What You Don't See Can Hurt You

A critical space for safe science education is often undersized or poorly designed in today’s new schools: the prep and storage space.

While more and more science teaching spaces are designed following the recommendations of the NSTA Guide to Planning School Science Facilities, as combined lab/classrooms sized for 24 students at 60 sq. ft. per person, prep and equipment and chemical storage spaces are often neglected and provided only in whatever space may be left over in the science area. These spaces may be the only science storage areas in a school, and thus serve the dual functions of prep space and storage space. When this occurs, and the space is undersized or improperly designed, prep space loses out to storage and unsafe conditions may result.

The NSTA Guide recommends that an additional 10 sq. ft. per student be provided for prep and storage; in other words 240 sq. ft. for support of a single lab/classroom of 24 students. Careful design of this space is critical to ensure that proper facilities are provided for storage, as well as plenty of counter space, sinks, and other equipment for safe preparation of materials for demonstrations and student investigations. Here are some guidelines for adequate and successful prep and storage spaces.

Storage should have its own, well-defined area with open shelving of various heights and widths, tall cabinets, open floor space, and other specialized storage equipment. Physical science storage may need peg-board areas on a wall to store long items such as air tracks, as well as open floor space for large, heavy items (physics teachers generally have a number of neat things to demonstrate physical phenomena such as unicycles, bowling balls, crossbows, etc.). Chemistry and biology need safe, well-designed shelving and cabinets for glassware and other equipment, plus separate, well-ventilated storage rooms for chemicals. Provide floor space, possibly underneath a counter, for the carts used to transport materials from the prep/storage area to the lab/classroom, and also for the storage of various safety apparatus, such as splatter or demo shields, that may not have a home in the lab/classroom. Field equipment, including nets, waders, shovels, seines, and other equipment that may become dirty, also needs a storage place. Some schools have provided separate “mud rooms” adjacent to biology and environmental science lab/classrooms with wall hooks for waders, bins or racks for nets and other gear, a floor drain, and a hose bibb for washing down muddy items.

Rolling, compact shelving systems have been used successfully as part of a diverse overall system for science storage. These systems, although expensive, can eliminate the cost of additional floor space by providing very dense, uniform storage since the shelving sections roll together, requiring only a single aisle. However, it should be noted that this type of uniform shelving is inadequate when used alone. An assortment of various sizes and shapes of cabinets and drawers are needed to store the diverse science equipment and materials.

Industrial shelving and storage systems can also provide types of storage solutions not commonly thought of in planning science prep and equipment storage rooms. Bins in racks that slope toward the front can hold a variety of smaller items and the bin design allows the science teacher to see at a glance what they contain.

Chemicals should not be stored in the prep or equipment storage rooms, unless they are used in such very small quantities that a small, lockable chemical storage cabinet may be used. A separate, locked chemical storage room should be adjacent to and accessible only from the chemistry prep room. This space should have its own ventilation system, running 24/7, with vents at the floor and at the ceiling.

Specifically designed, UL approved cabinets for flammables and for corrosives should be used to isolate these items from other potential reactions. Flammables storage cabinets should not be separately vented (see NFPA 45 “Standard on Fire Protection for Laboratories Using Chemicals”) and should not be used to store corrosives, as they are not designed to withstand corrosive fumes. Shelving for the storage of chemicals other than flammables and corrosives should be designed so as to be non-reactive to the chemicals stored (wood with adjustable plastic supports, for example). Shelves should be shallow (12" or less) so that no more than two containers may be stored front-to-back. Lips or horizontal rods on shelves may help to protect containers from dropping off shelves, particularly in seismically active zones. Chemicals must be stored according to compatibility and should be clearly labeled. MSDS sheets for all chemicals stored should be placed in a folder or notebook attached to the outside of the chemical storage room door and should also be on file in the principal’s and nurse’s offices.

The layout and equipment requirements of the prep area will vary by discipline. Biology and chemistry will require sinks with hot and cold water and counter and wall space for discipline specific equipment such as centrifuges, autoclaves, lab ovens, incubators, spectrometers, microwave oven, etc. Make sure sufficient electrical power of the proper voltage is provided for these items; all circuits should have GFI protection. Floor space for a refrigerator may be required, as well as an icemaker, dishwasher, and cart storage. A generator for deionized water may need wall space and a water connection to the sink. A fume hood will likely be required for use by the teacher in prepping chemicals for student lab activities or demonstrations. While the teacher might be able to use a hood in the adjacent lab/classroom for this activity, when another class is in session in that space, a hood in the prep room is a better solution. A hood could be selected for this purpose with sash on two sides so that it might also serve as one of the hoods used by the students during a class. Physical science will probably require a single, large sink and more counter space and open shelving. Prep areas should be equipped with the same safety equipment normally provided for a lab/classroom including a safety shower/eyewash, fire blanket, and fire extinguisher.

Prep and storage spaces should be immediately adjacent to the lab/classrooms they serve. One potential approach is to provide a large prep/storage space between two adjacent lab/classrooms so that the two adjacent spaces can use the same facility. Such a prep/storage space should be sized using the same guidelines given above: 10 sq. ft. per student or, in this case, 480 sq. ft. for a pair of adjacent 24-student lab/classrooms. Ample glass view windows between the prep area and the lab/classroom should be provided to allow supervision of students when the teacher goes into the prep room. Doors between the lab/classrooms and the prep room should be lockable, and a separate lockable door should be provided from the prep room to the adjacent corridor to allow a teacher to access the prep and storage areas while another class is in session in an adjacent lab/classroom.

Schools with more than two lab/classrooms per discipline often prefer to construct a central prep and storage facility, so as to minimize the duplication of equipment needed. A variety of arrangements have been developed to provide central prep/storage including long spaces connecting four or more lab/classrooms or more square spaces with doors directly to adjacent lab/classrooms. One of the challenges of such a layout is to provide satisfactory access to both the lab/classrooms and the prep/storage space, while still having windows and natural light in the lab/classrooms. Building codes limit the length of “dead-end” corridors, so a central prep space may require corridors on the opposite sides of the lab/classrooms. It is unadvisable, however, to locate prep/storage facilities remote from the lab/classrooms they serve as this will require the teacher to transport potentially hazardous materials through corridors.

Teacher office space should not be located in storage areas for both security reasons and for the health of the teacher. Several successful arrangements for teacher office space include a teacher’s desk in an alcove in the lab/classroom (to indicate clearly that this is the teacher’s space and not student space), a desk area in the prep room (not where chemicals are stored), a separate office space between two lab/classrooms, or in a centralized departmental office.

The diagrams with this article illustrate two possible arrangements of prep/storage spaces. The first is an appropriately-sized prep/storage space located between two adjacent lab/classrooms. A separately ventilated chemical storage room is located at one end, with some tall storage cabinets along the adjacent wall. A central island with space beneath for the storage of lab carts is placed for the purpose of assembling the items needed for specific student investigations or demonstrations. Two areas with counter, base, and wall cabinets, and sinks lining the two opposite walls; a refrigerator, and undercounter dishwasher are provided. This area also has a fume hood that is shared with the adjacent lab/classroom. Lowered sections of counter with file cabinets and computer connections are located on each side. Doors lead directly to the two adjacent lab/classrooms. Each side also has a view window from the prep area into the adjacent lab/classroom.

The second diagram represents a centralized prep/storage area for chemistry. In the final plan for the building, this space serves five lab/classrooms, some of which are immediately adjacent to the prep/storage space and some across the corridor, requiring the teacher to transport materials on a cart from the prep space to the lab/classroom (not an ideal arrangement as noted above). This prep/storage space has been divided into prep, cleaning, staging, storage, and “clean” areas plus a separate and separately ventilated chemical storage room. Again, central counters with space beneath for lab carts allow for the staging and distribution of materials to the various lab/classrooms; two separate prep areas have counters with base and wall cabinets plus locations for a variety of equipment. Both prep areas have sinks. The cleaning area also has a sink and an adjacent dishwasher. Free-standing, adjustable wooden shelving along one wall provides ample space for a variety of glassware and other equipment, and floor space is provided for large equipment which will not fit on shelves. The “clean” area is similar to the teacher desk area in the previous diagram with computer hookups and file cabinets. Both layouts include a safety shower/eyewash, a fire blanket, fire extinguisher, and first aid cabinet.

When designing a new science facility, be sure to include sufficient, well-planned prep/storage space. Science faculty should inventory equipment on hand and plan for additional equipment to be purchased so that appropriate space can be provided for these items. Likewise, an inventory should be made of existing chemicals and other materials to determine which have passed their useful and safe life span or are no longer used in the program (such as the carboy of acetic acid that Johnny’s uncle donated back in 1932); those that fall into this category should be safely disposed of before the new space is occupied.

James T. Biehle, AIA, is president of Inside/Out Architecture, Inc. in Kirkwood, MO. He is co-author of the NSTA Guide to Planning School Science Facilities, 2nd Edition and writes and speaks regularly about school science facility planning issues.