Gutted: Tips and Trends in Laboratory Renovation

Whether it’s to make room for new equipment or to adhere to upgraded energy standards, if your lab hasn’t been redesigned in over a decade, you might be due for a change.

Laboratories require valuable real estate, of which institutions generally have a finite amount. Scientists must often compete with peers for space to pursue their projects, and when they do secure a location, they have to find a way to repurpose the facilities to make sense for their research. Sometimes, the only answer is renovation.

Bob Mitchell, of the Mitchell Architectural Group in Southbury, Conn., has been involved in over 250 laboratory development projects — the vast majority of which were renovations. “Labs go out of date primarily due to equipment configurations and layouts that no longer meet the evolving protocols of the laboratory functions,” he explains.

The fast pace of science requires a design that can change and adapt with it. Th us, a quality remodel will make flexibility a foremost priority.

Pliable Planning

Mitchell encourages institutions to think about configurations that can be easily adjusted to fit new requirements in the near future (and likely save significant funds down the road).

“Assume anything you construct now will be wrong five years from now,” Mitchell explains. “Develop a plan and infrastructure to allow reconfigurations and renovations to occur without shutting you down.”

He recommends planning an organized, generic, and flexible facility to the greatest extent possible. Some examples include arranging fume hoods as anchors of lab activity and adding modular components to the design.

These improvements can be impeded by out-of-date and rigid standards set forth by facilities departments, resulting in a laboratory that is still better suited to old functions, despite recent renovation. Mitchell encourages institutions to embrace innovation instead. “We want the client not only to think outside the box — but to throw the box away,” he says.


The Price of Progress

Depending on the age of the building and the level of renovation needed, the cost of implementing a new design may vary. Mitchell has worked on jobs ranging from small retrofi ts to biosafety level (BSL) containment, and he claims that the largest issues are generally infrastructure upgrades. “Th ese can seriously impact the cost and time frame for the renovations,” he says.

Depending on the level of work needed, Mitchell estimates the price of a typical lab renovation to fall between $280 to $450 per square foot, not including new equipment. A highly specialized and complicated project can reach as high as $1,200 per square foot. In terms of time frame, the construction usually takes about six to nine months.

Less Is More

To maximize the results of a renovation, it is crucial to keep efficiency in mind. Energy efficiency, efficient use of space, efficient use of funds, and efficient use of time are all markers of a well-conceived lab redesign.

Planning can start by estimating the number of people who use the lab. To make sure every person has a seat, it is often necessary to decrease the amount of space per individual.

According to Barbara A. Carpenter, associate principal at Tsoi/Kobus & Associates, a Massachusetts-based architectural firm, the typical lab bench assigned to each individual has shrunk from eight feet long to five feet long over the past 30 years. Carpenter described this trend as “densification” in an article she authored for Laboratory Design magazine,

“The idea of fitting ‘more’ in less space is an economic driver that has translated into the following commonly observed design themes: the shrinking of linear feet of bench assigned to each researcher, the elimination of small customized labs, the sharing of expensive scientific equipment, and the centralization of core functions,” she wrote.

Some colleagues might resist the idea of smaller stations at first, but Carpenter says that including certain perks can make the concept more appealing. She suggests adding glass walls between workstations and the break area, so food and drink can be consumed without having to take one’s eyes off the lab.

Find the Weak Spots

Without unlimited funds, only a certain amount of improvements can be made. Th e current conditions of the laboratory should be thoroughly investigated before making any redesign commitments. Once there is a list of upgrades, the committee can pick the top items possible while still staying within budget.

New survey equipment allows architects to make pretty accurate guesses as to the state of a building’s innards, but it is next to impossible to identify every potential issue. Sometimes, tearing into the walls may reveal good surprises, like boarded doors or windows that can be reopened. But, that is rarely the case.

“Having a construction budget contingency to address unforeseen conditions is critical and should be part of the original budget development,” Carpenter explains.

Energy consumption may be another factor influencing the importance of an upgrade. Some changes can lead to plentiful savings in the long term by reducing utility bills. This economic incentive could help convince leadership to boost the renovation budget.

The committee should identify sources of wasted energy in the laboratory. Old equipment is often an issue, as is an aging HVAC system. Even lighting design and the types of bulbs in place can have an effect. In addition to reducing energy costs, such upgrades will make the lab more sustainable and ecofriendly, offering wide appeal to groups both inside and outside the institution.

Eventually, every lab requires renovation. Th rough smart planning and forward-thinking design, the improved facilities can off er lasting power, keeping future overhauls at bay and creating a more organized, effective work environment for all involved.

— Mapes is a Washington D.C.–based freelance writer and a
regular contributor to Endocrine News. She wrote about the
artifi cial pancreas in pediatric patients in the May issue

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