Instrument-Driven Lab Design Emphasizes Flexibility

Planning for the Future Instrument Factor
Published 1-16-2007
  • Equipment Types

    When dividing instruments into the categories of how they are used, a typical lab has a distribution of sample handing equipment, such as incubators and tissue processors; specialized sample analysis tools like spectroscopy instruments; and data analysis areas that are primarily computer stations with massive storage and bandwidth capabilities. The typical laboratory contains a balance of all three, regardless of discipline.

    Photo courtesy of Burt Hill.

  • Lab vs. Lab Support

    The amount of lab support in relation to research space has steadily increased over the last 30 years as a result of the increase in instrumentation, equipment, and special procedures required to conduct research particularly in the life sciences. The NIH now recommends an approximately 50:50 ratio of support to research space.

    Photo courtesy of Burt Hill.

The proliferation of bench-mounted instruments and large imaging tools now essential for conducting groundbreaking research is driving a new approach to lab design as facility planners increasingly opt for solutions based on equipment adaptability. According to analysts at global architecture firm Burt Hill, imaging, metrology, and computing instruments are the primary enablers of current and future research. In order to avoid research limitations or expensive renovations, it is critical that programming for new leading-edge facilities take into account the "future instrument factor."

“We are seeing a dramatic increase in the number and variety of instruments in modern labs, and it is certainly driving a new approach to space planning,” says Michael Reagan, a principal with Burt Hill in Cleveland, Ohio.

The complex array of research instrumentation can be organized into three categories based on their location in the building: dedicated, shared, or core, according to Reagan.

“Dedicated instruments include things like bio-safety cabinets that might be in a particular lab or in a dedicated room. Then there are tools that are shared within a group, like bench-mounted mass spectrometers. Core items are the larger more expensive pieces of equipment, such as NMRs that tend to be centrally located and are shared by the whole building,” he says.

Another way of thinking about instrumentation is to look at how it is used. Under this model, equipment is divided into three categories: tools used for handling samples, tools used for studying samples, and equipment used to analyze the resulting data. Sample handling devices include incubators, tissue processors, and centrifuges; sample analysis includes all bench-mounted spectroscopy instruments, chromatography, and mass spectrometers; the data analysis category pertains to computers and software packages that demand terabytes of bandwidth and storage capacity.

“Dividing instruments based on sample handling versus sample analysis is a good way of organizing the vast world of instrumentation because it can be applied regardless of scientific discipline. Most typical labs will have a balance of all three,” says Reagan.

Adaptable by Design

In response to the explosion of research-critical instruments, designers are developing increasingly flexible lab designs that can be configured to support a wide range of applications.

“Many of the labs we have worked on are designed with moveable casework because it makes the space easily adaptable to different types of research,” says Reagan.

Ensuring adequate air handling and utilities are the most important factors when creating flexible labs. Some tools, like GC mass spectrometers, require a dedicated exhaust snorkel; tools such as electron microscopes, atomic force microscopes, and NMR equipment all require some degree of RF and EMI shielding. This shielding can be provided with sophisticated panel systems or simple foil-backed gypsum wall board.

“Quality and variety are really the most important aspects when planning utilities, with the exception of HVAC systems where quantity is always best. You want the ability to provide as much air as possible to as much of the lab as you can,” says Alex Wing, a principal with Burt Hill in Butler, Pa.

Vibration and EMI Isolation

Scientists are looking at progressively smaller scales of dimension. As a result, vibration isolation is a critical planning issue. It is important to measure existing site vibrations first. According to Reagan, a good benchmark for a typical lab building is below 2,000 micro inches per second of vibration. When very specialized instruments like SEMs are involved, vibration is reduced to 125 micro inches per second.

“We are seeing more localized solutions, whether it’s an isolated slab on the ground, vibration tables, or other vibration isolation mechanisms,” says Reagan.

The Virginia Polytechnic Institute of Critical Technology and Applied Science, a 102,775-gsf R&D center designed by Burt Hill with Pei Cobb Freed, uses isolation pads and strategic location to achieve very low vibration zones. The labs are programmed to accommodate a range of research from polymer chemistry to materials characterization.

Common tools such as electron microscopes, atomic force microscopes, and NMR equipment all require some degree of RF and EMI shielding.

“There are a number of ways to achieve appropriate shielding, whether it’s by using a mobile Faraday cage or cold rooms that are RF and EMI isolated. We have found that you can achieve tremendous RF attenuation very inexpensively by using the foil-backed gypsum board, taping the joints accordingly, and getting everything grounded. We term this a “poor man’s Faraday cage,” says Regan.

Overhead Services

The key to creating flexible lab space is being able to deliver utilities and HVAC services wherever they are needed in the room. Linear overhead service carriers combined with moveable casework are a highly functional, aesthetically pleasing solution.

The Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Biotechnology Center, a 218,000-gsf R&D facility in Troy, N.Y., designed by Burt Hill in association with Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, utilizes sleek overhead service carriers to deliver utilities to movable casework resulting in diverse labs that can be easily reconfigured based on equipment needs.

“The idea is that, if a researcher wants to plug in a piece of equipment—whether it be a lypholizer or a microscope—they have the necessary utilities available right above the bench,” says Reagan.

A variation on this theme is using simple overhead point sources or drop down service bollards to deliver utilities to centralized pods that are connected to benches with quick-release attachments.

“Overhead point sources don’t have to be expensive because all you are doing is manufacturing a little box and bringing everything to one central location. It can be a little visually messy, but it works well,” says Wing.

Interstitial Space

Another approach is to maximize use of interstitial space by dedicating an entire section of the building to piping, ductwork, and service rooms. The challenge with this solution is locating the zone so that services can be accessed at all needed points in the lab.

Cornell University’s Physical Sciences Building, designed by Burt Hill in association with Koetter Kim, incorporates epistitial space in conjunction with service spines that distribute utilities to the middle of the floorplan. There are also data analysis locations on each floor for processing the massive amount of resulting information.

“The offices and the labs in the Cornell facility don’t actually line up floor to floor so it necessitated the distribution of a lot of duct work in order to meet the needs of different scientists over time,” says Wing.

Carnegie Mellon used service infrastructure as an organizational element in its recently completed Doherty Hall. The facility, an instructional lab with an emphasis on multi-disciplinary science, routes air and support utilities from the primary service wall to modular pods in the middle of the room via a network of ducts and service bollards.

“At Carnegie Mellon they wanted students to work with some of the more expensive instruments. They can’t afford to equip each team with them, so those instruments are pulled out on carts and docked at the end of the stations as needed. There is a chemical engineering group in that same building,” says Reagan.

The floorplan includes a service box in the center encasing all the noise-intensive equipment including wet and dry bench utilities, vacuum pumps, and compressors.

A variation of this design was utilized for the 500,000-gsf Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Md., where services are brought up through space in the floor via vertical service bollards that integrate with the casework for a clean look.

“This is essentially an interstitial design turned on its side. There is space underneath each of the labs so that at any point you can access the necessary services. The building is really about getting these utilities well organized and providing the infrastructure to drag them out to the equipment on an as-needed basis,” says Wing.

The facility, which was engineered by Burt Hill and designed by Raphael Vinoly, features flexible lab space capable of housing 230 researchers in a variety of disciplines. It has a vibration-free main floor for highly sensitive equipment and ductwork provisions that will accommodate everything from chemistry to bioengineering.

“The goal of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute is to be able to do whatever research is most fundable. So it supports a range of things from polymer chemistry up to materials characterization,” says Reagan.

“A lot of components can be brought into the lab on a distributed basis now so we don’t have to pipe in as much. Nitrogen, compressed air, and other formerly centralized utilities can be distributed locally as needed using contained generators, which can save on first time building costs. In the case of the Howard Hughes facility, a manifold nitrogen system was avoided by using a nitrogen generator,” says Wing.

Different Labs, Different Metrics

As facility designs evolve in response to more instrument-intensive research so have the metrics for determining appropriate space efficiency. There are a number of different metrics used to identify the amount of square footage needed for instruments and equipment. Equivalent linear measurement (ELM) is one of the most widely used because it applies equally regardless of scientific field. The NIH’s 1999 guide to laboratory planning recommended allocating approximately 30 feet of ELM per researcher, including lab, support, desk, and aisle space.

“ELM is a great system because it really focuses on the specific lab bench and equipment requirements in the labs. You need to provide for the scientists the appropriate amount of space to work and put their instruments. Whether it is on this or that side of the bench doesn’t matter, as long as you give them sufficient linear footage,” says Reagan.

More recently the NIH has started looking at space utilization, which is expressed in net square feet (NSF) per person. The organization’s 2003 lab planning guide recommends 188.4 NSF per researcher as a general average, based on a four person module with shared resources in the facility.

“Space utilization is a more current model, and it is a little easier to use. The NIH is due to release an update soon and we are curious to see how it compares to previous data,” says Reagan.

Another metric commonly used when considering instrument adaptability is the ratio of lab support to research lab space. The amount of lab support in relation to research space has steadily increased over the last 30 years due to the increase in instrumentation. Equipment intensive facilities like UCLA’s new Center for Nanosystems Institute have a nearly 1:1 ratio of support to research space.

New Strategies for New Challenges

Traditionally, individual research labs were adjacent to support labs that held equipment used by the entire group. The recent emphasis on open flexible floorplans is also driving new models for space use.  Many of Burt Hill’s recent designs feature “common” and “specialized” zones, instead of traditionally segregated lab and support areas. Common zones are essentially adaptable generic workspaces while specialized zones are focused on more instrument-driven functions. A biosafety cabinet could be located in a common lab just as easily as in a specialized space, and the same goes for fume hoods and freezers, depending on how the researchers set up their space.

“Facilities like these are designed to be modified over the years. These open labs don’t designate specific territories for individual researchers. The intention is to have a plug-and-play system that is adaptable to numerous applications. As instruments become more necessary to research, the line between lab and support space is blurring. So, instead of looking at lab space versus lab support, we should think in terms of common labs and specialized labs,” says Reagan.

By Johnathon Allen

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