Next-Generation Lab Design

Building Teams are rethinking accepted lab design concepts of the past to meet new client demands

September 01, 2003 |

The constant scramble for blockbuster ethical drugs by pharmaceutical companies, endeavors like the Human Genome Project, and the growth of such fields as proteomics and bioinformatics have kept demand for new or renovated spaces rather steady. Despite this positive picture, it's not exactly business as usual for the Building Teams designing and constructing these complex facilities.

Private-sector and university clients are pushing Building Teams to create lab facilities that accommodate both current and future research needs, that encourage interaction among scientists from many disciplines, that help recruit and retain hard-to-get PhDs — and, did we mention, that do all this at the lowest possible cost, and at the speed of light? Well, that too.

Offices coming out of the lab

Pharma/bio scientists are spending less time in their labs doing traditional bench-style research and more time in their offices analyzing data, preparing reports, or doing e-mail. According to a recent study of 224 scientists conducted by BD&C and RICS, a nonprofit institute serving the real-estate industry, computer activities take up nearly 40% of a life-scientist's workday.

As a result, designers are moving lab workstations out of the lab. Just 20% of respondents to the BD&C/RICS survey said their office space is located in the lab itself. This approach not only saves on lab construction costs, which are significantly greater than office construction costs, but is also safer, says Kling's John LaProcido.

"From a safety standpoint, the trend is to get the people out of the lab and control the amount of flammable liquids in a lab," says Kling's director of progress. If a facility exceeds the amount of solvents allowed by NFPA code, then fire-rated solvent storage rooms are required. Just-in-time delivery of chemicals is also an option.

For structures like the seven-story Millennium Pharmaceuticals lab in Cambridge, Mass., NFPA code is even more stringent. "Fire departments don't want high hazards situated in a building where they can't get to [them]," says Steve Copenhagen, AHSC McLellan Copenhagen, Santa Clara, Calif., principal lab planner on the project.

The Millennium plan divides each floor into two fire areas, separated by a four-hour partition and three-hour doors, thus permitting the maximum amount of chemicals on the upper floors. The lab also has easy-access "safety walls" situated at each lab entry point.

Keeping costs down

"In the '80s and '90s, there were so many blockbuster drugs on the market without competition," says Stephen Steelman, VP and GM with Dallas-based Turner Corp.'s pharmaceutical division. "Many pharmaceutical companies were spending the money to make a design statement. It was sort of an ego thing."

One such ego trip was the big, dramatic atrium, a visual signal of a company's prestige and prominence. In today's economy, such atria are being reconsidered by budget-conscious clients.

"The basic assertion that good facilities attract good scientists is still there," says Bill Brader, principal and director of projects with Kling, Philadelphia. "But the idea of having the grandiose atrium is gone."

Brader says many clients are asking for scaled-down atrium spaces that are also more functional. He describes a recently designed atrium for a 500,000-sq.-ft. lab facility that incorporates offices, program spaces, widened walkways, and pedestrian bridges that encourage interaction among various disciplines in the facility.

"This building joins lab, office, and development spaces, so we used a smaller atrium to bring those different functions together in a community space, as well as to bring natural light into the interior," says Brader.

Dave Hronek, a VP with Detroit-based SmithGroup, says clients are looking to integrate smaller atriums with a communicating stairway or gathering area. "One client called the atrium a place where they could have group meetings, fundraisers, and even small concerts — a space to blend art and science," says Hronek.

It's not as if large, dramatic atriums have fallen completely by the wayside. Genentech Hall at the University of California, San Francisco, features an expansive atrium that extends the full height of the five-story building.

"People using this grand stair can be seen from the atrium, open corridors, elevators, and interaction lounges," says William L. Diefenbach, principal-in-charge with Detroit-based SmithGroup, design architect for the $223 million project. "It really creates a sense of interactivity at all levels of the structure."

Where speed to market counts

Getting new facilities online faster is paramount in the pharmaceutical market, where even a few added months of construction time may mean the difference between being first to market with a new drug or being left in the dust by rivals — at a cost of billions in sales.

"We used to see occasional fast-track projects, now it's routine," says Walter "Bud" Guest, SVP with McCarthy Building Cos., St. Louis. He says fast-track construction starts with analysis of program and design concept alternatives. During the design phase, Building Teams should consider using phased bid packages, an aggressive design schedule, and design elements that speed the construction process.

During construction, Guests suggests purchasing long-lead equipment early, such as autoclaves, sterilizers, and air handlers. The Building Team may want to offer financial incentives to manufacturers and subcontractors to meet shorter delivery times. "We often have the subcontractor prefabricate all mechanical systems offsite," says Guest. "Then they're shipped to the site and lifted into the ceiling sections. That saves a lot of time and onsite labor costs."

The design-build delivery process has become more popular among clients that demand tighter schedules, says Mark Malmquist, a project executive in the institutional group at Shawmut Design and Construction, Boston.

Take Shawmut's latest project for Brown University, Providence, R.I. Working with architect Tsoi/Kobus & Associates Cambridge, Mass., under a design-build model, Shawmut is converting a 105,000-sq.-ft. manufacturing building into biomedical lab space in just three months of design time and nine months of construction time.

"It involves working closely with the architect and the mechanical and electrical subs to make sure we're all on the same page," says Malmquist.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, has also recently converted an existing warehouse-type structure into lab space. This approach saves time, offers potential cost savings in the structural and building envelope, and provides a high volume of open space — perfect for the open, flexible lab concept MIT wanted. Malmquist warns, however, that if the old building requires significant upgrades to structural and M/E/P systems, savings may not accrue.

For life-science firms that need space even faster, there are prefabricated modular and portable lab buildings. Companies like Scientific Buildings Inc. of Dayton, Ohio, and Britz-Heidbrink of Wheatland, Wyo., offer permanent, semi-permanent, and portable "labs in a trailer." Britz-Heidbrink, for instance, can design, build, and deliver a modular lab fully integrated with research equipment in just 180 days.

Another option for firms that need to get labs up and running quickly in biotech-heavy cities like San Francisco, San Diego, and Boston is to lease space in a developer-based build-to-suit or incubator lab facility. These buildings are equipped with the basic infrastructure needed to support wet labs. Given the flat office market, a growing number of developers, including Cleveland-based Forest City Enterprises, are flocking to this niche opportunity, hoping to attract life-science firms that don't have the cash to buy or are not interested in owning property.

The lab as a human-resource tool

Increased competition in both private industry and academia has put a premium on being able to successfully recruit and retain top scientists. To help the cause, some pharma/bio companies are investing in deluxe offices, fancy cafeterias, up-scale coffee bars, and other such amenities.

Millennium Pharmaceuticals' new seven-story, 220,000-sq.-ft. biology/chemistry lab facility, named 2003 Lab of the Year by our sister publication R&D Magazine, includes a restaurant-style cafeteria, a 24-hour lounge and library with coffee bar, private rooms for dining meetings, booths for small groups, and a food bar to encourage single patrons to make use of the facility. The designer was Elkus/Manfredi Architects, Boston.

Amenities such as a dining facility, a health club, and deluxe office suites — each with a research office, conference room, library, and gathering space — have helped Stowers Institute for Medical Research, successfully recruit and retain top talent in the cancer research field to its Kansas City, Mo., locale — not exactly a hotbed for cancer research. The $225 million facility, designed by MBT Architecture, San Francisco (lab planning and tenant improvement), and Peckham Guyton Albers & Viets, Westwood, Kan. (exterior), also includes residential suites for scientists who are being recruited to work there.

Infusing lab spaces with plenty of daylight has also become crucial to attracting scientists. Designers are using more glazed walls and skylights to maximize natural light in these spaces.

"There's an enhanced awareness of the benefits of daylighting," says Kling's Brader. He says a device called a "light shelf," which bounces light off reflective ceilings near the exterior of the building in order bring natural light deep into work space, has become popular in lab design.

Genentech Hall has 12x13-ft. floor-to-ceiling windows and sloped ceilings at the perimeter to maximize natural light. The ceiling is pitched from a height of 9 ft. at the interior to 12 ft. at the windows. "We were able to slope the ceiling by tapering the air-handling ducts and other utilities from the core to the perimeter," says Diefenbach.

Do these amenities actually aid recruitment and retention? Maybe. Officials at the Stowers Institute report that recruitment efforts have been an overwhelming success since their new facility opened in 2001, so much so that the organization is already planning a major expansion.

However, the BD&C/RICS Study suggests that the importance of such amenities pales in comparison to having top-of-the-line lab equipment and adequate lab space (see p. 53.)

The curious 'serendipity factor'

Will the next "purple pill" be discovered by two scientists who happen to bump into each other in the hallway? That's what many pharmaceutical and biotech firms hope will happen, which is why they're asking Building Teams to create spaces that encourage serendipitous interaction.

Design approaches include placing punched-out alcoves and small gathering spaces in and around main stairways, elevators, atriums, and corridors. At Millennium Pharmaceuticals, office lounges on each floor are designed to bring biologists and chemists together via a communicating stairwell.

At Genentech Hall, each floor has four 12,000-sq.-ft. lab "neighborhoods" with offices, labs, and lab support clustered around an interaction area with a kitchenette, library, whiteboard, coffee bar, and casual furniture. "No matter where they walk — from office to lab, lab to support, support to office — researchers must walk through this interaction area," says SmithGroup's Bill Diefenbach.

John LaProcido, director of projects with Kling, says some pharmaceutical companies are even teaming researchers with marketing people in lab clusters "because consumer products are so marketing driven."

Flexibility and adaptability

Given the rapid changes in life-science research, many firms can't forecast what they'll be working on in five years, let alone 10 or 20 years. Consequently, designers are being asked to create labs that can adapt to the client's changing needs.

"No building can support every conceivable function," says Jerry Koenigsberg, retired principal of GPR Planners, Purchase, N.Y. Because most facilities have long-term limitations, such as load-bearing capacity, vibration, cooling capacity, shielding, or isolation, he suggests several keys to designing an adaptable facility:

  • Develop a generic lab structure where all rooms are multiples of a universal module in terms of size, shape, and utility requirements.

  • Adopt an open-lab approach with limited use of partitions. This allows administrators to adjust allocated space and permits cost-effective renovation work with little impact to adjacent operations.

  • Specify flexible casework that can be reconfigured quickly by lab users, without relying on facility personnel. It should also have plenty of load-bearing and vibration capacity.

  • Localize lab cooling with chilled-water spot cooling. As more equipment and computers make their way into labs, the heat generated in the space increases dramatically. Auxiliary cooling units located in the lab allow facility managers to respond to future equipment demands.

  • Replace central-piped services for gas, vacuum, reagent-grade water, and hot water with point-of-use generators or locally delivered containers. As more lab functions get automated, the demand for higher quality utilities keeps going up. Researchers are turning away from central systems due to concerns over quality and contamination.

SmithGroup's Hronek warns that, while there may be benefits to flexibility, "you're paying a premium." For instance, extensive use of interstitial space to deliver utilities was a common component of flexible lab environments in the 1990's. Today, it's considered too costly by many owners and facility directors. "We're going more with generic lab designs that allow users to add additional fume hoods, piped services, and power," says Hronek. This includes designing larger mechanical/electrical rooms and vertical chases to accommodate future equipment and infrastructure.

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