In recent years, the scientific community and affiliated professions have toyed with the idea of creating a “lab of the future.” Vendors, research organizations, and engineering and design firms have all begun to explore how contemporary scientists work within research environments and how the physical layout of labs can better support their endeavors. This process has been driven by a desire to foster more effective collaboration among scientists, increase the number of new ideas entering the pipeline, and allow for more flexibility over the life cycle of a research facility.
One issue that can’t be ignored is that these initial explorations have unfolded during a time when scientific labs are shrinking relative to the space allotted for equipment and analysis. Considering lab space is at a premium, it behooves us to ask: has the lab reached its least common denominator, and should we shift our attention to other priorities? Perhaps not entirely, but consider the following when designing any laboratory building:
1. Research organizations are adopting electronic lab notebooks and electronic processes for regulatory compliance.
The repository for the intellectual capital of hard science is changing from the physical to the virtual, from safes and freezers to servers that store data. This migration has made it easier to share information and enables scientists to eliminate the use of paper lab notebooks and their associated archival storage space. More importantly, scientists are rapidly adopting mobile computing platforms that make documentation a seamless, multi-media process that can be completed anywhere and shared easily (even globally). Considering the new reliance on servers, it is imperative to provide research facilities with reliable data centers and network connectivity.
2. There’s a continuing need for collaboration between dispersed teams.
Work in general has changed, and will continue to change. Scientific research used to involve basic requirements for personal space. Researchers required a six foot long work bench and a four foot long desk.
This paradigm is giving way to a model where shared common space is the priority for multi-disciplinary research teams that increasingly collaborate and share resources. Teams are no longer limited to a single location (or even a single organization) as video conferencing, data sharing, and collaboration software connect virtual teams.
Based on our recent workplace research, Gensler developed three concepts that translate very readily into designing both physical and virtual collaborative environments: design for planned serendipity at key points of intersection across multiple teams and business units; make works in progress visible to allow disparate groups to share their work and inspire other teams; and equip spaces with the tools and technology to support ad-hoc collaboration in multiple work settings.
3. The use of InVivo research models will decrease while In Silico modeling and data mining increase.
Research organizations are taking strides to better facilitate data sharing and utilize technology when possible. While it is unlikely that computer modeling will completely replace work on live subjects for pre-clinical testing, scientists are now using methods to reduce the quantity of research subjects and selecting species that have less intensive environmental requirements. Zebrafish, for example, are 70 percent genetically similar to humans, easier to house, and allow faster studies at a lower cost compared to other research animals.
Bioinformatics will continue to grow as an influential, multidisciplinary research discipline, and development platforms like Apple’s Research Kit will allow researchers to easily develop applications that help users monitor their condition and add to the data available on that condition.
4. Data will continue to accumulate faster than scientists can analyze it, especially as new automated processes evolve.
The rapid accumulation of data will increase the scientific communities’ focus on analytics over lab techniques. Equipment manufacturers will continue to develop faster, more affordable ways to automate traditional lab techniques. Whoever develops faster and more accurate automated analytical software will have a competitive advantage, ultimately reaching the patent filing line first.
Tools that ease the processes of visualizing and analyzing data, like large format screens, touch-walls, and high quality video and web conferencing, will increasingly take floor space away from more traditional equipment as they prove their value in accelerating analysis and promoting collaboration.
5. Automated processes will claim more space as actual “wet” labs shrink.
The automation of genomic sequencing began with 96 well plates holding 200 microliters per well that process 10,000 compounds per day. We can now, through flow chip technology, process over a billion compounds per day using equipment that occupies a smaller physical footprint.
As lab processes are automated for other disciplines, these systems will require space that can adapt to changing technologies while still containing equipment noise and environmental pollutants. Increased automation of sample prep work in more controlled lab support environments will yield more reproducible results and lift the burden of tedious, repetitive tasks traditionally assigned to grad-students and post-docs, so that they can spend more time analyzing outcomes and developing new ideas.
From our current vantage point, it may be impossible to exactly predict how the lab of the future will look and function. The ideas we hold dearly now spring from our understanding of the present and the conditions that affect it. Of course some of our ideas will be considered absurd in 10 years, while others will already be assimilated into normal life. Some of our ideas may inspire concepts we have yet to propose. And for that reason we must continue to develop new ideas and investigate new approaches for design.
About the Author: Erik Lustgarten, AIA, joined Gensler’s Boston office as director of its growing Life Sciences practice area. He has extensive experience designing laboratories, including the expansion of Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Mass. Contact him at email@example.com