Wider lab modules and multi-use classrooms. Moveable furniture and adaptable infrastructure. Maker space with 3D printers and collaboration areas with soft seating. These are some of the trends showing up in new academic STEM buildings as they are called upon to incorporate an increasing number of related disciplines, from computer science to quantum physics to allied health.
“The basic sciences have typically been the cornerstone in most STEM academic buildings,” observes John Lewis, associate principal with RFD, a firm whose practice is focused exclusively on laboratory design. “However, over the past 15 years we have been seeing that more and more engineering and technology disciplines are being brought into these facilities.”
The implications for planners extend across fronts as diverse as layouts and ventilation schemes, structural composition, and curb appeal. Lewis and RFD colleagues Jorge Garcia, principal, and Michael Davison, lab consultant, share insights and observations on responding to these needs, especially considering the post-Covid spike in construction costs.
Given the variety of subject matter and teaching methods in a STEM facility, flexibility has become a foundational feature. A uniform lab module scheme, which enables repeating elements from building structure to utility distribution, is key to achieving that flexibility, says Davison. He also points out that the size of the module itself is trending larger. While a width of 10.5 feet used to be the peak of the normal range, it has now become the starting point, with 11 feet gaining ground as the standard. Those extra inches afford greater overall flexibility, and in particular they ease wheelchair access between benches.
Flexibility also allows spaces to be used for multiple purposes. Labs with moveable furniture can be reconfigured for lower- and upper-division classes. Davison cites one facility where paired teaching labs, separated by a sliding glass partition, do dual duty as two smaller labs for more active upper-division learning, and then, with the partition open, become a single large lab for lower-level pedagogy, eliminating the need for two different types of modules. In another instance, a central open anatomy lab is equipped with small side alcoves, a configuration that allows both lectures and hands-on training to take place simultaneously.
“These are examples of working with a smaller budget, trying to find ways to utilize a space for teaching both lower- and upper-level classes at the same time,” he notes.
Garcia proposes another way to make the lab work harder for the client: customized bench shapes—curved, oval, even octagonal—that can be rearranged for different types of team learning. A pair of custom half-oval benches can be pushed together to serve as the base on which to mount a 6-foot air track in a physics lab. The benches can be separated and faced forward when the instructor moves to lecture mode at the front of the room.
One university has a large, high-ceilinged, glass-walled student project lab where the only fixed feature is a row of canopy hoods. “When the furniture is cleared out, this space becomes a tool to leverage for donor events or fundraising,” observes Lewis, adding that the hoods invite questions and opportunities for engaging conversation.
Elsewhere, a different approach to student project space allows an engineering lab to serve two different functions simultaneously. Garcia explains that the university had a need for both student project space and shop space, but there was no opportunity to separate the two. The solution was to combine both functions and install shop equipment with lock-out controls so students who are not properly trained do not have access. Cameras and monitors throughout the lab enable faculty to use the equipment for training as well as show what students are doing.
The monitoring solution can also be applied to 3D printers, which are increasingly appearing in maker space and are starting to be utilized beyond the engineering department. “Many universities now encourage students in life sciences and in arts and humanities to do 3D printing,” says Davison.
Science education often happens beyond the standard classroom or teaching lab, Lewis points out. Stairways with bleacher-like seating can be used not just for casual conversation but also for presentations or special events. Program in soft spaces that invite informal gathering, he advises, and don’t overlook areas outside the building. Features like an outdoor drone arena or a green roof not only provide project space but also curb appeal, an increasingly sought-after attribute for recruiting. These unconventional learning spaces also present the opportunity to stretch the construction budget.
“Make your building work hard for you,” urges Davison.
While the terms “flexibility” and “adaptability” are often used interchangeably to describe a lab building, the RFD lexicon draws a clear distinction between the two.
“In our context, flexibility is what occurs below the ceiling: the mobile casework and bench systems that bring utilities from above and enable users to move the casework around to accommodate new equipment or new research opportunities,” explains Lewis.
Adaptability, on the other hand, refers to what happens above the ceiling: the MEP systems that make the building work, both upon occupancy and in the future. Robust systems, well-organized ductwork and piping racks, and spare capacity at the electrical panel are some of the forward-thinking decision points that will support new or expanded programs in the building.
A major consideration in designing the MEP scheme is the type of ventilation and exhaust required for the space below. Floor layouts can be organized by program function, by neighborhood, or by building systems. For energy efficiency, the planners recommend grouping lab types together according to airflow needs. Hazardous materials, solvents, and aerosols require 100 percent outside air and 6 to 10 air changes per hour. With less stringent needs, local exhaust can be provided via a snorkel.
Housing large-format heat-producing equipment in a service corridor rather than in the laboratory is one way to reduce the in-lab cooling load, while simultaneously freeing up workspace on the lab bench. Lewis also suggests investigating alternative solutions like sensible cooling and chilled beams to solve high heat loads.
The trend to locate graduate student write-up spaces outside the lab is also a popular approach to energy saving. “It not only gives students a place to rest and relax outside the laboratory environment, it also puts that space in the office category, so it can be supplied with recirculated air,” he observes.
New areas of research, such as quantum physics studies of condensed matter or atomic molecular optics, place even heavier demands on the building infrastructure.
“These spaces tend to have very strict requirements for their zero-point energy studies, including near-zero for acoustic control, vibration, humidity, and temperature drift, making them some of the more expensive spaces in the STEM building,” says Lewis.
When it comes to piped utilities, the planners point out what appears to presage a new standard:
In the quest to meet net-zero carbon emissions goals, the University of California system is no longer providing piped natural gas in new buildings, making an alternative provision method necessary.
Data compiled from RFD projects from 2010 on confirm the trend in increased research and student project space in STEM academic buildings. The undergraduate research area—which includes teaching, research, and support—has grown from 20 percent to 27 percent at private colleges and from 26 percent to 30 percent at public universities.
Historically, only professors and graduate students were involved in research on campuses, but that is changing with the ever-increasing trend to provide undergraduate research space as part of the curriculum.
“Sometimes a full third of the laboratory space in an undergraduate laboratory teaching building has been dedicated to undergraduate research and student project spaces,” says Garcia.
From 2010 to 2020, the net-to-gross building efficiency has stayed relatively stable, dipping marginally at private colleges and community colleges, from 56 percent to 55 percent and 65 percent to 64 percent, respectively. Public universities experienced a slight increase, from 55 percent to 57 percent.
Garcia notes that the lab support to lab area ratio hovers around 30 percent, but while it is an important number for designers, he cautions that metrics are “a guide, not a predictor.” Ratios can vary considerably from one discipline to another. For instance, engineering labs need much less support, so that ratio is much lower.
Current lab support metrics by discipline are as follows: life sciences, 35-40 percent; earth and environmental science, 25-30 percent; chemistry, 20-25 percent; physics, 15-20 percent; electrical engineering, 10-15 percent; and mechanical or civil engineering, 5-10 percent.
Along with an attractive exterior, the RFD colleagues highlight several interior features that will enhance the appeal and utility of a STEM facility. Visibility into active classrooms and labs—even through a small peekaboo window—boosts interest, engagement, and support among building users and visitors. Glass walls enable students to watch experiments from the corridor, especially useful when their write-up space is outside the lab. Similarly, faculty can keep an eye on what students are doing when they can see through the labs.
Natural light is important for occupant comfort, and the architects recommend providing as much as possible. During a renovation, this might entail shifting a corridor location. A large footprint that creates issues for daylight can be offset by vertical circulation—often a statement staircase—that opens to a skylight.
Amenities like coffee bars and soft spaces keep people in the building. Connections to the environment promote wellbeing and reduce absenteeism. A combination of aesthetic and sustainability benefits is making the use of mass timber in non-lab building areas more common. Display cases or works of art that reflect the building mission, such as a double helix sculpture or blown-up photos of microscopic views, reinforce the message that exciting things are happening inside.
“Learn what others are doing, but celebrate what is unique about you,” concludes Garcia.
By Nicole Zaro Stahl