Expediting Laboratory Design Within a Changing Environment

by Laura Vargas

July 17, 2020


Advancing science forward is critical to our future, and COVID-19 has only reinforced the importance of research on a global scale. In just the past few months, both life and physical sciences have been challenged to quickly address the pandemic, protect lives, and prevent another future pandemic from occurring. 

The need to respond quickly to changing markets, and understanding the value of laboratory spaces that are flexible, adaptable, and scalable, are nothing new to the research community. However, in many cases, the speed required relating to COVID-19 was dramatically amplified. We’ve seen make-shift hospitals pop up in stadiums, “drive-thru” testing sites pop up in vacant parking lots, and testing laboratories continually ramp up production and expedite results. This quick-thinking behavior has been inspiring to witness but can also appear daunting when faced with the challenge of execution. Laboratories, by nature, are among the most complex building typologies – the health and safety of its occupants and the protection of the integrity of the research are of utmost importance. The complexities of the resulting design can be an involved undertaking, but the process is entirely possible to expedite in an extreme pandemic-level circumstance. Whether you are an owner or an end-user, if you find yourself in the position to respond, here are some key points to consider to help streamline your process and achieve your goals.

It Takes a Village

Commit to the team effort and agree to make the project a priority. When attempting to modify your space quickly, it is critical that all key players and decision makers be on board. Start by clearly defining your goals. These goals will help the team understand those individuals whose participation will be needed. This may include end users, procurement leads, environmental health and safety representatives, life safety representatives, biosafety representatives, industrial hygienists, lab technicians, building owners or property managers, general contracting team members, and the full planning, architecture and engineering team, with special emphasis on the mechanical engineer. Having all parties participate in critical discussions allows for decisions to be made in real-time, and will help expedite the process tremendously. When questions arise regarding laboratory protocol, air change rates, chemical quantity allowances and storage, etc., having those key decision makers participate as an integral component of the team is essential. Time is money, so waiting on decisions to be made can result in critical time lost. Try to minimize this as best as possible and have everyone at the table, from the beginning. 

Keep the Foot on the Gas

Set an achievable, consistent schedule to keep everyone accountable. Fast-paced projects require a regimented schedule and habit creation. If it means meeting at a set day/time on a daily basis, do so. Having a large team, with all parties represented, often means scheduling time will be a challenge. Setting the tone with recurring meetings allows individuals to plan their other commitments around this time, keeping in mind the commitment to making the project a priority. For example, in past experience, our design team created a cyclical, four-step process for execution:

  1. Begin the design cycle with a full team meeting, emphasizing everyone’s participation as essential. Elect a moderator who can ensure everyone’s input is heard and track comments. This is especially important when conducting meetings remotely via Zoom, WebEx, etc.
  2. Immediately following the full team meeting, establish a set amount of time to allow the design team to incorporate feedback and coordinate changes.
  3. With design updates complete, re-group with those pricing and procurement leads to review both budgetary impacts and subsequent construction schedule implications. 
  4. Complete the cycle by sending all relevant, updated information and action items to full team for review at the next full team meeting and prepare to repeat the process.

For our team, one cycle was equal to one day, which meant early mornings and late nights, but this process can be expanded to apply to your particular project schedule needs. Just remember to be careful to set realistic goals so that a sustainable rhythm is established, and individuals feel that goals can be accomplished in the time allocated. 

Think with the idea of “sufficiency” in mind 

There are things we want – and then there are things we need. Like most businesses, the for-profit, private research industry has an underlying driver when making decisions – how to efficiently and effectively execute a mission while maximizing profit. The fundamentals of this mindset can, and should be drawn upon when needing to create or modify a laboratory environment while simultaneously keeping costs and schedule to a minimum. Focus on doing more with less space and encourage the team to set a goal for producing a viable solution in the least amount of area. When assessing the viability of a reduced footprint, discuss with the team the need for future growth and determine if there are portions of the buildout can be deferred to a later date. The idea of saving space can be a good thing only if it does not create issues in the future, so it is important to balance both the immediate need with the long-term solution. 

Boston University, Organic Chemistry Lab Renovation

Laboratories have three types of useable “spaces” within them – equipment space, workspace, and material space. Equipment space is often non-negotiable, requiring operational and safety clearances above and beyond the instrument footprint itself. So, think critically about the types and quantities of equipment being purchased and focus on those items that have some degree of control. Are 6’-0” fume hoods mandatory, or can the researchers adequately operate out of a 4’-0” hood? Bench space is becoming less and less a built-to-suit scenario and remote technologies are further reducing the needs for physical bench space. To that end, researchers in both academic and professional settings recognize the value of utilizing flexible casework solutions. This flexibility allows a short-term solution for purchasing only what is needed, but its inherent nature of being “mobile” also provides an opportunity to easily adapt over time. When specifying benches, consider the dimensions. Are 6’ x 36” benches needed or will a 5’x 30” bench suffice? This may seem like an insignificant decision but consider this 5.5 sf reduction applied to the total number of benches throughout the space. It can result in a significant amount of area saved. 

Material space is arguably one of the prime areas where space efficiencies can be gained. Beyond the nuts and bolts of a laboratory, study the amount of physical space materials occupy. Non-essential storage within a lab can consume valuable real estate – not just in the physical footprint it inhabits (and its associated construction), but also in the amount of energy it takes to condition the environment containing it. If precious laboratory real estate can be saved – or reduced - by simply modifying internal operational procedures, it is worth considering. For example, consider the frequency of sample deliveries or hazardous waste pick up to reduce the footprint of storage needs. Additionally, processes that can be managed remotely further reduce the need for physical space. If research can continue unaffected by implementing modified operational procedures, the need for physical space can reduce and positively impact an expedited construction process. If there is one thing that COVID-19 has taught us, it’s the power of remote technology and the potential for this to become our “new normal”.

Location & Infrastructure

The Pennsylvania State University, Steidle Building Renovation

It’s no surprise that interior buildouts are typically faster than ground-up new construction projects. If you are in the market of reviewing options for space, it is important to quickly understand your options. When reviewing the feasibility of building out a lab within an existing space, think critically about what systems area available in comparison to what is needed. Below are a few examples of common laboratory infrastructure needs to consider. 

  • Mechanical Systems: One of the most important safety aspects of a lab is its air flow design. The number of air changes per hour, the ability (or inability) to recirculate air, pressurization, air cleanliness and/or the need for laboratory exhaust all heavily impact the mechanical design. Think about how much capacity is available in the system and determine where the increase is required. In addition, if new mechanical chases or pathways are needed, this may have an impact to the available footprint so it’s best to begin talking through these things with the mechanical engineer and those representing environmental health & safety, biosafety, and industrial hygiene very early on to understand what parameters are acceptable. 
  • Electrical Systems: When expediting a laboratory buildout, laboratory equipment specifications may be an evolving process, especially if instruments are being purchased as new. In the absence of having all cutsheets available, think strategically about how power will be run to and within the lab space. Developing an agreed upon, standardized, modular method for distributing power will allow the contractor to proceed with construction while giving the end user flexibility in equipment selection. When it comes to emergency power, unless a sufficient capacity of backup power is available, be strategic about where this is required. If possible, investigate options for localized UPS systems which can serve as battery backup for those items which truly require uninterrupted power. 
  • Plumbing Systems: House systems for plumbing are very common in laboratory settings, whether that be a centralized vacuum or compressed air system, specialty water or gas types, or even specialty drainage systems. If the space you are considering does not have house-supplied plumbing that fit your needs, consider localized solutions to save both time and money. For example, both vacuum and compressed air can be provided as a localized unit. Stand-alone DI polishing systems can be added to an existing laboratory water supply, and where acid neutralization is needed, localized units can be added upstream of a drain, as an accessory to a sink. These types of localized options support the notion of being strategic about where infrastructure is truly needed, while also allowing for the ability to modify and adapt over time should laboratory requirements evolve. Another common plumbing provision are floor drains at emergency showers. Talk to your safety representative about whether these are truly needed and the operational impact should they be omitted. If their absence is plausible, this, too, can result in potential savings.  
  • Technology Systems: Technology is a continually evolving topic. Laboratory instrumentation is advancing more and more toward remote technology capabilities. If the team is in a position of reviewing new equipment options and working via a wireless connection is a feasible alternative to hard-wired ethernet connections, this option may be low hanging fruit idea and can reduce construction time associated with the installation of cabling. If building automation or control systems are required for laboratory processes, bring the contractor on early and have them participate in the design process. Encourage collaboration between the general contractor and the systems installer for installation dates which reduce the time for returning to operations. 

Think About the Supply Chain

When it comes to procurement, whether it be contractor-furnished material or owner-provided equipment, remember that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every part of the construction industry in some way. There have been stories of material delays due to factory shut-downs, interrupted customs processing, and mandatory quarantines for traveling personnel. In a more traditional project delivery method, there may be time to obtain competitive pricing from multiple bidders. However, in an expedited scenario, time is of the essence and it’s important to remain flexible. For example, if your space needs a series of fume hoods, traditionally, these have about an 8-12 week lead time, which may or may not work within your timeframe. In this scenario, it may be worth it to speak directly with a distributor who carries a variety of different fume hood manufacturers and can help find a solution based on availability. So, when you begin to think about procurement and the supply chain, seek to find resources that are readily available on the market, today, with minimal lead times, and place orders as soon as you are able. 

Parallel to this notion, it is critical that you work with a contractor you know and trust who is well-versed in the materials, means, and methods of your space. In a volatile market, the construction team is key to understanding up-to-the-minute pricing metrics and have the ability to reach directly out to the subcontractors who will be performing the work. When delivering a project in an expedited manner, it is important to understand that speed often results in increased costs, so a trusted contractor will be able to discern premium pricing feedback with what is reasonable for the scope of work. Eliminate gaps in information by treating them as the invaluable team member that they are and ensure their participation as an integral part of the design process. 

COVID-19 has changed the world as we know it, and we, as a society have been forced to evolve. We understand the power of remote technology and staying connected like never before. Many people are re-discovering how to do more with less, pushing farther and faster to innovate and discover solutions – and find a cure. In the design and construction industry, the limits of our dexterity have been tested and we have repeatedly demonstrated the aptitude to rapidly respond. Though we may continue to face challenges, we will continue to persevere. 

Laura Vargas

Project Director