Laboratory design for the future

The ability to respond to changes in R&D direction quickly and efficiently is vital for today’s laboratory. The key to this is a flexible workspace that can adapt to new science as quickly as it is developed

PATTERNS of innovation in society change over time. The drivers of innovation and economic wealth will no longer depend on innovation and communication technology. New technologies, such as Nano-Technology, are rapidly emerging and gaining influence. Other research areas, such Life Sciences and Bio-technology are changing the way things have been done in the past. New areas of research and emerging technologies require different working and operational requirements. Shorter innovation cycles and the increasing importance of productivity and creativity call for different working environments.

Today’s rate of change in R&D has never been greater and there is no sign of it slowing down. Changes in operational needs seem to occur on a daily basis. Research driven organisations (facility owners, project developers, scientists, architects and consultants alike) are trying to accommodate this phenomenon by asking for the ultimate challenge – future proof laboratory design. However, despite the increasing coverage and massive budgets being poured into new facilities, it is interesting to note that very little formal research is conducted to investigate holistic designs and innovative solutions for more efficient research facilities. In the laboratory industry very little is known about the relation between working environment, productivity and innovation. The art of designing laboratories is also very fragmented from country to country. Although one would expect that Biochemists in Geneva would have similar expectations, in terms of their working environment, as their colleagues in London, we will still find many differences in specifications. 

There are two positive initiatives that tackle future proof lab design on an international level. Lab2020 is a research project conducted by the Fraunhofer Institute, Stuttgart, Germany. The project analyses trends and important factors in lab design and aims at defining a basis for improving the quality of use and efficiency of lab environments of the future. Labs21 UK has been established to support more sustainable design and operation of laboratories in Britain. It draws, with permission, on the experience and materials of the Labs21 initiative in the USA.

Today’s laboratories have little in common with the ones that were designed and built only a generation ago. Information technology is taking its toll and requires more power and data infrastructure than ever before. Today, “traditional” laboratory work takes up only a third of the working day of a scientist. There is also a clear change in the requirements for wet and dry services. Generally, wet services are in decline and a reduction in the requirement for gases increasingly questions the need for central supply systems.

Automation is becoming an increasing part of the laboratory of today and requires space and services for equipment and robots. Research establishments (both educational and industrial) are trying to achieve as much flexibility as possible to be able to quickly react to changing requirements. A clear trend is developing by separating services from the benches. Overhead service carriers, such as the Waldner service wing or our Integrated Service Ceiling have become industry standard in many countries. True flexibility can only be achieved by separating services from the bench.

Pre-fabrication of services is also becoming increasingly popular. Already standard in numerous countries, it is now used more and more often in the UK. Pre-fabrication is basically a by-product of modular construction and the basis for cost-effective modifications or amendments after the initial installation. It reduces installation time and increases quality exponentially. 

Whereas in the past laboratories would be populated by general scientific staff, there is now a clear need for scientific specialists. The separation of specialists is already known to hamper innovation – modern building design allows space for communication zones to bring the different types of researchers together again. Attractive looking support spaces accompany the laboratory of today providing pleasant working environments. In general we can see a demand for more style in laboratories. European establishments are competing for talent. This is not only true for attracting new people but also for retaining potential. To prevent scientists leaving Europe for more lucrative opportunities in other parts of the world (usually across the Atlantic) budget holders are increasingly keen to create not only functional laboratories but also aesthetically pleasant facilities. An ever increasing number of leading Universities in the UK are building state-of-the-art facilities to attract the teams they need to maintain their reputation and to form the basis of the knowledge economy everybody is talking about.

When studying currently available research data, the following drivers of successful and innovation friendly environments can be identified:

? Increasingly team oriented and interdisciplinary research across borders and time zones.
? The development of a competitive global market with increasing national and international cooperation and exchange of information.
? The growing importance of ergonomic and human factors in laboratory environments as well as issues around sustainability.
? The ubiquitous use of high tech, information and communication technology.
? A growing integration of new technologies affecting research processes and output.
? A continuous and uninterrupted online infrastructure to control and support research process development.

Amongst others, award winning laboratory designs usually have several key ingredients. Firstly, understanding of the business case. Without a clear understanding of the operational requirements and corporate objectives (output) it will not be possible to develop a satisfactory result (also refer to next paragraph, design flexibility). Secondly, support of individual excellence. Bridging the gap between individual performance and being part of the whole is paramount. Talent can only be retained if individual scientists’ needs are catered for. Thirdly, promote collaborative exchange. Even the best individuals will be restricted if the facility does not provide for communication and cross-functional exchange between research teams.

Make change possible. Today’s requirements are only good for today. The best design for the future is to make changes possible as easily and cost-effectively as possible. The truth of the matter is that nobody is really certain what the future will hold.

Flexibility evolves as a key phrase in modern laboratory language. However, flexibility in a working laboratory is quite complex and often there are many questions that remain unanswered. What does maximum flexibility actually mean? How much flexibility do facilities really need? How much of the flexibility provided is actually used? How much does flexibility cost? What is the life cycle cost aspect of flexibility?

Questions like this are not always easy to answer.

In principle, we distinguish between three distinct levels of flexibility:

- Design flexibility, the ability of a furniture system to accommodate a particular – design requirement in a cost effective way.
- Mobile flexibility, i.e. the number of mobile components a furniture system offers, such as mobile underbench units, benches, fume cupboards and sinks.
- Operational flexibility, i.e. the capability of a furniture system to accommodate an easy and cost effective change of services throughout the life cycle of the laboratory.

Only furniture systems that excel in all three categories will provide the laboratory user with facilities that can truly be modified according to changes in requirements and not the other way around.

The emphasis is clearly placed on the capability of a furniture system to allow these changes in a cost effective way. Modifications usually require capital expenditure and result in down time and disruption. As an example, the relocation of a gas tap in a conventional furniture system costs 3 to 4 times as much as the initial installation. A modern flexible furniture system would allow this change to be carried out for not more than the initial installation cost.

The recognition of the rapid change that is required in research and innovation driven environments is key to a successful design that is able to cater for both today’s and tomorrow’s requirements. A holistic understanding of the complex success drivers is difficult but paramount.

Steffen Springer
Steffen is Managing Director of Waldner Limited. He holds degrees in engineering and business management.

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