The Science of Collaboration

Time was, science laboratories had few windows and little natural light. The benches were built into the structure. Uncomfortable stools provided seating. Offices were on other floors or even in other buildings.

Scientists labored alone at a bench, usually pursuing goals within a single discipline.

But scientists have changed. Today, they are collaborative. They help each other to move work forward efficiently. They learn from colleagues in their own as well as other disciplines, and they require laboratories that facilitate collaboration and cross-pollination.

Collaborative needs have revolutionized laboratory design and furnishings. Today’s labs feature expansive windows and lots of natural light. The utilities plug into the benches from the ceiling. They unplug easily when a set of benches must move to another area. The benches move on rolling disks or wheels. Offices and cubicles are often adjacent to the benches where experiments are conducted. Additional spaces provide whiteboards, high-definition monitors, computers, tables, and comfortable seating to support meetings, small informal gatherings, or a conversation about a football game.

The New Biorenewables Research Lab at Iowa State
Iowa State University in Ames recently unveiled the first phase of a new Biorenewables Research Laboratory (BRL) complex. It rises four floors and encompasses 70,000 sq. ft.

When completed, the complex will house 50 research and teaching laboratories designed to investigate biorenewable resources — plants and crops that can be used to produce fuels, chemicals, materials, and energy.

The BRL reflects the trend toward interdisciplinary science. “It is not designed for any one particular department,” says Margie Tabor, assistant director of space planning and management, in Iowa State’s Facilities Planning and Management Department. “Instead, it is a collaborative, interdisciplinary facility to support research across the University.”

The design of the labs and support spaces aims to facilitate collaboration. Instead of solid walls separating the lab, offices, and conference rooms, glass walls enable people to see into and out of the labs. The conference rooms feature large windows that bring in natural light and provide sweeping views of the campus.

The floor plans are open as well. “Traditionally, researchers have worked in labs designed to facilitate specific research,” says Jon Harvey, project manager in the University’s facilities group. “Here the lab space is open, so if my research grows, I just bring in another bench. I don’t have to move a wall or change rooms.”

Benches and Desks
“The main furnishings in the lab areas are the casework,” says Taka Soga, associate partner in the Seattle office of ZGF Architects LLP, the firm that designed the BRL. “Lab benches are standing-height mobile casework,” he says. “Additional casework is sitting height and used for writing, reading, and Internet research. Some of the pieces are mobile and some are fixed, and most can be adjusted for height.”

A long strip of sitting-height benches line the north side of the building and provide a view of the campus. Wireless and wired (for security) Internet hookups are available there, as is power for computers. The north side of the building was a conscious choice for this casework since the south side receives direct sunlight, which makes it warmer and at times uncomfortable.

Mobile lab benches are key to modern laboratory requirements. Thanks to computers, research projects today can come and go from the lab in a few months. Other projects can go on for years, adding and subtracting mobile casework, as the project’s needs change from phase to phase.

The gas hookups come out of the ceiling and attach to mobile casework running down the center of the lab floor. Benches that need water are generally fixed along a perimeter wall, where the building’s water pipes run. “You can design facilities with water fixtures for moveable casework, but that can get messy,” Soga says. “You really don’t want to move sinks once you put them in.”

In addition to the benches and desks, there are lightweight storage and safety cabinets that are easy to relocate as areas expand and shrink.

The casework in the BRL is made of bamboo, a sustainable material that contributed to the facility’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certification.

In addition to casework, autoclaves that sterilize equipment, fume hoods, safety cabinets, stools and chairs, storage shelves, tables, whiteboards and digital LED screens furnish today’s labs.

The chairs at the writing stations in the BRL, as well as the stools for the taller lab benches, are made of durable, easy-to-clean poly. “The arms on both chairs flip up and out of the way to accommodate people with different body shapes,” notes Cindy Howe, an interior designer with the University’s facilities group. “The chairs also have five-star bases to assure stability.”

The writing stations contain drawers that can be removed to add knee space under the desks.

In the corner of the building is a glass-walled room designed to accommodate breaks and meetings with as many as a dozen people, as well as individual study.

The room furnishings include ottomans and cushioned mobile lounge chairs with tablet arms. “Durability is important here,” Howe adds. “These are commercial furnishings, and they will stand up to 24/7 use. They have leather seats and backs, and durable fabrics tested up to more than 100,000 double rubs — a commercial abrasion test.”

The chairs and ottomans move easily on casters. Behind the interior wall of the corner meeting room, there is a nook with two more cushioned mobile lounge chairs with tablet arms. Each can wheel into the meeting room to accommodate more people.

The wall itself has a whiteboard and a 50-in. digital flat screen (installed after the photograph was taken). There are several such screens throughout the lab. Uses include video conferencing and distance education.

Opposite the meeting room is a kitchenette, with a long table surrounded by chairs. The table can be used for lunch or a formal meeting, while the kitchenette can supply coffee and pastries.

Down a corridor from the meeting room and kitchenette are enclosed offices for faculty and cubicles for post-doctoral candidates. “There are 20 cubicles in that area,” says Howe. “On the opposite side of the corridor, large windows look into the research lab space on the floor.”

Floors two through four of the facility feature similar floor plans and house the research labs. A teaching lab resides on the first floor. It also features mobile casework. A unique feature is a transparent fume hood that makes it easier for students gathered around a bench to observe. A video camera also peers through the fume hood at the bench, recording teaching experiments and sometimes providing video for viewers in remote locations.

At Iowa State, then, collaborative, interdisciplinary science extends from the University’s new Biorenewables Laboratory to students and researchers around the across the country and around the world.