Incorporating R&D trends into laboratory design

The way that scientists carry out their day-to-day work had changed in recent years, driven by:

Changes in technology, with earlier obsolescence, meaning lifecycle replacement periods are shorter, and utilisation often higher Greater collaboration between scientific disciplines and between different organisations with more commercial, academic, publicly funded and third sector tie-ups Workforce and ways of working changes as new generations influence the working environment and working habits Efficiency and utilisation pressures on Asset Management budgets.

The above issues are inter-relate to influence laboratory design. An awareness of these influences when appointing and leading design teams will assist Universities, Research Institutes, pharmaceutical firms and their partners to achieve outstanding new facilities that contribute towards great life-changing science outcomes.

Changes in technology

Laboratories are increasingly high-tech environments with a noticeable shift from hands-on lab science to computer-based simulation and high throughput screening all aimed at reaching science goals faster and more efficiently. Lab-based activity is being supported by more advanced equipment, higher-resolution imaging and more rapid processing equipment.

As equipment grows in complexity, linkage via a common IT backbone which is able to centrally control and monitor data, consumption and performance becomes increasingly critical. Properly configured the right equipment, effectively linked can contribute to significant productivity gains.

Another driver of productivity is sharing of equipment and this requires a change in philosophy in the design and operation of the facility with a move away from labs dedicated to a single purpose (and their own equipment) towards generic facilities suitable for use by multiple consecutive or concurrent science programmes and access to shared facilities in appropriate node locations. Remotely accessing specialist services such as High-Speed Computing via third parties-providers via the Cloud also reduces the need to retain such expensive capacity inhouse where it is potentially underutilised. However, clinical data held in any manner whether on or off-site is subject to strict legal regulation across all territories and hence extremely stringent due diligence is required to control patient data to the highest possible standards and in accordance with prevailing laws.

Greater collaboration

Any review of University or Research Institutes science programmes in recent years will reveal greater levels of collaboration across the sector, and a push for shorter time horizon achievement. The pressure is on scientists to reduce the pipeline duration, whether that is bench to bedside, the translational interface with industry or therapy development to market. There are a few exceptions, large scale, long term fundamental research programmes still exist, and for some of these, laboratory facilities need to be built to bespoke specifications and specific requirements.

However, for most scientists, collaboration and relatively short-term focussed multi-disciplinary activity are the means of progressing along the discovery pipeline, even where this is framed within a long term strategic programme. This aspect of how scientists work drives laboratory design – foremost is the need for the facility to enable rapid start-up of science operations into readily available, adaptable, flexible and high uptime reliability spaces.

The laboratory size and configuration may themselves remain standardised with supporting services such as media preparation, sample processing and consumables arranged according to priority by frequency and intensity of use using techniques such as Kanban to optimise efficiency. Linking the various functions of the laboratory, the traditional write up and fixed desk areas need to be re-imagined as flexible, social environments which support solo work, formal and informal group work in a variety of settings. When well designed, this is far from the sometimes-feared open plan office, instead of emerging as areas in which groups self-organise around zones ranging from quiet to vibrant, backed up by always-connected IT and high-quality catering and concierge services.

To facilitate remote working on international collaborations laboratory services must provide robust and fast IT connections and foster a culture where video conferencing is a seamless and day-to-day activity. Considering the external environment, collaboration may extend to outside social areas, car-free campuses, the enablement of sustainable transport options and recreational sports/fitness facilities.

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Workforce changes

New generations entering the sector form Higher Education have new and different expectations of their work environment and experience. Further, workforce general trends in work environments are changing with a greater emphasis on inclusivity and flexible working. Informed Universities and research institutes recognise the need to create open, border-less spaces which encourage collaboration and enable teams to be formed, reformed, and dispersed as projects demand.

This presents a challenge to those who are conditioned to hierarchical arrangements with dedicated offices set apart from the workforce. Senior leadership and managers, responsible for signing off designs need to get on board with the new way of working if they are to provide a platform which a contemporary workforce expects. Employees are in demand, and the work environment can play an important role in attracting, retaining and maintaining the motivation of the workforce.

This development in work environments is impacting laboratory designs. The strictly functional laboratory is still required although contemporary working styles place less emphasis on territory and ownership and more emphasis on the performance of the entire facility as an integrated system and how its configured around their co-workers to facilitate inter-action and science outcomes. Contemporary working styles value lab services delivered through site-wide providers rather than lab-based technicians and will be comfortable with e-ordering or fully automated delivery of consumables. Certain working practices will remain, driven by hygiene and biosafety – the laboratory will never be an eating and drinking zone! Thus, morning and afternoon breaks will continue to be taken together and lunchtime viewed as a social opportunity. However, increasingly workers will seek a range of catering offers with both cooked and cold options, but the expectation of nutritional value, sustainably sourced and high quality will continue their upward trajectory.

With contemporary workforces, there is also a sensitive topic of diversity and inclusivity to address. New facilities often prompt an organisation to reconsider working practices and in contemporary society, there is a need to positively address equality in all aspects of design and with laboratories including changing, eating and toilets facilities, these issues must be resolved sensitively, respectfully and in accordance with the organisation’s vision, strategy and to comply with emerging legislation. Space which responds intelligently to its worker community will contribute towards productivity, and this is true equally whether the facility is for public or private sector use.

Capital and Revenue costs

Cheaper is not better. As Universities and Research Institutes will be aware, capital investment in science research facilities is significant, with these facilities being amongst the most expensive type of buildings of any type. Depending on the complexity of the lab facility, the cost/m2 can easily far exceed that of a hospital. The costs continue into operations with air systems, equipment demands, and low utilisation rates all contributing to an expensive asset which is expensive to run.

There is, however, intelligent response to this cost challenge. Starting with ‘Why build?’ is the notion that re-purposing of an existing facility, especially if it was designed with some flexibility in mind, maybe a viable means of reducing capital investment demands. Once the decision is taken to build, there are several drivers which can contain costs. Firstly, senior leadership define and lock-down the capability required, expressing this as a functional brief, strongly tied to a business case. Secondly, calculation of whole life costs from the outset, to enable capital/revenue balance to be optimised, making use of energy-saving and renewable technologies that really payback. Thirdly, standardising as much as possible in line with an Estate-wide brief. Re-use of details successfully applied elsewhere on the estate, selection of common systems (e.g. BMS) and repetition all drive towards predictable cost outcomes.