Deconstructing the lab: The transdisciplinary network
Thomas Smith, AIA, LEED AP
Historically, the word “laboratory” has brought to mind the image of a scientist peering into a microscope.
However, science is becoming more collaborative, active and transparent every day.
While many scientific environments provide
“collaborative spaces” and “put science on
display”, do the buildings themselves—from
the site to the circulation—actually support
science to the fullest degree possible?
Scientific environments serve three
distinct purposes. They need to ( 1) act as
a network to bring people together; ( 2)
provide the fuel for experimentation and
dialogue; and ( 3) attract the best and
brightest talent. Some common design
strategies support all three purposes:
• Provide variety in spatial scales and
arrangements to support different types
• Use placemaking to establish a connection to both the building itself and
the social environment within it.
• Create a visual identity that reflects
the organization’s brand but allows for
However, each of the three distinct
purposes takes form in the built environment in very specific ways.
In this article, we look at how design
can be used to foster the first purpose—
the lab as a “transdisciplinary network.”
Today many institutions have recognized
that scientific challenges are so complex
that siloed, discipline-based models are
no longer producing the same magnitude
of discoveries of newer more collaborative
models. Going beyond interdisciplinary
collaboration, where researchers from dif-
ferent disciplines come together to solve a
problem, transdisciplinary research inte-
grates disciplines to the point where they
fade away, instead framing research prob-
lems in a larger societal context. 1
The physical environment can either
help or hinder this discourse and shared
work. Below are three key strategies that we
use to create and sustain this network.
BRINGING TOGETHER CROSS-SECTIONS
Co-location is critical to improving
collaboration among scientists and
researchers. Research suggests that functional, physical proximity improves both
the likelihood of new collaborations
between researchers and the chances that
said collaborations are awarded grant
This graphic demonstrates how transdisciplinary
research brings researchers from different disciplines
together so that the disciplines themselves fade away.
In the MD Anderson Zayad Building, program leaders are co-located with other program leaders as opposed to
being located with their teams in order to facilitate better collaboration. Image: HDR