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How laboratory design must account for labs of the future

With demands and work culture rapidly changing, the laboratories of the future must be designed with employees, the environment and society at its core.

5 min read

Ask your average non-scientist to picture a laboratory and there’s a good likelihood that one of two images will appear in their minds. There’s the unlikely-coloured-liquids-bubbling-through-contorted-glass-tubes version of the lab; or the serious-looking-people-in-lab-coats-pipetting-blue-liquid-from-one-tube-to-another version of the lab. Ultimately both these visions communicate the same thing: that labs are ‘where science gets done’… end of story.

This may have been true back in the 1950s when serious tweed-suited men discussed the next big discovery in clipped BBC accents; but since then, as scientists, we have been gradually subverting the laboratory space and turning it into what we need it to be, not just from the point of view of laboratory workflow, but also with the agenda of making the lab a positive place to work within.

Collaborative, flexible and data driven workspaces

Today’s laboratory is far more than a single-function, science-focussed workspace. Modern labs are areas for experimentation and discovery, factory floors, board rooms, social spaces and digital libraries. They are zones of quiet solo working and last minute we’ve-got-a-deadline-to-reach full-intensity team effort. Modern laboratory design understands and embraces this. It creates collaborative laboratories which are efficient, safe and functional while at the same time being engaging, adaptable and multifunctional.

Labs of the future will be designed to emphasise collaboration, flexibility and an increasingly open approach to science. The coronavirus pandemic has taught us, in a very real way, that work is something that you do and not necessarily somewhere you go.

Modern innovations around automation, digital data management and remote working mean that more than ever today’s scientist, and tomorrow’s scientist, are and will be freed from the lab bench. Routine tasks, even highly technical ones, are ripe for automation. This enables researchers to undertake sophisticated experiments with minimal time in the lab. Scientists acknowledge that productivity can happen out of the lab and out of hours, and to accommodate this the lab must include areas which are amenable to collaboration between those on site and those working remotely.

Mundipharma flexible work zone

Designing with sustainability in mind

Design for tomorrow’s lab is highly aware of the importance of sustainability, from both an ethical and financial perspective. Laboratories, particularly those with high process-loads, can consume up to one hundred times the amount of energy of a comparable commercial property. Thermal insulation, recycling of heat and increased use of natural light all play a role in reducing the environmental and financial cost of operating a lab. Sustainability was a key consideration for our redesign of Colorcon’s laboratory space and along with aiming for zero waste to landfill we also applied our 10-point sustainable project criteria end-to-end.

Colourcon laboratory space

Social designs that increase productivity and wellbeing

Awareness of the importance of mental health is, and should be, very high on the work agenda. With this in mind, the modern laboratory co-opts space within the lab to allow for social interaction while working. This enables people to protect their own mental health and that of their colleagues – checking in with someone becomes much easier when the workspace accommodates a quick chat.

The provision of networking space provides additional benefits including enhancing the productivity of collaborative working and reducing the opportunity for teams and people to retreat into occupational silos. When we reworked Mundipharma’s site in Cambridge they told us that the wellbeing of their people was of primary importance. We redesigned the staff canteen area to act as both a lunch and hosting area in addition to merging functional areas into collaboration spaces where people can get together. This has helped Mundipharma to continue to drive forward it’s people-first agenda and forge stronger relationships with staff and clients.

Canteen area at Mundipharma’s office in Cambridge

Trending urbanisation

The recent explosive growth in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology sectors has led to companies taking advantage of urban locations which provide ease of access to employees who might, for a variety of reasons, prefer to use public transport or work close to where they live.

Life science laboratories which are embedded in the urban ecology, rather than on its fringes, benefit from reduced environmental impact, closer ties with academic institutions, and a readily available workforce. While city centre locations are likely to be a reality for the lab of the future, laboratory design does need to consider the unique problems that can arise as a result of having labs in a built-up area. Designing-in features for the delivery, storage and removal of hazardous materials; engineering controls for laboratory safety; and including sustainable solutions for the supply of energy, water and air will all be part of the reality of creating urban laboratories. Our Real Estate and Design teams assisted DNA Nudge with both selection and design/fit out of an appealing and effective workspace comprising both private and collaborative areas in a highly urban Whitechapel location.

DNA Nudge office on the Imperial College White City campus

The laboratory of the future

There is no single, uniform lab of the future but it is possible to identify a few unifying themes across chemistry labs, pathology labs, pharmaceutical quality control labs and others.

The lab of the future is likely to be in an urban location, possibly in a multi-use building. It will cater to teams that work both on-site and remotely and will be a highly versatile space which is focused not only on productivity but also on the physical, mental, emotional and social health of the people who work there.

Whilst tomorrow’s laboratory, in its most simplistic form, can be viewed as a modernisation of building infrastructure, it is also fundamentally, an emergent property of a mindset which acknowledges that as scientists we are responsible for not only the delivery of work but also for the welfare of our colleagues, the environment, and the society that we are part of.

Be a part of the change towards a more inclusive, diverse, and sustainable laboratory offering through design and build or refurbishment. Get in touch to discuss your future generation laboratory design –