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The science of lab design: creating room to discover

January 31, 2020

As scientific research has progressed, the use of advanced technology and instrumentation has grown and now plays a fundamental role in most day to day activities. When it comes to lab design, it can therefore seem like the most important consideration is incorporating all the latest technologies. It is important to remember, however, that these technologies have been designed to support human innovation and problem solving, so their inclusion should not be at the expense of other design considerations that will aid human discovery.

“So long as my lab contains the necessary instruments and resources it’s sufficient for my needs.”

This statement may seem true for many researchers, but it overlooks the many potential benefits of efficient lab design. Whilst providing the necessary materials, equipment and space to carry out your research is essential, the design of a laboratory can also have a significant impact on efficiency, collaboration, health and safety, maintenance and security. It is therefore important to design your laboratory space in advance in order to optimise your operations.

Plan for success

The most important measure of success of a new lab design is that it provides the amenities and space required to do the job. Scientific research spans a wide variety of fields, all with very different requirements: the needs of a lab studying the effects of candidate drugs in cancer cells will be very different to that of an animal genotyping facility. It is therefore essential to consider the end use at the very start of the planning process in as much detail as possible.

Thinking through the everyday processes and workflows in advance can help flag possible challenges and will allow designs to anticipate and overcome these before they become an issue. Engaging all stakeholders in the planning process is a great way to ensure all activities are planned for whilst also giving everyone the chance to feel involved and fostering a collaborative atmosphere. The Harvard School of Public Health suggests that thinking about what a lab will be used for and how these uses can be facilitated by design is the most logical starting point for designing an effective laboratory[1].

Room to discover

Assigning space within the lab is one of the fundamental considerations in order to ensure there is sufficient workspace for the required research work  and number of people. By designing spaces around the most frequently used equipment/workflows in your lab, you can optimise the lab and improve efficiency. For example, providing storage space for consumables near the areas where they are most commonly used could streamline processes and save your researchers a significant amount of time.

Storage also plays an important role in safety protocols as safe storage of consumables is essential to satisfy health and safety requirements. The correct type of storage should also be in a convenient location to allow ease of access to regularly used materials. It is all very well allowing a single designated area for ventilated chemical storage but if this is nowhere near where the chemicals are being used it will waste users’ time retrieving the required substance. It also increases the risk that users will not follow designated safety protocols and leave chemicals in incorrect storage, leading to potential safety issues.

lab equipment booking system

Collaborate to innovate

Labs which provide spaces for team working and include communal workspaces encourage the sharing of ideas and can significantly improve collaboration within an organisation. It has also been observed that natural lighting and expansive workspaces can foster a sense of community and encourage collaborative working[2].

It’s also important to consider how labs integrate with other labs and departments in the rest of the organisation to facilitate cross-pollination of ideas and enable sharing of resources. Your new lab will undoubtedly contain advanced technology and new equipment which could facilitate research elsewhere so making sure it is readily accessible not only benefits scientific research but also ensures optimal use of the equipment and a higher return on the investment made on these. This ease of access can be aided by a lab booking system such as Clustermarket. It provides users the ability to view availability and book equipment remotely as well as providing usage data which could be used to charge costs back to specific departments or support future grant applications.

Safety first

In a questionnaire looking at the relative importance of different design criteria, ‘ease of identifying emergency or escape route’ was ranked as the top priority[3]. Ensuring users feel confident in the satisfaction of safety regulations reduces concerns and improves efficiency. But designing a lab to improve safety is not just about satisfying existing safety regulations. You can also be proactive to reduce potential future issues. By reducing the distance hazardous materials need to be transferred between different pieces of equipment and ensuring there is a sterile and safe method of transfer you can reduce the safety risks to your lab users and minimise the chances of experimental contamination.

Future proofing for continued innovation

Balancing the different current uses of your lab is a challenge in itself and there are many different areas to weigh up, however needs can change, and it is necessary to consider how the lab’s uses may evolve over time. The need to reduce upfront costs may be a driving force to limit the flexibility of the lab but factoring in opportunities to move, adapt and grow can help future proof your organisation and reduce future expenditure, ultimately increasing your ROI.

Modular fittings provide flexibility, giving the option to upgrade or change individual aspects without the need to refurbish the entire lab. They also enable easy access for regular maintenance and cleaning to ensure labs continue to run smoothly.

The examples above are just a few of the important considerations when designing a lab and factoring in all the different variables can seem like a daunting prospect. As scientists, we all like to base our decisions on relevant data and lab design is no exception. Analysing current lab usage can provide this information and a system like Clustermarket is a useful resource. Clustermarket’s lab management system supplies data including which pieces of equipment are used most often and by whom to help you plan your future lab spaces.

Once you’ve finalised your new lab design, you’ll need to include a sophisticated lab booking system to match your sophisticated new lab space and integrate the different control interfaces of your new equipment. Clustermarket can be easily incorporated, providing the intelligent system you need.

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