Laboratories – Past, Present & Future
This dull, inflexible space with bulky furniture was typical of school laboratories in the past. Health and safety was minimal, or non-existent.
Research laboratories were much the same as the old school laboratory shown above; just more cluttered and more complex. Back then food and drink were allowed.
PC: Animexx / PC: Liebig Museum
Like any other workplace, laboratories are constantly changing. In this article we provide a quick overview of how laboratories have evolved over the last few decades; what future labs could look like, and the main drivers/trends for change.
There have been some notable changes. Here are just a few of the laboratories we have fitted out in recent years:
A Biotechnology Start-up
This bright, spacious laboratory incorporates splashes of the company’s brand colours. Our client’s unique workflow, processes and movements shaped this well-thought-out layout. The creation of a collaboration area encourages informal and formal gathering and ideas sharing.
Cat A Laboratory, Oxford Science Park
A light and airy facility with flexible furniture, health and safety signage and easy to clean floorings.
Biotechnology Research Facility, Oxfordshire
Unlike your average wet or dry laboratory set up, this facility incorporates specialist requirements such as controlled humidity, temperature and drainage. The varied layout includes small R&D rooms, and a large production area with a number of air changes per hour.
Food & Beverage Laboratory, Hertfordshire
These wet laboratories are bright and spacious, with a cold room installation in the basement. A tasting room was also installed, with specific design and lighting tailored to client needs. The associated office and write-up space includes stimulating colourful displays.
Since our first laboratory project in 2010, we have experienced the continuous evolution of laboratory client needs. We are currently working on a project with a start-up company whose interdisciplinary research involves engineering and life sciences. Whilst we are creating typical wet and dry laboratory areas, this client is also keen to incorporate aspects to promote employee well-being and female staff retention. These will include creating a nursery and a small gym. Free hot lunches are also provided to employees daily.
This forward thinking seems to be an emerging pattern in laboratory working.
What will laboratories look like in the future?
A school laboratory or any dry laboratory could look like the one shown below; bright, spacious, computerised. This could be used for online demonstrations or in-silico experiments.
A research laboratory could look much like the one below, offering a multidisciplinary facility, with overhead services freeing up the floor space for layout reconfiguration. Furniture will be flexible so that it can be re-configured as per the changing research needs. The GSK laboratory at the Nottingham University already has similar arrangement.
PC: Longo Labs
The concept of hot-desking from the office sector might be replicated as shown below. These Modular Lab Stations with a ‘plug and play approach’ are highly likely to be used in the future.
PC: Clark Nexen
So, what are the key drivers or trends for this change?
Rapid growth in technology has brought many changes in the way we work. For example, many manual, repetitive, dull and/or dangerous jobs are now able to be done by automated machines. This allows scientists to focus on more creative and innovative tasks. In the future, scientists will spend less time in the labs and more time in collaboration spaces, thinking spaces or outdoors. As the cost of bringing new medicines to market rises, there is an immense pressure on life scientists to improve productivity and efficiency. With automation and the advent of Big Data and Artificial Intelligence, scientists can achieve that.
Increasingly, laboratories are adopting Lean methodologies to improve scientific value, resource efficiency and employee well-being. The widely adopted concept of Lean from the Japanese Motor Industry focuses on minimising waste and maximising value. Although Lean tools are not completely transferable to a research environment, the principles can be incorporated in lab design to support lean processes such as flow, visual management and standard work by optimised use of space, equipment and sharing; minimising consumption of chemicals, energy and water and optimising laboratory building services.
There is also an increasing focus on Health & Safety, Regulatory Compliance and transparency. This is not only in terms of research processes and documentation but is also seen in the integration of non-scientific with scientific staff. Accessibility to the public is becoming key to achieve competitive advantage.
Today’s workforce is mobile, connected and global, they expect their work to reflect their personalities and aspire to work-life balance. Collaboration between scientific professionals locally, nationally and globally has become an integral part of the laboratory culture.
What it means for lab design
Lab designers need to keep up-to-date with scientific, technological and construction trends. They not only need to understand every client's unique research focus, future needs and business limitations but also to educate and guide them in achieving the optimum modern laboratory design to maximise efficiency.
In designing laboratories of the future, we will leave behind the concept that work processes have to fit around the configuration of the laboratory. Instead laboratories will be open, flexible, automated, re-configurable, connected and collaborative spaces. This freedom in the way we are able to work will drive innovation, creativity and productivity. In turn this can only lead us to understand more and more.
“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less” - Marie Curie.
Dr Manisha Kulkarni