Interdisciplinary Approach Generates Better Research

Science Building Design Can Foster Collaboration
Published 3-27-2007
  • Hixon-Lied Atrium

    The atrium at Creighton University’s Hixon-Lied Science Building looking up and looking down connects not only all the floors of the new building, but also two existing buildings, and acts as a beacon for the entire campus.

    Photo courtesy of HDR Architecture Inc.

  • UNMC

    At the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, two banks of labs in blue are connected by shared support space purple, while the offices are linked in two separate wings pale yellow.

    Photo courtesy of HDR Architecture Inc.

  • Gathering Spaces

    Interactive spaces can be simple as these outside perches for students to sit on, … or furnished lounges where students gather with food and laptops, both at Creighton University.

    Photo courtesy of HDR Architecture Inc.

The National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine continue to promote interdisciplinary research as the best way to solve science's most perplexing problems in fields that were unimaginable a generation ago. During the last decade, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of academic departments at universities as research disciplines merge to create, for example, biophysics, biochemistry, and bioengineering. Most recently, the trend has been to merge bio- and nano- fields.

“Researchers are highly specialized in their own fields,” says Ahmad Soueid, principal/senior vice president of HDR Architecture Inc. “They know a lot about their own fields, but may have a narrower knowledge of other specialty disciplines. Interdisciplinary research opens up a lot more avenues for innovation.

“This creates ‘symmetry of ignorance,’” he continues, borrowing a phrase from a 2000 paper by G. Fisher at the University of Colorado. “Specialists are somewhat equally ‘ignorant’ about what others do, but their combined brain power provides opportunities to all.”

Taking an interdisciplinary approach not only calls for the sharing of ideas, but requires sharing of resources as well. Interdisciplinary research reduces the overall cost of constructing and operating research facilities; helps recruit and retain the best staff; and attracts more money in research grants. The vision for interdisciplinary collaboration must come from the highest level of an institution and be accepted and adopted at the lab bench level, says Soueid.

“We can’t come in as architects and tell you, ‘Here are your spaces, you shall collaborate,’” he says. “It has to be coming as an adopted belief and desire to succeed from all levels.”

Once that philosophy is in place, the facilities must be designed to support it; if they are designed properly, the interaction will happen naturally.

“I believe a physical space can make a huge positive impact on collaboration,” says Soueid. “If done poorly, it can destroy collaboration.”

As Winston Churchill said, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards, our buildings shape us.”

If You Build It, They Will Come

There are two ways that researchers from different disciplines can approach a common project: in a multidisciplinary way and in an interdisciplinary way. The multidisciplinary approach brings varied researchers together for a discrete amount of time to solve a specific problem. When the work is complete, or the grant has ended, they go their separate ways. Interdisciplinary ventures, such as the ones promoted at Purdue University’s Birck Nanotechnology Center in West Lafayette, Ind., bring researchers together to create entirely new fields.

With the spaces they include in research facilities, architects can bring people together to share ideas through either purposeful collaboration or accidental interaction. Both are important and require different kinds of spaces.

Building owners often tout a newly built or renovated facility when courting new researchers and grant money. The facility is a major recruiting tool, so it needs to be not only state-of-the-art in design, but flexible enough to customize quickly for a particular researcher’s needs. Known as ‘speed to market,’ this feature has become an integral part of recruiting to help sway the decision of top researchers.

The University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, for example, is planning a building run jointly by the Institute for Quantum Computing and the nanoengineering department. All the offices in that building are a flexible 150 sf, which allows them to be broken down to smaller or multi-person offices in the future. The laboratories are modular and can be as big as 2,400 sf or as small as 300 sf.

“Another idea of speed to market is to plan for expansion,” says Soueid. “It takes a long time to get a building addition set up for a new researcher, so well-designed shell space is always convenient for a quick turn around. At Purdue, we originally planned to shell an area of the building before knowing who would occupy the space. It’s good for recruiting to be able to say to a researcher, ‘We’ll have a lab fitted out and ready for you in a couple of months.’”

Fancy Meeting You Here

Collaboration space is found in the more traditional areas of a facility, such as laboratories, offices, and conference rooms. Sometimes the more difficult task is to design spaces that encourage people to “accidentally” meet, and then provide the amenities and comfort that will allow them to delve deeply into whatever conversation ensues. These places can be exercise rooms, cafeterias, and lounges, as well as stairwells, elevators, and hallways.

The relationship between collaborative spaces is also important. At the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, labs line the outside walls of the building, while shared support spaces fill the center of the building between them.

“That brings together the researchers from both banks of labs,” says Jerry Kinkade, an HDR laboratory planner.

The offices curve along the outer walls on either end of the lab corridors, which places them close to each other but not that close to the labs themselves.

Creighton University’s new Hixon-Lied Science Building in Omaha, for example, has a rooftop patio with picnic tables, an exercise room, benches along walls, water fountains in widened hallways, and stools and narrow tables lining a window overlooking an atrium, which is an increasingly popular and versatile feature.

“A well-designed atrium in a large research building can be great just for wayfinding,” says Clare Swanson, HDR’s senior laboratory planner. “It can tie together both vertical and horizontal circulation, and if you can figure out your way around a building, it is easier to find a colleague you want to talk to.”

Another concept is to use the atrium as a destination space, not just a pass-through. Because they are large, impressive, and central to the building, atriums can be essential for fundraising activities.

“Atriums don’t work well when they are integral to other building functions. They need to be a hub of activity,” says Soueid. “The last thing any architect wants to do is build an atrium that nobody walks through.”

“They are never wasted,” says Kinkade. “Institutions use them for events all the time.”

Atriums also can serve as breakout space when located adjacent to other large meeting areas, such as auditoriums.

“You need room for people to come out in large groups or to mill around before they go in,” says Kinkade. “We almost always program a lobby or atrium as interaction space or breakout space in the programming phase to get it in there as part of the net square feet, not the gross square feet.”

The same is true of any interaction space, because it can be a challenge to maintain spaces that some may consider frivolous. At the University of Nebraska, much of the interaction spaces, except the main lobby, have been taken up by researchers for small equipment rooms or darkrooms.

“All of us agree that those interaction spaces are very important,” says Kinkade. “Part of our challenge is, where do we locate these spaces so they do not get taken away?”

It is important to work closely with the local fire marshal when designing non-traditional gathering spaces, such as in corridors or stairways. Hallways will need to be widened, for example, and the atrium design may need to be altered to satisfy fire-safety codes. The atrium at Creighton, for example, had to be enclosed with glass on the top floor to trap smoke in case of a fire.

A facility design needs to include elements that encourage collaboration and interaction not only within its own walls, but also with other buildings on campus. At Creighton, the Hixson-Lied Science Building was positioned and designed to unite two existing buildings occupied by the undergraduate school and the graduate medical and pharmacy schools, factions which previously were hostile to the idea of working together.

“The building is not only an infill project for the campus, but there is a very large atrium in the middle of the building that has become a hub for the whole complex,” says Swanson. “It is a cylinder that comes up through the middle of the building and ties all of the floors together both vertically and horizontally, not only in the new building but in the existing ones, as well. When that space is lit up at night, it is a beacon for the entire campus.”

The Value of Spontaneous Interaction

Is all this collaboration really helpful to science? According to Soueid, more than 72 percent of research papers, and more than half of all grant proposals, are co-authored by two or more principal investigators. He quotes a 2002 paper, written by R. Kraut, R. Fish, R. Root, and B. Chalfonte, titled “Informal Communication in Organizations: Form, Function, and Technology,” which concludes that, “without informal communication, many collaborations would undoubtedly not occur and others would break up before becoming successful.”

“They found that collaboration really doesn’t happen very well in a formal setting,” says Soueid. “For example, in a formal way, you invite people to come and meet with you, and you run a meeting. You have a well-published agenda and you go through it. That is a one-way directional traffic of information. Rarely do you get something back. When you are in an impromptu setting at the side of a hallway, and even in the lab, you are working within your environment to come up with an idea, the light bulb comes on; you talk to the person next to you. That is exactly where interaction happens.”

By Lisa Wesel

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