Designing Today's Research Environments

Today’s biomedical and life science research facilities must anticipate the future in a field continuously changing at an ever-increasing rate. Each project has its own unique future. Early communication between designer and users during project definition will help produce a facility that can be successful today and tomorrow. Terry Brown, a laboratory planner and project manager with Research Facilities Design in San Diego, has been planning research facilities for 18 years. He believes the initial programming process is key to understanding each individual project’s current needs, as well as offering the best glimpse of the future.“If you have an exciting, interactive programming and design process with engaged users, then you will get an exciting, interactive lab environment,” said Brown.

Robert McGhee has been architect and senior facilities officer with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) for 22 years, until taking a position this year on the faculty of the Rice University School of Architecture. Said McGhee,“I rarely think about what people are doing today when designing a laboratory, it’s what they will be doing that I’m interested in. I use the trends from the past to inform me about what that might be.” Working with HHMI, an institution with 70+ major research facilities, McGhee has seen thousands of renovations and talked to hundreds of scientists about the successes and failures of research facilities. He believes “If you’ve done it right, the end result is not your choice; it’s the users’ choice.”

Omniplan recently collaborated with McGhee on the early planning of a 12-story, 400,000-sq.-ft. research facility at the University of Texas Southwest Medical Center (UTSWMC) in Dallas. The project is the fifth tower on the medical school’s North Campus. The previous four projects were organized around a conventional “race track” model, the institution’s standard. Key scientists within the institution wanted a new direction. The complete design team met frequently with users through a period of three to four weeks. Many ideas were explored until a clear representation of the user’s aspirations for the facility emerged in a final layout.

Understanding Drivers of Change

The best way to anticipate the future is to recognize the key drivers of current change. Many things impact the configuration of today’s research facility, from the way scientists and students gather and analyze data to the types of equipment utilized. Twenty years ago, people spent 75 percent of their time at the bench and 25 percent at the desk; today that ratio is almost reversed. The increasing role of computational science in research suggests the desk and bench configuration should be able to accommodate both wet and dry activities. McGhee believes the conventional four-ft. desk/eight-ft. bench pairing is becoming a problem. He is working on a project at Texas A&M University where bench and desk are interchangeable.

Another significant change is the increasing need for shared support space. Buildings built 15 to 20 years ago had support space equal to about 50 percent of the lab space. Today that ratio is more like 1:1. This ratio is 1.5:1 at the new Janelia Farm Research Campus, an HHMI facility in Virginia, which McGhee shepherded. This shift is driven by the increased need for equipment and activities that have special requirements not appropriate for the bench environment.

A related change is the need for increasingly sophisticated core services with very expensive equipment. Some of these, such as imaging equipment, have such specialized requirements that they are difficult to house within the base building. The UTSWMC Phase 5 imaging core is connected by enclosed circulation but isolated structurally from the main building and configured completely in response to equipment criteria.

Accommodating Change

Research facilities must be rational and reusable, without undue initial or future construction costs. The first task toward this end is designing the building systems and infrastructure in an ordered, modular fashion. Most of a building’s long-term adaptability comes from this approach.

Within a modular design, additional flexibility can be achieved through versatile laboratory layouts and selection of appropriately flexible casework. Manufacturers have produced a number of casework systems that maximize flexibility, though typically at a cost premium. Brown notes that he’s been involved in many facilities that have installed very flexible — and expensive — casework systems; visiting the facilities two or three years later, little if anything had changed. For any project, it is important to find the right balance between cost and flexibility. Brown is currently working at University of California at Berkley with a new generation of “mobile work station” that provides a lot of flexibility without the typical 10- to 15-percent premium.

“Every space can’t do every thing,” McGhee noted. Flexibility around activities at the bench and desk is increasingly important, while being able to have a sink or vibration-sensitive equipment anywhere in the building probably is not. The important thing is to have a reasonable ability to respond to change without requiring the involvement of plumbers and electricians.

Interaction and Collaboration

Interaction is important in laboratory and work areas. Many of the significant, recent advances in science have come as a result of interdisciplinary collaboration fostered by such interaction. It can be promoted by a variety of interactive spaces, such as break areas or dining facilities. The dining room at Janelia Farm is only open for lunch, while the Pub is open in the morning for coffee, in the afternoon for tea, and in the evening for cocktails, providing a variety of interaction opportunities. “We know that scientists and students interact electronically, but face-to-face interaction is still important, and it may even enhance further electronic interaction,” McGhee said.

Interaction can also be fostered by a building’s circulation, creating opportunities for interaction in the course of daily activity. The typical laboratory floor in the Phase 5 building at UTSWMC is planned around four “research units” per floor. Each is comprised of two principal investigator offices, one administrative workstation, and seven to eight lab modules (28 to 32 desk/bench positions). These units are connected to each other and to shared facilities, horizontally and vertically, by a circulation plan specifically designed to facilitate interaction.

Beyond Functionality

Finally, in today’s research environment, functionality is not the only consideration. The quality of the environment is equally important. Today’s facilities must focus on providing excellent spaces for all functions: bench areas, support areas, offices, meeting spaces, and gathering areas. McGhee believes laboratory designers should consider what these facilities would be like to be in for 12 to 16 hours a day. What they will be like during the day, what they will be like at night. Will people want to be there? Facilities that are interesting, comfortable, well-detailed and designed are not only more likely to be maintained through time, but also make a statement about what is important to the institution… and can be important in recruiting.

McGhee’s work at Janelia Farm sets the bar in this regard. While the project benefits from a budget that exceeds that of most academic institutions, the principles can be applied to any project. HHMI’s Website states, “The architectural design of the buildings and the laboratories are aimed at achieving Janelia Farm's central objectives — collaboration and flexibility. All aspects…are designed to stimulate multidisciplinary, team-driven biomedical research.” A clear summary of what today’s biomedical/life science research facilities should be about.

Mark Dilworth, AIA, LEED-AP, serves as CEO and principal of Omniplan, a national architecture, interior architecture, and planning firm specializing in the design of higher education, retail, and commercial facilities. With 30 years of experience, Dilworth is the design director for the firm’s college and university projects. For more information, visit