The Future of Research Facility Design

Laboratories Move toward Core Services Model, Away from “Wet” Spaces

Five years ago, Tradeline sought experts to predict the future—specifically, the future of research lab design and construction. Today, we take a look back at those predictions, and gather some new ones, looking at trends in research programs and funding, and how those trends affect the decisions institutions are making when they build and renovate their laboratory spaces.

The Race for Funding

In 2012, funding for new research facilities was “stalled.” Today, the outlook is not quite as dire, with funding for research once again on the rise. Congress increased National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding by $2 billion in 2016, the first increase in a decade. Then earlier this year, they approved the 21st Century Cures Act, which provides $500 million for the Food and Drug Administration to bring novel drug therapies and medical devices to market more quickly, and $1 billion to fight the growing opioid crisis. It also further boosts the NIH research budget, with $4.8 billion in new funding, including $1.8 billion for former Vice President Joseph Biden’s “cancer moonshot,” $1.6 billion for former President Obama’s BRAIN initiative, and additional money earmarked for precision medicine.

The U.S. budget for the coming fiscal year is still up in the air, so institutions are facing uncertainty about funding levels in both the near and long terms. In Britain and across Europe, Brexit is introducing more uncertainty to the funding process, requiring new approaches. Many organizations are taking steps such as establishing public-private partnerships to bring in money, or allocating space based on an investigator’s funding level.

In addition, decision-makers are under pressure to fit more scientists into a given space. Many institutions are moving to core-services models, where individual labs get smaller spaces and share a single expensive facility or piece of equipment. Many principal investigators, accustomed to their own spaces, may find themselves in an open area with other scientists. “Allocated square footage is decreasing. They are not happy about it,” says Victor Cardona, vice president and senior lab planner at SmithGroupJJR.

As predicted in 2012, the increasing automation of lab processes is also fueling the move toward sharing. Where once sampling and analysis required scientists at benches, many such processes can now be accomplished by machines, leaving researchers to interpret results rather than conduct repetitive processes.

The nature of research itself will continue to change as processing of lab samples becomes increasingly automated. Scientists will shift their focus to decision-making, strategy, and marketing their work, and their environments may look more like high-tech offices than traditional laboratories. New players such as Google, Facebook, and Apple will be taking an increasing role in funding research, further driving the need for labs with high-tech capabilities.

Lab automation equipment has its own space needs, including making sure there’s an access path to get the machines into the building. Core labs often need to be in areas with the least possible noise and vibration, leading to situations where labs are competing for once-undesirable spaces in basements.

All this doesn’t mean lab projects have ground to a halt. Institutions and corporations are building new research space and renovating older spaces to meet today’s standards. “No matter how often we think we’ve updated everything, there always seem to be out-of-date labs,” says Jeff Murray, global practice leader at CH2M. “A lot of our clients are recognizing that their labs are both outdated and massively expensive to operate, and many are coming to us to both update their labs and reduce their lab footprint.”

Energy use is a big driver of renovation projects even in fairly recent structures, a move the Tradeline experts predicted in 2012. Combining lab and non-lab spaces is also becoming increasingly common, meaning builders and designers need to consider whether behind-the-scenes systems should also be combined.

Human Factors

Institutions that provide medical training will be under pressure to expand space for academic medical centers, even as many doctors are leaving the field. “Higher education is trying to figure out what medical training is going to be,” says Ed Burton, international science and technology director for the SmithGroupJJR architecture and engineering firm. With medical training increasingly focused on research and technology, traditional classrooms will give way to innovative spaces in both renovations and new buildings, while justifying the cost by including students in nursing and other health fields.

On the research side, as predicted in our 2012 survey, neuroscience has become a more prominent field, thanks to DNA research and the push to find treatments for Alzheimer’s disease. That research is being further supported by Obama’s BRAIN Initiative. This means institutions are looking for spaces that can be adjusted to accommodate human subjects. Neuroscience also lends itself to cross-disciplinary teamwork, as the same study may include elements of biology, chemistry, psychology, or even engineering. That again leads to more open, shared spaces.

In a broader sense, the pressure to create marketable products from research means a greater attention to the needs of humanity, as the Tradeline panel predicted five years ago. That in turn creates demand for flexible, team-centered spaces rather than individual labs. Medical and other research initiatives are heavy users of imaging, often provided as a core service to multiple labs.

Even as space for scientists is shrinking, competition for scientific talent means institutions also feel pressure to create human-oriented work areas that are up to current standards for air quality, natural light, and other aesthetic and productivity concerns. Newer office areas for science teams are often open, with collaboration spaces to encourage communication and teamwork.

According to Jeffrey Schantz, sector leader for science and technology at EYP Architecture and Engineering, collaboration will evolve into “convergence,” the term he uses to refer to scientific institutions and spaces that facilitate quickly moving new discoveries into marketable applications by integrating research and engineering teams.

Need for Flexibility

To cope with the pace of change, planners, designers, and architects are being asked to create adaptable spaces. “In the research world, the most modern labs need to be designed to accommodate a variety of disciplines, each of which has different requirements, both in lab spaces and lab support,” says Michael Reagan, vice president at Stantec, and science and technology sector lead for academic and corporate laboratories.

A common request is for modular setups that allow individual labs to be closed off for corporate projects where trade secrets are involved, then opened again to make space for cross-disciplinary teams. That requires designers and planners to think carefully about placement of lighting and HVAC elements. “It’s pretty easy to design an open lab without those considerations, but once you start adding partitions, if it hasn’t been carefully designed, it doesn’t work well,” says Reagan.

The rise of big data has increased demand for computational space and reduced demand for bench space. At some institutions, science labs are being asked to share facilities with engineering teams, both for efficiency and for cross-disciplinary innovation opportunities. “I’m seeing this really big focus on having sciences and engineering work together,” says Tim Reynolds, principal at TreanorHL. “We need engineers to help implement research initiatives. I think it’s a real positive.”

Facility Standards

Designers and builders are now using Building Information Modeling systems (BIM) as a matter of course, a transition that was still in progress during the 2012 survey.

With more data available, metrics for space allocation are changing, as well. Instead of assigning a certain amount of space per scientist, institutions are emphasizing applied science and awarding space based on funding—a formula that means frequent change. “We have to change all the metrics that we plan labs around. It’s no longer a room with two benches in it,” says Schantz.

The need for flexibility is creating room for innovative solutions. Reagan is employing a technique called an “extended plenum,” essentially keeping ductwork all the same size for the length of its run rather than doing the traditional tapering. This not only reduces labor costs at installation, but also reduces the amount of energy needed to power fans, and allows for greater flexibility to, say, add a fume hood toward the end of the run if the lab’s needs change.


Sustainability as a priority goes without saying in any new project, not just out of concern for the environment, but because limiting energy use is a major factor in boosting a research lab’s return on investment. “You can spend 3 percent more in capital costs and make back the entire cost of the building in energy savings over 25-30 years,” explains Schantz.

Sophisticated building controls are enabling better management of energy use—for instance, turning down heating or cooling in empty rooms, or using sensors to detect and vent harmful particles in the air. Other savings may come from implementing high-performance building envelopes or letting temperatures float by a few degrees even in occupied spaces.

Many institutions are forgoing official LEED certification because of costs, although some states require it. Some universities are certifying their buildings in response to student demands. “We’ve had a couple projects where the students insisted the building be registered,” says Mark Corey, principal of Flad Architects.

Sustainability is also pushing development of new products, and therefore a greater need for engineering facilities. The rise of electric cars and autonomous vehicles, for instance, is going to drive demand for testing facilities for auto components and vehicles.

Project processes

As more academic institutions turn to the private sector to help fund scientific work, a public-private culture clash can emerge when they try to build or renovate facilities together. Universities are often used to planning buildings with a lifespan of 75 years or more, while the private sector has a much tighter focus on up-front costs and can pressure academic partners to settle for less durable laboratory spaces.

With today’s high-speed electronic communication and Internet of Things integrations, many core services don’t even need to be located near the teams they serve. In the next generation, semi-autonomous research methods will mean “you can put the lab in Montana, next to its data center, even if the scientists are in Boston or the Bay Area. It’d be less seismically active, and you’d have access to hydro power,” suggests Burton.

The removal of geography as a barrier to collaboration will spur innovation from the intersection of technology with developing countries. For example, new medical technologies that operate via cell phones are making a difference in nations such as Kenya, where doctors are few, and the population is largely spread out across rural villages.

Even the scientists’ spaces can be, and often are, distributed across locations. “It doesn’t matter where you sit any more; it matters who you collaborate with,” says Schantz.

By Patricia Washburn

Project Data
Completion Date: 
August, 2017
Published 8-30-2017