Learning from Tech Workplaces

How Research Labs Are Changing to Accommodate New Computational Paradigms

November 2, 2017

Principal / Architect, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published by Laboratory Design.

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.

 

Innovations require collaboration.

Social network modeling and studies show that collaboration, not just within teams but between teams, is crucial to increased productivity, idea generation and effective communication. The denser and less siloed the social network, the more creative the lab. New or repurposed science workspaces have a responsibility to accommodate these findings.

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The Building for Translational Medicine, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, MA (photo courtesy Sean Airhart/NBBJ)

Translational research and medicine, a biomedical field that blends research, clinical work and community health efforts, is becoming the norm. Carrying research from theory to implementation is now happening all in the same space. Research is becoming increasingly cross-disciplinary and interdependent.

From a design perspective, distance matters. Visual transparency between wet and dry labs is critical to supporting interdisciplinary and serendipitous connections by helping increase social ties. Organizations like Brigham and Women’s Hospital are bringing benchside (medical research), bedside (clinics) and imaging facilities together under one roof.

The recently opened Allen Institute in Seattle intersperses collaborative meeting spaces, neuroscience and biomedical research zones and labs into one building to investigate how our brains and cells function.

 

How can research organizations design for data?

Tech companies focus on maximizing human performance in their offices. These businesses typically emphasize key factors to attract data scientists: company mission, amenities, brand expression, an activity-based workplace and mobility.

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The Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla, CA (photo courtesy NBBJ)

Here are a few design takeaways from the tech field that could be applied to science workspaces:

  • Provide creativity-boosting open collaborative and more sheltered huddle spaces for work, as well as in-between spaces like a café, lounge or even just an area to refresh and recharge. A balance between prospect and refuge areas is critical. A classic example, the Louis Kahn-designed Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, weaves in these principles through the open courtyard to the more enclosed offices.
  • Numerous studies have documented the stress-reduction effects of nature. So bring in some green — simulated or real — and orient work spaces toward views.
  • Building in ways to get exercise at work improves cognitive levels. Providing exercise-oriented amenities or access to outdoors and places to move — such as stairs and areas for stretching and other light activities — can help.
  • Bring in visual interest. A beautiful environment is proven to increase blood flow in parts of the brain that center on emotion and reward, which can help increase engagement and motivation.

 

Design for interdisciplinary work.

Designing better spaces is about understanding, optimizing and anticipating spatial needs. It’s about reallocating available space — learning how space is being used and which space is underused. For new projects, it’s about identifying core challenges and designing appropriate solutions. But more importantly, it’s about people.

Banner photo courtesy Lara Swimmer/NBBJ.

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