Research Facility Designs for Long-Term, Economical Flexibility

Strategies Outline How to Accommodate Future Adaptations
Published 11-21-2006
  • Accessible Utilities

    A utility corridor is one of the most effective ways to provide the necessary utilities in an area where they can be readily accessed and maintained.

    Photo courtesy of HOK.

  • True Flexibility

    The true idea of flexibility in a research facility involves leaving shell space for future research. It is important to look at the configuration of ceilings and the placement of windows in order to maximize lighting.

    Photo courtesy of HOK.

  • Ballroom Concept

    The ballroom concept features mobile casework that can be used with fixed perimeter casework to create a teaching environment to suit many pedagogical styles.

    Photo courtesy of HOK.

Constructing adaptable research facilities requires an adherence to design principles that espouse flexibility as a key ingredient to meeting tomorrow's needs. The degree of flexibility that must be built into a facility is largely contingent upon the type of programs and research being conducted, especially in light of the ever-changing nature of science. Other factors that must be considered when determining the degree of flexibility required include space management issues, operational and budgetary concerns, the building layout, program complexity, functional requirements, and infrastructure.

Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum (HOK) bases its design projects on a simple, but powerful, philosophy that “true flexibility enables adaptation over time to accommodate evolving scientific measures.”

“As science changes, program needs change and that is really when you need to be able to accommodate your user needs,” says Jeffrey Schantz, senior vice president and strategic director of science and technology at HOK in Atlanta. “There are many different strategies that can be used to achieve flexibility, but it is usually necessary to look beyond a single solution and implement multiple solutions.”

Strategies for Flexibility

Effective design strategies for incorporating flexibility into a facility include using a modular design, flexible casework, plug and play utilities, interstitial space, loft labs, open labs, convertible lab and office space, shell space, appropriate zoning, and trans-disciplinary buildings. These techniques enable users to innovate at their own pace by allowing them to reconfigure key casework components and equipment with ease.

Flexibility often hinges on module size and configuration, and the size of modules has changed over time. Back in the 1960s when the concept was developed, most modules were about 240 sf (10' x 24'). The average size of the modules has changed over time to 300 sf (10' x 30') in the 1980s to modules ranging in size from 330 sf to 480 sf.

“Today, we have larger modules primarily because our facilities are much more instrument-driven and they are more integrated with animals,” says Schantz. “The need for different module sizes is important.”

In addition to module size, lab flexibility options range from using overhead service carriers and movable tables to utilizing integrated casework or purpose-built casework. The most mobile and flexible feature often included in the design of labs is casework on wheels that can be adjusted in height to suit the overhead service carrier.

It is also necessary to ensure that ample utilities and support services are available and that they can be easily accessed. Designing utility corridors is one of the most effective ways to provide the necessary utilities in an area where they can be readily maintained without incurring any inconvenience, additional cost, or lost productivity. The corridor provides easy access to electrical systems, duct work, piping, valves for gasses, and distribution lines.

Measuring Flexibility

“In an environment where costs are escalating in an unpredictable fashion, it is difficult to pin down the cost of flexibility,” notes Schantz. “However, we know the flexibility needs of a facility are program-driven, so we can focus on assessing the program needs and the user expectations.”

The cost of incorporating flexible features into a design is driven by the complexity of the facility. It is essential to talk to the people who will work in the facility to determine what level of flexibility is appropriate. Creating the right balance of flexibility without incurring unnecessary expenses is sometimes difficult.

HOK developed a metric called the Flex Complex Index (FCI), which can be used to gauge the impact of including various flexibility measures into the design for each individual project. The FCI actually takes the cost out of the equation and looks at other factors, such as program types, complexity of programs, and criteria for defining flexibility.

For instance, the FCI examines the program areas of basic sciences, interdisciplinary sciences, and engineering. Also taken into consideration are all levels of biocontainment, animal facilities, and cleanrooms. HOK uses the index to rate the degree of flexibility and complexity for the programs based on whether the design will include certain criteria, such as fixed casework, movable casework, overhead services, flammable cabinets, fume hoods, biosafety cabinets, glove box, laminar flow cabinet, autoclave, glasswash, bench equipment, floor equipment, fixed equipment, cold/warm rooms, imaging equipment, testing equipment, cage racks, microscopy, HEPA filtration, water treatment, lab gasses, fire protection, and other features. The only architectural component figured into the FCI is whether the building has monolithic surfaces where the walls are fixed.

The higher the number on the flex index, the greater the degree of flexibility. However, a high number also equates to less complexity. The FCI can be customized by using criteria and programs specific to a certain facility.

“This can be a useful metric and can show, for example, that biology and biomedical BSL-2 labs tend to be the types of facilities that have a lower complexity and a higher level of flexibility,” explains Schantz. “The results can be used as a tool in planning and working with your users. It can help you determine whether you really need 9,000 sf of BSL-3 space or whether the job can be done in 3,000 sf. You might not be able to control the cost per square foot or the unit cost of the BSL-3, but you can certainly control how much BSL-3 space your users have.”

Programs that ranked the lowest in terms of flexibility are small and large animal facilities with containment, and BSL-3 cleanrooms. Meanwhile, these types of programs require more complexity.

Flexibility in Teaching and Research Labs

The ballroom concept for flexible labs features mobile casework that can be used with fixed perimeter casework to create a teaching environment that can work with many different pedagogical styles from problem-based and hands-on learning to a lecture format. Overhead service carriers can be used to deliver services to the middle of the room and the layout can be varied as teaching styles change. This allows many different faculty members, each using their own teaching method, to work within the same room.

The same concept works equally well for enhancing flexibility in research labs. Using the ballroom concept with fixed perimeter casework, overhead service delivery, overhead lighting, and highly mobile casework with shelving systems will result in labs that are flexible enough to be modified to meet the needs of the users without a change order.

Project Examples

Three particular projects designed by HOK embody the important aspects of flexibility.

St. Andrews Biological Station

A series of new biological sciences marine biology labs at the St. Andrews Biological Station in New Brunswick, Canada, epitomizes a very fundamental project consisting of traditional analytical labs and aquaculture wet labs.

“We discovered that the marine biology labs were really the drivers in terms of the need for flexibility,” says Richard Williams, vice president of HOK-Canada in Toronto. “In addition to the design requirements, we had to work with a tight budget regarding capital costs and operating costs. While we were basically tripling to quadrupling the amount of wet lab space for the marine biology research, we could not increase the operating costs.”

The three-story St. Andrews project exhibits a program-specific need for flexibility because the research requirements are very specific for the marine biology wet lab. The primary drivers for embedding flexibility into the space are the critical systems needed for water, drains, and photo-period lighting control.

The design features a simple setup with large, open wet lab spaces, and a series of generic photo-period rooms. Spatial flexibility is important due to the nature of marine biology where a lot of space is required to work with everything from small tanks to those that are 10 feet in diameter.

Designing a proper drainage system became the key to a major savings in operating costs. Warm, ambient, and cool drain lines, separate from the building’s main drainage system, were developed specifically for research experiments. The drains are available at locations throughout all of the labs, permitting scientists to connect into any of them. The design strategy includes making sure these drains go through heat exchangers so the energy from the drains can be reclaimed before the water leaves the facility.

“With the amount of water flowing through the facility, this is a phenomenal strategy in terms of actually capping operating costs,” says Williams. “The strategy for dealing with water is to equip the entire wet lab facility with a series of water supply lines.”

Eight different water conditions, as well as oxygen and compressed air, must be supplied to all of the research spaces. Building this infrastructure provides the most long-term flexibility and controls operating costs for the St. Andrews project.

University of Calgary Information and Communication Technology Building

The Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Building at the University of Calgary in Alberta, which involves primarily generic space for labs and offices, represents the merger of two departments from different faculties co-delivering programs in both teaching and research labs.

“The actual program was still under development during design, so we had to be as generic and ubiquitous as possible in terms of the infrastructure and the type of space,” notes Williams. “We pushed all of the enclosed spaces, offices, services, and collaboration and socialization areas to the exterior and developed a flexible loft space inside to create an anything/anywhere kind of flexibility.”

This type of design also helps with sustainable concepts because it provides perimeter spaces that act as buffers for the daylighting strategy and works with the natural ventilation strategy. The flexible loft space can be used for research and teaching labs, and increased structural loading. Plug and play light fixtures are utilized, while structural unistrut grid suspended from the upper slab provides maximum flexibility within the loft ballroom space. Knockout panels are located within the structural slab to serve as future riser locations.

The arrangement of services in the ceiling must be carefully organized to ensure researchers have the proper access and necessary flexibility to reconfigure the structural hanging space, if necessary. Power and communications cables are available throughout the lab spaces to provide connectivity and future reconfiguration. A chilled slab/supplemental cooling technology for the labs means a reduction in the size of duct work to minimize interference.

University of Wisconsin Interdisciplinary Research Complex

The Interdisciplinary Research Complex (IRC) at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, requires a mixture of program specific and generic lab space, including shell space for future fit-out. The vivarium and imaging facilities are the base of the project, which is slated for completion in 2008.

The integrated research capability requires complexity in the shared core facilities, simplicity in the generic labs, and shell space for ultimate flexibility. The base of the building is serviced by a mechanical interstitial space to provide maximum flexibility. Spaces are designed not only for initial fit-out of certain lab and office spaces, but also as shell areas for future use.

“The true idea of flexibility in a research facility is to leave shell space for research yet to come,” says Williams. “We also considered the fact that collaboration and socialization spaces would be shared in a multi-story arrangement, and that it is important to look at the configuration of ceilings in order to maximize daylight penetrations.”

Words of Wisdom

Matching flexibility requirements to the programs of a specific facility will help control costs. It is also important to realize that complexity is a component of cost which can be used to your advantage.

“It is helpful to adopt what we call a ‘systems of systems’ approach,” says Schantz. “For example, when you look at the mobile casework, view it as an entire system. It also helps to think about your mechanical systems or supporting infrastructure to the extent that you can typify your components and make them interchangeable.”

Designing in sections can be beneficial when creating a facility that offers long-term flexibility. Think in terms of three-dimension and utilize computers for this type of design.

The simplest way to design for flexibility is to remember not to bolt your furniture or casework to the building.

By Tracy Carbasho