Accelerating Science Through Flexibility

A version of this article first appeared in Laboratory Equipment, formerly known as Lab Design, in March 2019.

The central mission of a lab designer is to solve problems in ways that allow our clients to focus on and succeed in their research. As the business of science rapidly evolves, much of our work is focused on designing easily reconfigured laboratories that alleviate the most vexing problems of lab operation. What have we learned?

For one thing, the ideal lab of the future will require more than an open environment with moveable casework. To be cost effective and future-ready, lab design needs to equally consider both the Principal Investigator of the moment and the next users of the space.

Additionally, long-term strategies require a new level of attention to lab resilience, technology readiness, and energy use. The lab of the future is going to be more compact, more efficient, and designed for the institution. No longer are we designing solely for the scientist.



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The Case for Selective Separation

Like the open office, the open lab environment is intended to foster innovation and cross-discipline collaboration. However, the downside of these open spaces is the difficulty of subdividing it for specialty purposes and changes in user groups. Another issue is the groundswell of resistance to the idea: most commercial tenants want some level of privacy for their staff, their ideas, and their development.

New Models of Flexibility: Open Labs and the Case for Selective Separation
Another dilemma involves physical space configurations of research organizations evolving as quickly as their research advances. For large pharmaceutical companies and universities, this might be solved by moving the team across the hall or the campus quad. For small-to-medium size companies with only a single lab space, an expensive reconfiguration or a disruptive fit-up is required. A large portion of their lease time is often lost to reconfiguring and re-permitting their space.

Solutions Through the Coworking Model

In the biomedical hub of Kendall Square in Cambridge, MA, new ways of addressing these issues are gaining traction. SmartLabs is providing a turnkey lab environment that helps its tenant members accelerate scientific discovery. One of the most intriguing elements of this objective is a modular design where collapsible walls offer a new level of reconfiguration for growth-minded research companies.

Emerging Options with the Coworking Model
Additionally, to match the collegial atmosphere of a research institute, commercial shared-space models often host lunch-and-learn events, happy hours, and game nights, inspiring teams and companies to network and build relationships.

Protecting the Lab Investment

Because research itself is ever-changing, why would we ever imagine that there's one static design solution, one vision for a lab of the future? What we know is that today’s accepted design parameters are going to change. As we learn about and anticipate these changes, and as our clients' requirements change, designers will increasingly need to respond to the business and educational needs of researchers by providing new solutions for future adaptability, efficiency, and resilience.

Resilient Thinking to Protect the Lab Investment

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For questions regarding this piece, please contact Adrian Walters, Director of SMMA's Life Science Studio.

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