High-tech design

Incorporating R&D trends into laboratory design

By Adam Trigg, Director Programme Management at Essentia https://www.essentia.uk.com/

The way that scientists carry out their day-to-day work has changed greatly in recent years, and this has been driven by:

  • Changes in technology, which means that the life span of equipment is much shorter
  • Greater collaboration so that science projects may be shorter in duration and involve more organisations
  • Workforce changes as new generations influence the work environment
  • Cost pressures on Asset Management budgets.

The above issues inter-relate to influence laboratory design.  An awareness of these influencers  when appointing and leading design teams will assist Universities, Research Institutes and their partners to achieve outstanding new facilities that contribute towards great science outcomes.

Changes in technology

Laboratories are increasingly high-tech environments with a noticeable shift from hands-on lab science to computer based simulation and high throughput screening. The activity which still takes place in the lab is supported by more advanced equipment, higher resolution microscopes and more rapid processing equipment.

As equipment grows in complexity, the ideal situation is to ensure they are linked via a common IT backbone which is able to centrally control and monitor data, consumption and performance. Properly configured the right equipment, effectively linked can contribute to significant productivity gains.

Another driver of productivity is sharing of equipment and this requires a change in philosophy in the design and operation of the facility with a move away from labs dedicated to single purpose (and their own equipment) towards generic facilities suitable for use by multiple consecutive or concurrent science programmes and access to shared facilities in appropriate node locations. Remotely accessing specialist services such as High Speed Computing via third party provides via the Cloud also reduces the need to retain such expensive capacity in house where it is potentially underutilised.

Greater collaboration

Any review of University or Research Institutes science programmes in recent years will reveal greater levels of collaboration across the sector, and a push for shorter time horizon achievement. Pressure is on scientists to reduce the pipeline duration; whether that is bench to bedside, the translational interface with industry or therapy development to market. There are a few exceptions, large scale, long term fundamental research programmes still exist, and for some of these, laboratory facilities need to be built to bespoke specifications and specific requirements.

However, for most scientists, collaboration and relatively short-term focussed activity is the means of progressing along the discovery pipeline, even where this is frame within a long term strategic programme. This aspect of how scientists work drives laboratory design – foremost is the need for the facility to enable rapid start-up of science operations into readily available and reliable spaces.

The laboratory spaces themselves are likely to be of a standard size and configuration with supporting services such as media preparation, sample processing and arranged according to priority by frequency and intensity of use. Linking the various functions of the laboratory, the traditional write up and fixed desk areas need to be re-imagined as flexible, social environments which support solo work, formal and informal group work. When well designed, this is far from the sometimes feared open plan office, instead emerging as areas in which groups self-organise around zones ranging from quiet to vibrant, backed up by always-connected IT and high quality catering services.

To facilitate remote working on international collaborations laboratory services must provide robust and fast IT connections and foster a culture where video conferencing is seamless and a day to day activity. Considering the external environment, collaboration may extent to outside social areas, car-free campus environments, the enablement of sustainable transport and sports / fitness facilities.

Workforce changes

Millennials entering the industry have new and different expectations of their work environment. Further, workforce general trends in work environments are changing. Informed Universities and research institutes recognise the need to create open, border-less spaces which encourage collaboration and enable teams to be formed, reformed and dispersed as projects demand.

This presents a challenge to those who are conditioned to hierarchical arrangements with dedicated offices set apart from the workforce. Senior leadership and managers, responsible for signing off designs need to get on board with the new way of working if they are to provide a platform which a contemporary workforce expects. Employees are in demand, and the work environment can play an important role in attracting, retaining and getting the best from their contribution.

This development in work environments is now trickling through into laboratory designs. The functional laboratory is still required in much the same manner, although new-style workers are less interested in territory and ownership and more interested in reliability of the facility and how its configured around their co-workers to facilitate inter-action. New-style workers are more attuned to lab services delivered through site-wide providers rather than lab-based technicians and will be comfortable with e-ordering or fully automated delivery of consumables. Certain working practices will remain, driven by hygiene and biosafety – the laboratory will never be an eating and drinking zone! Thus, morning and afternoon breaks will continue to be taken together and lunchtime viewed as a social opportunity. However, new-style workers will seek a range of catering offers with both cooked and cold options, but the expectation of nutritional value and high quality will continue their upward trajectory. 

With contemporary workforces, there is also the sensitive topic of trans and non-gender specific identities to address alongside religious and multi-cultural drivers. New facilities often prompt an organisation to reconsider working practices and in contemporary society there is a need to positively address equality in all aspects of design and with laboratories including changing, eating and toilets facilities, these issues must be resolved sensitively, respectfully and in accordance with emerging legislation. A space which responds intelligently to its worker community will contribute towards productivity, and this is true equally whether the facility is for public or private sector use. 

Capital and Revenue costs

Cheaper is not better. As Universities and Research Institutes will be aware, capital investment in science research facilities carries a major cost burden. Depending on the complexity of the lab facility, the cost/m2 can easily far exceed that of a hospital and is amongst the most expensive real estate around. And the costs continue into operations with air systems, equipment demands, and low utilisation rates all contributing to an expensive asset which is expensive to run.

There is however, an intelligent response to this cost challenge. Starting with ‘Why build?’ is the notion that re-purposing of an existing facility, especially if it was designed with some flexibility in mind, may be a viable means of reducing capital investment demands. Once the decision is taken to build, there a several drivers which can contain costs. Firstly, senior leadership define and lock-down the capability required, expressing this as a functional brief, strongly tied to a business case. Secondly, calculation of whole life costs from the outset, to enable capital/revenue balance to be optimised, making use of energy saving and renewable technologies that really pay back. Thirdly, standardising as much as possible in line with an Estate-wide brief. Re-use of details successfully applied elsewhere on the estate, selection of common systems (e.g. BMS) and repetition all drive towards predictable cost outcomes.