By Victor J. Cardona, AIA, NCARB and Jon Romig
Diminishing levels of grant funding, coupled with a higher level of fiscal responsibility, are making today’s lab facilities significantly more accountable for every dollar spent.
Unlike the recent past where grant dollars
flowed more freely and universities picked
up the tab for many facility-related expenses,
science departments are being strapped with
responsibility-based budgeting (RBB), which is
defined as “a decentralized model of financial
management that attempts to couple academic
authority with financial responsibility.”1 As a
result, their labs are now only as spacious as
they can individually afford to make them.
In this new environment of lean budgets, labs
have no choice but to re-examine traditional
approaches to space layout and operations
in order to stretch those spending dollars.
Fortunately, an honest look at space planning
for both direct and indirect funding can actually
boost researcher productivity and satisfaction.
OPTIMIZING DIRECT EXPENDITURES
At approximately half of total grant funding,
direct expenditures from research dollars is
usually associated with the number of personnel, their salaries and benefits and expenses—such as travel, lab materials and supplies.
As architects and planners, we might assist
researchers in improving their investment by
looking at three simple areas: lab efficiency,
increased productivity and reducing material
and supply quantities in the lab.
Taking a new approach to lab space layouts,
the latest trend is improving the workflow
within the research areas, namely office/desk
space, open lab and support spaces.
Moving the desks out of the lab and into an
office environment is much more cost effective,
enabling institutions to shrink down the lab space
and associated energy profile. Essentially, researchers split their time relatively evenly between the
two spaces; so it’s still important to strategically
locate them close to each other in order to maximize researcher efficiency and productivity.
But the office location as it relates to the lab is
always controversial. Should offices be co-located
to promote collaboration, or should they be next
to the lab? At the same time, it’s important to note
that layout efficiencies must be balanced with effi-
ciencies at the enterprise level. Ultimately, it’s up
to the building owner and users to determine if it’s
more important for senior faculty to be co-located
with their peers, as opposed to seating faculty near
In any case, the most important goal is
increasing efficiency and workflow within the
lab itself. If organizations are also looking to
reduce workers in the lab, then setting up a
highly productive lab layout is a must. Similarly,
furnishings like ergonomically adjustable
benches with built-in storage, furniture on
wheels and flexible casework can easily be
adapted to the needs of different researchers.
Whereas in the past, it wasn’t unusual for an
institution to spend a million dollars and take
six months or more to renovate a lab for a new
principal investigator (PI), an open lab can be
reconfigured in a fraction of the time, significantly increasing space utilization.
At this point, it seems common knowledge
that daylight promotes productivity; but it took
some time for natural light to reach the lab
spaces inside a research building. Fortunately,
designers are now actively incorporating this
benefit beyond the office and lab support areas
and into the labs themselves.
Not stopping there, lab aesthetics are being
enhanced with quality materials, colors, lighting and interiors. A noted departure from
the traditional sterile, monotonous look, the
research environment has become a much
more visually appealing space, which can also
Good acoustics have also evolved into a best
practice and strategy for supporting workplace
efficiencies and lab worker satisfaction. Not only
has large equipment been moved out of the lab
to enhance space efficiencies, but those machines
tend to be noisy and distracting. Moving these
pieces into the core areas has resulted in open
labs that are acoustically pleasing.
Another noted trend is incorporating high
levels of transparency, essentially supporting
the notion of “science on display.” A valuable
tool for recruiting and promoting research
activities, particularly when seeking grant
money, important lab endeavors can now be
openly highlighted and shared.
Researchers are also finding transparency
between spaces to enhance a sense of community, connectedness and mission amongst
research teams, making people even more committed to their endeavor. Yet another benefit of
transparency is enhanced safety, as any potentially dangerous incidents can be identified and
mitigated much more quickly.
Similar to the strategy of separating labs from
their support spaces, supply cores are moving
outside of the lab into nearby and easily accessible areas. These spaces can support multiple
research teams, a campus sector or an entire
university, and are typically managed by separate
entities, as opposed to a single lab or department. Depending on their function, supply cores
might include a non-staffed refrigerated cabinet
or an entire suite of rooms with one or two
people dedicated to their operations. As a result,
only essential supplies are stored directly in storage cabinets. By re-locating the majority of these
supplies and equipment, expensive lab space is
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Putting researchers in close proximity to their immediate needs is an effective space option. MSU’s Molecular
Plant Sciences Building utilizes a glass wall to separate the mechanical zones, but allows visual access between
the computational areas and open labs. (Image: SmithGroupJJR)