In the News... Support your vision: Planning customized science buildings

Published Oct 9, 2015
Oct 9, 2015

By: Matt Herbert and Marvin Kemp

The 18th-century poet Robert Burns wrote the familiar line: “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.” Translation: Existing lab models often don’t work.

Existing lab models developed for new college and university science and technology buildings often reflect Burns’ observation.

That’s because there’s no single model for a modern science and technology building. There are several planning schemes that have proven effective, but no one perfect solution for all buildings.

In today’s rapidly progressing technology world, every science and technology building must be a new customized design solution: a vision for your institution’s next science and technology building that will prove genuinely useful.

Effective planning for science and technology buildings follows a conceptual line of thinking that begins by creating a vision that uniquely supports the institution’s mission and defining the budget, as well as developing a design that features flexibility.

A vision that supports the institution

Major new science and technology concepts typically feature several competing visions.

The university president may see a new science and technology building as an opportunity to put his or her stamp on the campus by, say, consolidating a program distributed across multiple locations into one large, state-of-the-art building.

An ambitious dean may want a facility capable of pushing their research program into a higher position among life science programs in the U.S.

Department chairs might envision lab facilities capable of attracting researchers from other institutions with a particular kind of high quality research space.

The campus architect and facilities director will weigh in with their competing visions for the project. Depending on their longevity at the institution, they too may want to put their “stamp” on the project.

Experienced architects that have been through several large science and technology projects can help to bring these competing voices, agendas and visions into sync.

That’s one of the chief reasons for bringing these firms on board early. They will need appropriate time to absorb the institutional mission and the competing visions of stakeholders and decision makers. Their expertise will come in the form of effective listening and then leading the design efforts in a way that enfranchises all of the stakeholders.

Effective listening ranks as a top skill important to everyone involved in planning and programming a new building—from the aspirational vision of top executives to the micro-day-to-day activities of the users. Listening and really hearing the needs of the stakeholders is a vitally important quality for the process to unfold toward success.

What's your ideal
It’s important at this early planning stage—envisioning the project—for everyone to ask for the best, most effective building imaginable, without regard for the budget.

Budget comes later
Don’t compromise with yourself and ask for less at these initial stages. Budget will dictate that you will generally get less than you asked for but with the right architects and through creative problem solving, compromise can lead to success. Ask for everything you want at the beginning and evaluate from that level when the budget is taken into account.
For example, in the programming stage, you need to capture every hope and dream to create the best vision document possible. Clearly defining all of the stakeholders’ goals at this stage will result in a better overall project. Creativity during programming and open discussion can lead to shared spaces and opportunities that individuals may not readily see at the outset.

Define budgets, get tough on costs
In recent years, public allocations and private donations for academic facilities have declined, so budgets for construction projects have become more difficult to come by.

Indeed, many academicians have expressed concerns about finding adequate financing to move research forward.

There are ways of compensating for problems related to funding shortfalls. For instance, at different points in the economic cycle, a dollar will buy more or less material and labor. By staying in touch with those cycles, it’s occasionally possible to buy more for fewer dollars. Careful, though, your organization will have to make decisions about these issues in a timely fashion to take advantage of economic cycles.

In addition, an experienced architectural and construction management team will review budgets and costs in advance of every regular meeting and present their findings. Regular reviews make it possible to spot potential cost overruns during design—when value engineering can bring costs back into line, before construction begins.

In connection with this, architects experienced with lab design and construction can also help to keep costs in line by drawing on past projects. Some maintain useful records of costs connected to various kinds of labs and lab infrastructure. Such records can prove invaluable.

Why consider flexible design?
The debate over flexible science and technology in building design continues.

Individual researchers frequently don’t want to change to a flexible system, stating that their goal is to get to the conclusion of their research, not learn how to use a new kind of lab.

Maintenance people have developed good routines for keeping complex spaces up and running. Developing another routine seems daunting and could cause downtime problems that no one wants.

These are all reasonable claims, but they do not fit today’s realities of research.

The accelerating pace of technological change has and will continue to make significant changes in lab design out of necessity, and these changes are coming fast. For instance, changes over the past five years make the changes of the past 20 years look minimal.

In a practical example, technological changes have reduced research time spent working at a wet bench while increasing time spent elsewhere using computer models to work out conclusions.

Today, cloud computing is making the computational side of research even more economical. The amount of data that new equipment is able to collect and analyze requires much more computational capability than in the recent past.
Researchers are embracing these new technological research capabilities, but those changes come with space challenges. Flexible labs will enable a faster response by researchers to the changing technologies. Instead of a new facility, flexible spaces permit relatively quick reconfigurations of existing spaces.

On the maintenance side, flexibility can reduce annual energy costs, while allowing modifications to existing lab space to accommodate new research routines to be substantially reduced.

Those are permanent financial benefits going forward. The one-time cost of a flexible facility will provide these long-term benefits.

Considerations for flexible design
An experienced science and technology project team is always planning for the next technology within the lab module to accommodate the next cycle of change.

Key components of that planning include having larger, more open labs where space or specific benches can be reassigned as research teams grow or contract.

Wet labs, dry labs, computational facilities all carry different kinds of costs, thanks to different fixtures, benches and technology infrastructure. Of course, physics labs differ from biology labs from chemistry labs, as well, and all have different costs associated with their construction.

One issue common to different kinds of labs involves choosing between fixed and movable fixtures. Fixed benches, for instance, cost less than movable benches. Some universities have stored fixed benches from past projects and re-use them, a practice that can create cost efficiencies. This approach does require storage space and management, and can lead to benches becoming dated when re-used, or lead to a patchwork effect within a lab.

Then again, movable fixtures have value. They too can be stored between projects and re-used—and re-installed for lower costs than fixed benches. And, the customization of built in casework also is prohibitive in its re-use.

Architects that have tracked these costs can provide very illuminating and insightful benchmarking information. Are costs running about average or getting off track? Would this innovation—that might cost a little more—be worth it or not?

The result? Experienced architects can help to define and manage a budget in ways that will necessitate the fewest compromises.

Planning is more difficult today with larger and more complex project teams, and, therefore, more plans than ever go off the tracks and don’t work.

But, it doesn’t have to be that way; insights of experienced project teams guide planning to success, today and tomorrow.

Give your science and technology facility the best possible chance of success. Develop a vision from contributions made by as many stakeholders and users as possible—including donors. Find the ideal first. Define the budget next and prioritize the ideals. Take advantage of flexible design—so the building can continue to provide service close to the ideal for decades to come.

Marvin Kemp is Senior Associate at Design Collective Inc. Matt Herbert is Senior Associate at Design Collective Inc.

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