Andy Snyder

Andy Snyder

Principal / Architect, NBBJ
Andy is the leader of NBBJ’s Science and Higher Education Practice and one of the firm’s most versatile and talented architects. His experience in differing scales and types of projects, from small renovations to new academic buildings and campus precincts, makes him a highly versatile designer and allows him to incorporate contemporary techniques within a complex settings. Recently named by the Design Futures Council as one of “40 under Forty” Emerging Leaders in Design, Andy is a passionate advocate for design, strategy and value creation. When he’s not working or traveling, you can find him on the golf course or in a rowing shell.

Learning from Tech Workplaces

Research Labs Are Changing to Accommodate New Computational Paradigms

January 23, 2017

Principal / Architect, NBBJ

Workplaces around the world are evolving as organizations like Apple, Google and Amazon seek to design offices that increase collaboration, integrate new technologies and help employees work more efficiently. This ethos is now making its way to the buildings where scientists and researchers work. Here’s why:

Research is going digital…

The methods scientists use to conduct research are changing. Labs are traditionally divided into three segments: clinical work, “wet” lab spaces (lab experiments using liquids) and “dry” lab spaces (labs using computers). Analysis and discoveries are becoming increasingly computation-based, or dry, compared to traditional wet laboratories.

From 2013 to 2015, the National Institutes of Health’s dry research funding for networking and IT R&D increased 40%, growing from $521 million to $729 million. The past decade has seen an explosion in data-intensive life sciences, including genomic research and medicine centering on healthcare customization and treatments based on patient DNA sequences.

The focus on data and computing in science fields is creating a shift in roles. There are close to twice as many dry bench scientists — including computation, informatics/clinical outcomes and clinical scientists — than wet bench scientists working today. Dry labs also require about 20% less space, at a little under 100 square feet per person versus close to 125 square feet per person in a wet lab.

Data creation, metadata (data about data) management and data curation are increasingly becoming the domain of the scientist. Lab benches are drying out.

What does this mean for lab design? In a forthcoming post, I’ll examine some of the implications for designers and laboratory planners.

Banner image courtesy Sean Airhart/NBBJ.

Share this:  envelope facebook twitter googleplus tumblr linkedin
Comment Follow nbbX

Conventional Laboratory Design Does Not Compute

To Support Computational Research, It’s Time to Start Sharing Traditional Resources

June 16, 2015

Principal / Architect, NBBJ

When people think of laboratories, they typically imagine the traditional “wet” lab: high benches arranged in orderly rows, stocked with beakers and test tubes, with sinks and heavy equipment within arm’s reach. But now, as big data and computation change the nature of discovery and processes for research, it’s time to holistically rethink the configuration of the lab environment.

Until recently, computation in research was purely analytic, primarily used to understand and make sense of physical phenomena, and to evaluate measured effects against hypotheses. Now, however, computation is both analytical and generative: experimentation that once required physical testing, at a traditional lab bench, can now be done in the computer — it’s the same work, only modeled virtually instead of physically.

Following this shift, many researchers find themselves in environments that don’t support virtual experimentation. I recently visited a new, highly publicized research building where, only a year and a half after completion, researchers had converted their “traditional” wet bench tops into computer workstations. Almost from day one, found themselves having to adapt to an environment that hadn’t anticipated their needs.


A traditional, “wet” bench laboratory. (© Frank Oudeman)

Today, the common assumption is that around 50 percent of the laboratory environment should consist of traditional “wet” benches. But when we visit new facilities, we see such low utilization that it probably needs to be only 20 or 30 percent. Researchers just aren’t working the way they used to, and they shouldn’t have to continually adapt environments to support their important work.

So maybe it’s time we think of the traditional lab, the “wet” bench, not as assigned space but as a shared resource. Perhaps it should be located in a separate space, shared by teams, with the majority of the environment designed for collaborative, computation-based research.

Researchers already share resources: walk any lab floor, and you’ll see neighborhoods of benches with shared equipment in between. Not everyone needs, say, a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer. We should think about the lab benches themselves the same way: not everyone needs constant access to 20 linear feet of wet bench for their work, not when they can model it in the computer.

The tech industry has had great success with this arrangement. The workplaces of companies like Facebook consist of large open spaces where people and teams work together, with shared resources like conference rooms situated nearby. In a research environment, one could imagine some of those spaces being “wet” labs, booked when needed. Not that laboratories should suddenly look like Google, but some features could be adapted and repurposed to create truly innovative research environments.

So let’s plan on building fewer “wet” labs and focusing more of our attention on the computational lab: what it looks like, how it’s arranged, what furniture to include, what infrastructure is necessary. It wouldn’t need overhead carriers or high benches, or the standard 10′-6″ modules, but should it be more like an open office or a private office environment? Or a hybrid of the two? Should it be more like a studio, a loft, or a hackathon space?

Regardless, the notion that the laboratory environment consists primarily of “wet” benches is no longer a given. The nature of science has changed. We should start building accordingly.

Image courtesy of University of Michigan SNRE/Flickr.

Share this:  envelope facebook twitter googleplus tumblr linkedin
Comment Follow nbbX

The Lecture Hall Is Dead

MOOCs or No MOOCs, Technology-Assisted Learning Is Transforming the University Campus

October 27, 2014

Principal / Architect, NBBJ

When a partnership between San Jose State University and online learning platform Udacity shut down in 2013, critics gleefully proclaimed the death of the MOOC — the Massive Online Open Courses that promised an Ivy-quality education, via the Internet, to millions of people around the world. But this high-profile flop masked a larger shift that shows no sign of letting up.

That is, education is no longer a didactic, one-directional transmission from teacher to student. Instead, the future of learning is a knowledge network. This is evident in long-established trends such as (in addition to MOOCs) team-based learning, flipped classrooms, Technology-Enabled Active Learning (TEAL) and student-centered active learning environments (SCALE). Under many of these models, students virtually attend a lecture, but then later interact with their peers in a team-based classroom, applying their learning through interactive exercises.

Although these trends aren’t new, what often goes unremarked is the direct relationship they have on a university’s space needs.


The Lecture Hall

The biggest impact? Technology-assisted learning theoretically renders the lecture hall obsolete. No longer is a 250-person auditorium necessary for teaching. Instead, universities might need a series of small team-based rooms, where students can learn via video or do interactive exercises. Depending on the course, a classroom might not be necessary at all — team space might be enough, perhaps in other areas of campus like residence halls or the student union.

This is incredibly liberating. It frees universities to use space in new ways, when they aren’t hindered by lecture halls that are utilized only a few times each day. Instead of building five lecture halls, universities could replace them with 20 classrooms. For instance, MIT’s new Sloan School of Management building has very few lecture halls but 40 four-person rooms for team-based work. And they’re almost 100% utilized. As any higher education planner or designer knows, that’s a huge shift.

Furthermore, existing lecture halls can be repurposed, converted into places for active learning. If this allows universities to construct fewer buildings, the benefits can be extensive:

  • Universities spend less money on fewer projects.
  • Adapting existing facilities is inherently more sustainable than building new ones.
  • Activity remains in the campus core instead of in distant buildings on the periphery.
  • When the ground floor isn’t occupied by static lecture halls, it becomes more active, making it easier for students to engage, to put learning on display or even to create retail space.

Classroom Sizes

The shape of the classroom changes too. In our higher education projects, we’re seeing fewer large-scale classrooms and — interestingly enough — less of a range of sizes. At Virginia Commonwealth University, for instance, we’re looking at rooms sized 450 square feet and 600 square feet. Not much of a difference area-wise, but the smaller room can break down into four team environments, and the larger has even more options for subdivision. So virtual learning is creating less variety, but more flexibility, in classroom space.

Campus Amenities

Technology-assisted learning also has a bottom-line impact on students’ presence on campus, as it forces a reallocation of spaces devoted to housing, parking, dining and other amenities. We have always balanced these functions, but now we must rethink the complexion of those spaces for each institution.

Staffing and Scheduling

How does this change staffing? It could require more graduate assistants to manage the proliferation of team-based activities. But more important is scheduling. Most classrooms (except for specialized spaces like laboratories) will not be “owned” by a department, so they will have to be reserved in a centralized database. To prevent conflicts over scheduling priority, sophisticated space assignment and management systems need to be in place, to be used by both the university administration and student teams.

Next-Generation Teaching

One final consideration matters for those universities with strong degree programs in education. That is, these colleges teach students how to teach the next generation of kids. Their facilities are themselves teaching instruments. When we think about next-generation classrooms, how are kids going to learn ten years from now? These technology-assisted learning trends will only continue to expand, so education facilities must begin functioning now as simulation suites for the next generation of teachers.


Surprisingly, distance learning makes physical space even more important: when information is widely available online, what differentiates a university? The experience. Going to Stanford, or Ohio State, or Sarah Lawrence, is about a lifestyle, about living amongst like-minded people from different backgrounds and sharing an experience of which learning is only one part.

And when universities free up space that was formerly devoted to lecture halls, they can devote more resources to those experiences — both in and out of the classroom — that their students seek.

Image © Sean Airhart/NBBJ.

Share this:  envelope facebook twitter googleplus tumblr linkedin
Comment Follow nbbX

Follow nbbX