit for your company. Building codes specify the maximum allowable quantities of hazardous materials per control area and floor. Knowing which chemicals are used, how much and how they are stored and dispensed will help identify hidden operational costs. When space hunting, be sure to ask the property managers how many control areas are on the floor, how chemical storage is handled and any chemical limitations.  

Program metrics: These are the measurements of a particular characteristic, such as linear feet of bench per person. It’s difficult to pinpoint a precise industry standard for metrics because even companies with similar programs and operational styles can have a large discrepancy in their numbers. The best approach is to determine what works for you. Once the metrics are established then they are multiplied by the projected number of people working in the lab. The metrics listed below reflect general parameters for designing lab spaces—the actual design requirements may vary from lab to lab and by user. Opportunities to increase the efficiency of the metrics can be found in several areas: sharing lab support spaces, sharing lab equipment and the increasing use of automation. Specialty lab spaces such as tissue culture, production suites, etc., are not reflected in the metrics below. The metrics for specialty labs should be determined on a case-by-case basis with direct input from the user groups.

Metrics per person diagram. Image: Pasqualino Pannone

Supplies: It’s easy to forget that all those products used in the lab take up space. Stuffing the lab bench shelves full of supplies sounds like a quick and easy solution, but it tends to result in cluttered workspaces and lost or redundant supplies. Just like with the chemical quantity database, track what you need, where it’s needed and how often it needs to be reordered. Plan for long-term storage rooms centrally located for the lab users. This will make the supplies convenient to get to and keeps the lab bench shelves clutter free with only short-term supplies on hand.

Developing these databases will go a long way in helping you find the right space. They are an invaluable tool in right-sizing your needs and helping you grow to the next level. These are also the more tangible factors in your growth—remember that there are intangible factors, which can have just as great an influence. The current challenge is finding a new space to fit your needs today, but what about in five years? Future growth projections, though constantly in flux, can help you determine if that new building offers the ability to expand. The cost of moving a company from place to place grows exponentially as the company grows, so it’s better to plan now than hope for the best later.

Another intangible is the company culture. How you choose to work can have a significant impact on the amount of space you need. Particular work habits in the lab can be picked up in the lab metrics, but measuring how you interact with your colleagues in the office is a harder variable to nail down. Consider the lab beyond the lab. As labs continue to evolve and adapt emerging technologies, scientists are spending less time working at their benches and more time working within offices and collaboration areas. This trend is pushing the lab to office ratio from a traditional 60:40 to a more efficient 50:50. The greater emphasis on office culture is testing the traditional notion of how an office should look and feel. Do users require private offices, or do you want to promote an open office with bench-style workstations? What is the right mix of collaboration seats per person? Where do employees interact and trade information? The current trend is for a mix of everything, though finding the right proportion depends on the type of office environment that supports your vision. Establishing a company design guideline can help facilitate the design process and inform the decision making process on how the office and labs should be developed in a way that supports the company culture. 

There is a lot to take in, and collecting all this information can be overwhelming. Start early and simple, then build from there. Having this information ready will make it easier to hit the ground running when you meet with the design team. Avoid that last minute scramble to answer the enviable question, “So, how much space do you need?”

Pasqualino Pannone, AIA, LEED AP, is a Project Manager/Project Architect, Associate, with Perkins+Will. Pasqualino has a wide range of experience as a project manager and project architect in various project types and sizes including healthcare, academic and residential, with an emphasis in science and technology. Clients have come to depend on him as a trusted adviser who is attentive to their needs and requests. His priority is to align the coordination of the design team’s services with the client’s specific requirements. He has taught both graduate and undergraduate design studies at the Boston Architectural College and served as a thesis adviser and mentor. Pasqualino believes in developing elegant and sophisticated design solutions and then grounding them in the reality of how people use spaces.