Down to a science: right-sizing, wellness and flexibility in lab design
The past few years have affirmed why science, technology and innovation is so important to the future of our global ecosystem. With COVID-19 expediting trends in mRNA technology platforms, vaccine manufacturing, research laboratories, cleanrooms and open data initiatives, the capacity for digital transformation in science is fast becoming an inevitable blueprint for a more sustainable future.
In 2021, the OECD outlined the importance of enabling collaborative, trans-disciplinary innovation in science and technology in order to build a more resilient and inclusive society. This, coupled with Australia’s Science Minister Ed Husic recently ordering a review of federally funded programs designed to improve diversity in STEM in a climate where women make up just 16% of people with STEM qualifications, is slowly paving the way for a collective effort driven by women in science.
Recently, I have been reflecting on the incredible contribution of Australian scientists to our knowledge base, as well as musing on my own role as a woman in STEM and advocate of life sciences. Since winning the design competition for the University of Sydney’s Sydney Biomedical Accelerator (SBA) in August, I have been thinking about just how interdependent science, education, health and research truly are — and why my role at HDR as a Senior Laboratory Planner in the Architecture business is so rewarding.
In such a niche and specialised field, knowledge-sharing needs to become more ingrained in our day-to-day so, in the spirit of igniting meaningful discussion, I thought I’d share some insights into my world — laboratory planning and design.
To put it simply, laboratories are among the most programmatically complex environments to plan, design and engineer. In my role I work across several typologies — life sciences, physical sciences, high containment and teaching labs just to name a few — and provide solutions to our clients’ often complex challenges: “How can a facility be right-sized in a way that accounts for future growth and requirements?”, “How can a facility be retrofitted to allow for flexibility within a limited footprint?” and “How flexible should laboratory furniture and equipment systems be?”
A symbiotic relationship
Right-sizing and flexibility is at the heart of laboratory planning and design outcomes. These notions are not mutually exclusive, but it is not until all the pieces of the laboratory planning and design puzzle harmoniously fit together that a symbiotic relationship between the two can be fully realised. At HDR, we use right-sizing and flexibility to extend the life cycle of every facility we design and provide a working, living and breathing entity that meets a laboratory’s operational needs and goals, both now and in the future.
Ultimately, right-sizing is about the avoidance of overbuilding or underbuilding lab space and facilities and, while it is primarily focused on optimising allocation of space, it also involves the right-sizing of utilities and services. As a lab planner, the key considerations here are a) the potential for too much space and ending up with underutilised labs, b) inadequate space to accommodate future growth or change and c) over- or under-designed mechanical, engineering and plumbing systems. In short, getting this balance right will optimise the allocation of space.
Similarly, flexibility applies at a number of scales — with the building scale being paramount — and must be integrated into modular planning strategies, laboratory furniture and equipment systems, and utility and service delivery systems. The end goals are to allow for easy expansion and contraction of research programs, staff and equipment over time; minimise the disruption and costs associated with programming changes over a building’s life cycle; and ensure minimal costs for additional renovations and physical changes. Together with right-sizing, flexibility will inform the long-term design outcomes of the laboratory.
Lab design strategies
Lab planning and design is a complex practice so, in the spirit of knowledge-sharing, here are some best-practice and emerging lab design strategies that can help organisations to right-size their facilities, account for flexibility and futureproof their business.
- Programming and growth projections: Determining the size, scale, number of lab modules and personnel needs is critical to the programming and master planning phase, as is utilising data analytics and modelling tools to look at funding growth, staff growth and the facility’s implication.
- Typology menu: Working with stakeholders to determine their bespoke requirements and developing a matrix which looks for commonalities between laboratories can assist in the creation of a menu of typologies that will help to populate and program space and/or design based on predictions of typology quantities.
- Core and shared facilities: Core facilities can minimise the duplication of expensive equipment and instruments, as well as provide core resources for research programs that may change over time.
- Modular planning: One size doesn’t fit all, so finding the right laboratory module and ascertaining the right concept layout is critical to creating a highly flexible research environment over the building life cycle.
- Connected clusters: Once a module has been decided, it is important to consider how to arrange the spaces. While the approach to lab design in the last two decades has favoured the ‘open lab’ layout, we have recently taken this approach one step further by connecting clusters of smaller labs together to streamline connectivity and provide an opportunity to operate individual labs that may require isolation.
- Activity-based utilisation: This two-pronged approach involves the assignment of open benches and rezoning laboratory spaces to allow for cost-effective changes to the facility over time.
- Furniture and equipment: Once the space strategy has been realised, it is important to consider whether fitout of furniture and equipment will involve traditional fixed systems, largely mobile systems or a hybrid system. This decision should be made using a benefit-cost ratio.
- Laboratory utility and service systems: The laboratory furniture systems selected are only as good as the utilities that serve them. There are roughly three main options for service systems — traditional hard connections to fixed benches, suspended overhead carriers and highly flexible, quick-disconnect ceiling-mounted services.
- Pathways: Providing proper pathways in lab buildings and spaces can help organise the space efficiently in order to maximise productivity, workflow and flexibility.
When integrated into a fluid, malleable design process, these strategies can help to navigate the complex nature of lab environments. There’s still so much unrealised potential to enable transformative and agile scientific research, experiments and measurement in laboratories. With more advocacy, strategic foresight and knowledge-sharing, we have the opportunity to enact lasting change and innovation in the industry — and hopefully broaden the pipeline of women in STEM.
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