Flexibility and Cost Among Criteria to Consider When Purchasing Lab Furniture Systems

Five Types of Casework to Consider for Varying Laboratory Scenarios
Published 9-30-2008
  • Core System

    The College of Pharmacy Biological Pharmaceutical Complex under construction at the University of Kentucky will utilize primarily a core system with various fixed elements. The lab system will be adaptable for use in biology, biochemistry and chemistry. The chemistry lab has a sink in the center of the bench, while the biochemistry area has multiple sink locations.

    Photo courtesy of Ellenzweig.

  • Custom Flexible System

    The Lynch Laboratory Building at the University of Pennsylvania uses removable, custom-designed lab modules. The custom flexible system has open labs with adjacent support spaces and offices clustered in one quadrant of the floor plan. The labs are single-desk, single-bench with a shallow configuration to address space constraints.

    Photo courtesy of Ellenzweig.

  • Marrying of Systems

     The Koch Institute of Integrative Cancer Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology represents the combination of a core casework system and a mobile cart system. The hybrid system provides maximum flexibility with the ability to add desks in the future, have optimum storage space and make room for new equipment as research needs change.

    Photo courtesy of Ellenzweig.

Selecting the most appropriate laboratory furniture system requires due diligence to determine which casework will provide the highest level of functionality, flexibility, and investment value. Today, there are five types, including fixed bench, core, mobile cart, table-based, and custom flexible, all providing varying levels of flexibility at differing costs.

Specific factors should be considered when determining which system is the most suitable for a particular laboratory environment. For example, initial capital costs and additional expenses associated with changing the labs in the future must be taken into account to ensure the casework falls within budgetary constraints. Casework should be chosen to meet the existing and future needs of the individuals working in the lab and to fit within the physical constraints of the space available. Dimensional characteristics, such as storage capacity, under-counter space, and width, are important to consider.

Fixed Bench System

With this particular system, components are fixed to the floor or to an overhead structure. Services are hard-piped and fixed in place. This system can support heavy loads, accommodate wet services and high-service density, provide a seamless countertop, maximize cabinet storage capacity, and minimize vibration.

“It’s a stable system, but it’s not mobile. It’s there unless you want to rip it out and do it all over again, so it does have definite penalties in terms of flexibility,” says Michael Lauber, president of Ellenzweig, an architectural firm located in Cambridge, Mass.

Despite the disadvantages, the fixed bench provides the lowest initial cost—a factor that may be an important consideration during the selection process.

Core System

The first of the flexible systems is the core system, which is basically a fixed frame that serves as the core through which services run. The components are engineered and modular. The bench-top surfaces and generally the cases are hung from the core, which is a self-supporting, sturdy center. This provides the necessary flexibility to raise and lower the bench top or move the base cabinets.

“You can move services around because you have a core from which you can remove panels to facilitate moving things back and forth,” says Janet Ross, a principal at Ellenzweig. “If you want to add services, it acts like a fixed system. You have to go back to the source, get the services, and put them into the core. Overall, however, it’s relatively easy to make changes and if you don’t need to move the entire bench out of the way, it’s a good option.”

The core system is adaptable, accommodates wet services and high-service density, makes it easy to change or reconfigure cabinets or bench height, and facilitates changes in service locations.

However, the system is not mobile, the bench-top joints typically are not sealed, or are sealed in a way that can be easily removed; the storage capacity is limited, and it offers only moderate resistance to vibration. The initial cost for this type of casework falls in the mid-range.

A typical example of a core system features a fixed sink where other elements are flexible. Some manufacturers, however, mount the sinks off the core, providing increased flexibility without affecting the floor and other nearby components.

The College of Pharmacy Biological Pharmaceutical Complex, a research and teaching building currently under construction at the University of Kentucky, will utilize primarily a core system with various fixed elements. The building will include three floors of research, two floors for teaching, and a vivarium. A typical research floor will feature a double-loaded corridor with labs that include equipment corridors and special support spaces on one side and offices on the other side. An open-lab concept with neighborhood breakout spaces will be utilized, and there are shared write-up offices along the exterior wall to encourage interaction.

“The lab system has to be adaptable for use in biology, biochemistry, and chemistry,” says Lauber. “Each science wanted a different location for the sink, so we migrated toward a core system with the sink on the end for the biology bench. The chemistry lab has a sink in the center of the bench and the biochemistry area has multiple sink locations.”

Mobile Cart System

This is a pre-engineered, entirely mobile system, or basically a table on wheels. It represents the lowest cost flexible system. The assembly is self-supporting and the casework can be hung from above or remain mobile. Either way, it is easy to reconfigure the cabinets, change the height of the bench-top, suit various layouts, and accommodate evolving equipment needs.

One difficulty likely to be encountered with this system, however, is the inability to easily access overhead services. Utilities are usually provided by an overhead service carrier or panel. More flexible setups are being used with increasing frequency to provide services to the benches. Utility docking stations are an option and there is a growing migration toward the simple plate system in the ceiling because it is less expensive.

In addition to potential problems accessing services, the mobile cart provides the highest potential for vibration issues. Other concerns include bench-top joints that are not sealed, resulting in a system well-suited for dry work, but not wet work. There is also reduced storage capacity.

In some cases, enhanced flexibility can be achieved by using a combination of systems, such as pairing a cart system with a core arrangement.

“Marrying of systems is actually done fairly frequently, so you can get the best of both worlds because there isn’t a perfect system yet,” says Ross.

The Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology represents the marrying of a core system with a mobile cart system. The $190-million building, set for completion in 2010, will accommodate interdisciplinary research in biology and engineering.

The combination of a core/mobile cart system provides maximum flexibility to meet the needs of cancer researchers and engineers. It provides the ability to add desks in the future, have optimum storage space, and make room for new equipment as needs change.

Table-Based Movable Bench System

The table-based system is a pre-piped, pre-wired, and pre-engineered modular bench assembly. The system is self-supporting and the cabinets are movable on casters or gliders. Services are provided via ceiling modules with quick-connect fittings.

“All of the piping and electrical is integrated into the support for the system, so there is very little fieldwork for mechanical/electrical subcontractors,” notes Lauber. “The system has good reconfiguration characteristics and you can completely remove the casework, if necessary.”

The table leg system is less stable in terms of vibration, an issue which must be considered if the research uses sensitive equipment. Other disadvantages include being able to support less load than the other systems, potential bench seam issues, less casework storage capacity, and the highest upfront cost.

The flexible table-based system is an ideal choice for installation at the Hach Chemistry Building, a $55-million facility being constructed at Iowa State University. The research areas include six-person lab modules with hoods and benches in the middle. Each lab has an associated instrument room and an entry with storage capacity. Write-up space is included along the perimeter of the labs.

Maximum flexibility is critical for this building, which must accommodate not only teaching space, but also research in synthetic, physical, and analytical chemistry. It must be easy to move equipment, add instrumentation, and reconfigure the layout to suit changing research needs. The sink in the instrumentation room is fixed, but all of the other benches and cabinets are removable.

Custom: Flexible

When the standard systems do not meet the requirements of a particular laboratory, a flexible custom option is often the answer. Support for shelving and services are hung from an overhead structure, but can be demounted. The bench is a self-supporting table system and an extra drawer can be added to the movable cabinets.

The tables can be reconfigured or removed, there is minimal loss of storage capacity, the bench top is more open, and the first cost is moderate.

However, adjustability is limited to the work surfaces, shelves, and cabinet relocations. Issues concerning vibration and bench seams are likely to occur because the tables are not as sturdy as fixed systems.

“This is the type of system that comes into play when a client says there is too much stuff on the bench top and too many vertical supports,” says Ross. “They want the wide-open bench top and the flexibility to move equipment around. This system requires more effort to assemble than the pre-engineered systems because it is custom designed and you work out the bugs as you go.”

The Lynch Laboratory Building at the University of Pennsylvania was designed by Ellenzweig with removable, custom-designed lab modules. The custom flexible system has open labs with adjacent support space and offices clustered in one quadrant of the floor plan. The labs are single-desk, single-bench with a shallow configuration to address space constraints.

“The superstructure is hung from above and the services are piped down through vertical supports,” says Ross. “The shelves are flexible, the superstructure is demountable, and the tables can be raised, lowered, or moved.”

Evaluation of Systems

An evaluation of the various casework systems shows that the fixed system is not flexible or adaptable. The core system is flexible and adaptable with easy adjustability of components and the ability to remove or dismantle one side without the other, although the system ranks poorly in terms of portability and reconfiguration.

The cart and table-based systems are much more flexible, although the table-based system lags behind a bit in the adjustability of components, cabinets, and work surfaces. These systems rank the highest in performance for mobility, allowing for easy rearrangement for different functions or to vacate the lab. Service access from overhead carriers supports this high level of mobility.

All of the systems have the ability to make wall bench configurations, while frame height variability is only possible with ease by using the core or cart system. All of the systems do well supporting extensive weight, although the table-based system ranks the lowest. Vibration control and counter joint sealant are at the highest level with the fixed system, followed by the core system, with the cart and table-based arrangements fairing poorly.

The cost of the various systems must be considered when making a selection. The total cost (in 2008), including the casework, installation, and MEP connections, for the table-based system is approximately $37,900 based on an 18.5-foot bench. The cost for the core system is $35,500; cart system, $34,600; custom flexible, $30,000; and fixed system, $26,700.

Fixed casework has the lowest first cost and the greatest storage capacity. Flexible casework systems cost less to change, reduce the downtime for renovation, facilitate change because adjustments are easier, and save money over time to accommodate changes.

“A lot of people live with fixed casework, even though something else might suit their needs better and make their research more efficient,” notes Ross. “If you can afford to spend the money upfront, go with flexible systems. You will benefit in the long term by saving money in renovation costs over the next five to 10 years.”

By Tracy Carbasho