December 19, 2007

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Is generic really the answer? Post-occupancy assessments reveal how users really work in labs

By Wendy Burke; Cynthia Walston, AIA; and Jane Baughman, AIA, LEED AP

Editor’s note: The following article is based on original research by the Laboratory Innovation and Implementation Council, a multi-firm consortium of architects, planners, engineers, builders, and owners founded to bring innovation to laboratory design, construction, and operation from a total solutions perspective, from the building shell to the smallest individual operating system. Collaborating to develop a design basis for the “ideal” lab of the future, the council emphasizes several design principles promoting sustainability, right-sizing of systems, human- centricity, constructability, and lifecycle management.

Today’s open and modular labs may not always accomplish their goals of flexibility and efficiency, since researchers do not always use them in the way designers predicted they would. Click to enlarge.

The concept of open, flexible laboratory design is a common approach leveraged by facility owners seeking to provide maximum long-term value of laboratory buildings. But is generic always the right answer? Is bigger better? And, as construction and operations costs for labs have skyrocketed, at what cost is this flexibility achieved?

In Houston, Texas, there are on average 99 days above 90° annually, with 80%+ relative humidity. The cost to change that hot, humid air eight to 10 times per hr to 72° with 50% relative humidity for one-time use is astronomical.

With this reality in mind, the Laboratory Innovation and Implementation Council initiated a post-occupancy study to consider three critical questions:

• Do occupants use lab space as intended?
• Are there functions in the lab that could be safely removed to reduce costs?
• What tasks might be best removed?

The study focused on open molecular biology labs at three Texas Medical Center research institutions: Keck Hall at Rice Univ., Feigin Center at Texas Children’s Hospital (TCH), and the Univ. of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center South Campus Research Building I (SCRB). The Council conducted observation studies and occupant surveys in the labs and used proprietary modeling software to analyze space utilization in each of the labs. The model documented use relationships between office, laboratory, and circulation areas, along with relationships of spaces within the laboratory used for office tasks, storage, tissue culture, bench work, equipment, general storage, solutions storage, and equipment storage.

The analysis prompted additional questions about how design impacts researcher behaviors:

• Do occupants use flexibility designed into casework?
• Do occupants collaborate in the lab?
• And the primary question: Could we reduce the cost of labs by reducing their size, and which “lab” functions could move without compromising functionality?

Fig. 1. Occupancy studies of labs in three Houston research buildings revealed that bench space utilization ranged from 63 to only 33%, and use of storage space ranged from 54 to 77%. All diagrams and photos courtesy of the Laboratory Innovation and Implementation Council. Click to enlarge.

Bench utilization study The study examined the relationship between space design and occupant behavior. Over two days at each institution, the group first surveyed researchers, gathering perceptions about their work space and documenting locations of tasks, supplies, chemicals, and equipment in the lab. Then, the study team observed the occupants as they worked, noting how they utilized the flexibility of their laboratories and where they spent their time (Fig. 1, left).

The analysis revealed key insights into how research is conducted and how laboratories are used. Although the study partners represent three very different institutions with varying cultures and user populations, the relationships between office functions, wet bench laboratory functions, and equipment use had evolved into very similar patterns.

Texas Children’s Hospital Feigin Center, designed by FKP Architects Inc., Houston, was a renovation of eight floors of an existing clinic building into generic research labs, which was completed in late 2002. (Currently, FKP Architects with Burns, DeLatte, McCoy Engineers is completing design for a vertical expansion of the project, adding eight more floors to the now dedicated research tower.)

Figs. 2. An analysis of space utilization for labs—the most expensive part of a research building—showed that a fairly large amount of “lab” space was actually being used as office or storage space. Click to enlarge.

The Feigin facility features large open labs of 13 bays of approximately 10 ft, 3 in. 3 33 ft each, with desk zones at windows (Fig. 2, left). The casework system features demountable partitions with adjustable shelving and a combination of fixed and suspended cabinetry.

In general, while the researchers like their environment, they did not understand the flexibility built into the demountable system. In fact, “flexible casework” was defined by the researchers as clear plastic mobile storage drawer units that could be bought at any discount store— with their wheels marking them as “flexible.”

Analysis of what was actually stored in the cabinets and on the shelves revealed that only 43% of available bench space was utilized for research tasks and only 57% of available storage space was consumed.

Fig.3 . An analysis of space utilization for labs—the most expensive part of a research building—showed that a fairly large amount of “lab” space was actually being used as office or storage space. Click to enlarge.

Rice Univ.’s Keck Hall was a complete renovation and addition to a 1925 building, designed by FKP Architects and completed in late 2000. The existing footprint created labs smaller than those considered “open and generic” today. The space we observed is a graduate student laboratory consisting of 1,400 ft2 of wet bench laboratory space and support space. Student office space is located on the building’s main corridor away from the lab and in the main lab space closest to the lab entry (Fig. 3, left).

The wet bench area contains wall-mounted counters with mobile cabinets underneath at all perimeter walls and two islands of floor-mounted cabinets with adjustable shelving, with chase walls for utilities. Scientific equipment is located almost exclusively at the perimeter walls where cabinets are mobile and can be relocated as needed to accommodate a spherical work pattern. Researcher work stations are located along the islands with fixed floor-mounted cabinets.

This lab has less storage space than TCH, and analysis of the space revealed that 63% of the available bench space was utilized and 77% of available storage space was consumed. The students’ perception of the lab space is that it provides flexibility, though they would prefer the offices closer to the lab.

Fig.4. An analysis of space utilization for labs—the most expensive part of a research building—showed that a fairly large amount of “lab” space was actually being used as office or storage space. Click to enlarge.

M.D. Anderson Cancer Center South Campus Research Building (SCRB) is a new biomedical research facility designed by P&W Architects, Houston. The laboratory observed contains 1,100 ft2 of wet bench area located off a central block of specialty procedure rooms. Faculty offices are provided on the opposite side of the procedure block with access through the procedure block. Main access to the offices is by a corridor that forms a circulation track around the floor (Fig. 4, left).

The wet lab area is comprised of five-foot mobile benches with adjustable shelving above the bench top, and both mobile and suspended cabinets below. Because the lab area was not yet been fully occupied, the utilization ratios were low for the entire space. Only 33% of available bench was utilized and only 55% of available storage space was consumed. Where benches were fully occupied, the reduced amount of available storage at the bench resulted in an overall more organized use of space.   

Time studies We used time study software to analyze six general tasks observed in each laboratory along with the number of times each task was performed and the amount of time spent at each task. The tasks observed were: research performed at work stations, preparation or research performed at sinks, research performed at equipment, access of storage located at the work station, access of storage located within the observed lab area but not at the work station, and access of storage located in a separate room (Fig. 5, below).

Fig. 5. Users of the three labs analyzed in the study spent most of their time working with equipment—indicating that flexibility for equipment configuration might be more important than the much-discussed bench workstation flexibility. Click to enlarge.

Analysis of observations at TCH’s Feigin Center revealed that every 1.67 min a researcher was using a piece of equipment, every 4.3 min a researcher was at a work station, and every 7 min a researcher was looking around the work station for supplies. Every 10 min a researcher was going to storage shelving or cabinets located in a central area within the lab and every 23 min a researcher was going to a support room located outside of his lab area.

For each institution the greatest amount of time was spent interfacing with equipment. Observation showed that, contrary to our assumption of flexibility being most desired at a work station, users are actually more inclined to leverage flexibility in areas occupied by scientific equipment.

Collaboration patterns The study documented the need for areas for collaboration among researchers in every laboratory, and the observed collaboration pattern was similar across the facilities. Once two or more researchers engaged in collaborative conversation, unconsciously the group would move to a location closer to a main circulation path that divided office and laboratory functions. This movement was a signal to others in the lab the conversation was open for additional parties to join, and frequently the group sought out open areas that provided space and supplies to communicate visually.

The conclusion from this observation is that interaction spaces work best when aligned with the circulation pattern in the lab.

Fig. 6. A 19-ft bench made up of 4- and 5-ft units (left) might only accommodate two researchers due to the existence of a natural 6-ft “space bubble” perceived by users and defined mainly by their reach. An 18-ft bench, divisible into 6-ft zones, would comfortably accommodate three researchers. Click to enlarge.

Work zones In each of the labs, the team observed that researchers spaced themselves along benches so their individual areas of use would not overlap. Researchers then typically arranged their supplies into organizational patterns defined by reach ranges that formed an ~6-ft “space bubble” around them. Each of the labs is designed around a 4- to 5-ft workspace, so the location of fixed (or perceived as fixed) components left areas of “unclaimed” space between researchers (Fig. 6, left). These unoccupied benches were generally treated as long-term storage, housing unused equipment and miscellaneous boxes of supplies.

Observation revealed that supplies immediately visible to researchers were used, including supplies stored in cabinets that were labeled. But storage areas out of easy reach or that were not labeled did not get consumed. We documented many instances of under-counter storage that was either empty or filled with unknown items that no one claimed.

The top shelf of the bench was typically considered long-term storage (in many cases for broken equipment), since it fell out of the reach range of researchers. Multi-tasking, along with the need to coordinate several pieces of equipment, changed the expected work from a linear flow down the bench to a more spherical pattern where critical equipment was located directly behind a researcher’s work station. Mobile benches and cabinets allowed this to happen more easily.

Non-lab functions An average of 11 to 15% of the space in the labs was dedicated to pure office functions, including desks and printers. Several users complained that researchers who were assigned desk space in the lab area could not drink coffee while working at the computer, unlike their associates who had desks outside the lab. Each researcher spent a fair amount of time at the desk, so it was the team’s opinion that while this space could be segregated, it needs to be close to the lab. If desks are close enough to the lab, even dry work areas associated with wet bench activity could be easily segregated.

An unexpected amount of space was dedicated to storage. The laboratory bench is a very expensive and inefficient means for storing supplies, yet approximately 40% of the lab space we analyzed was used for long-term storage. In one case, a room constructed as a tissue culture room was utilized purely as a storage room. Also, the study found that storage for out-of-date or broken items consumes any “extra” space available.

As laboratory planners, we understand that storage is a critical need, but it is fair to ask if storage really requires lab space with one-pass air, constructed at a cost of $250/ft2 or (usually) more. A viable alternative is rooms designed specifically for storage that are outside, but easily accessible to, the lab zone, and constructed and operated at a much lower cost/ft2.

We also encourage facilities to consider “just in time” delivery systems that can manage inventories of common-use items.

Fig. 7. An “ideal” design informed by the research includes office and teaming zones adjacent to but outside the lab, which would be visible through interior windows. Users have a 6-ft work zone corresponding to actual bench usage patterns. Under-counter storage (which is often unclaimed and unused) would be minimized, as would high shelves that tend to serve as repositories for unneeded items that shouldn’t be kept in the lab anyway.Click to enlarge.

The ideal lab The patterns of how users actually work in a lab led to the development of the “ideal” laboratory relationship, which pulls desk spaces outside but next to the wet lab area, with visibility between the two zones (Fig. 7, left). This allows researchers to track work and personnel in the lab from their offices, and reduces the amount of air that would need to be exhausted should an event occur in the lab.

Collaboration areas are provided within the office zone, next to the main circulation path between the laboratory and the office and are visible to both areas. Storage rooms are located outside the lab environment and equipped with efficient inventory management systems. Procedure rooms are large and organized to accommodate a spherical work pattern.

The workbench is increased to a 6-ft-long increment per researcher to match the observed researcher space bubble. This layout eliminates the “unclaimed” space that resulted from occupants trying to avoid “overlap” in their personal workspaces and increases overall utilization of bench space.

The ideal bench design appears to be mobile benches plugged into a service carrier, with data and power within easy reach. Each bench needs limited mobile under-counter storage. The ideal under-counter storage is a clear drawer unit on wheels with a top that can serve as extra workspace when pulled out. Our observations suggest that if a storage unit is not on wheels, users may not realize it is mobile, and if items are hidden in closed drawers, they are likely to remain there forever.

The ideal configuration of vertical shelving offers two adjustable shelves spaced farther apart, but located closer to the bench top. (Since high shelving is typically either unused or used for out-of-date or broken equipment that should not be in the lab, the argument for eliminating it is strong.)

High shelves are often unused or become repositories for broken or outdated equpment, because they are out of the reach of researchers.Click to enlarge.

This reduction of available storage space, along with making the shelves easier to reach, should promote better overall consumption of storage. Limiting shelving also reduces clutter and improves visibility within the lab to promote both collaboration and safety. Providing more mobile cabinets with clear drawers gives researchers maximum flexibility to configure equipment for research, allows for improved control of supplies by making them visible, and facilitates observed spherical work patterns.

Based on this general approach, the Council developed a prototypical lab floor plan that includes building circulation, conference rooms, and mechanical equipment space to evaluate the HVAC impacts of moving office functions out of the lab. The first scenario is based on full flexibility and formed the baseline for the study. The mechanical system is sized to include the offices, wet lab area, and specialty rooms in the 100% exhaust area. Scenario two moves the office outside the one-pass air area of the lab. Just this simple relocation of desk space reduces the total sum of cfm required in the space by 34%, which translates into a significant savings.

In scenario three we leveraged the results from an air sampling system test installation (sidebar, below) and reduced the total cfm by 41% by moving lab space that does not require high amounts of air changes out of the 100% exhausted air area of the lab. A reduction in air quantities can reduce duct sizes, which will reduce floor-to-floor heights. Reducing the lab module depth by removing desk space also allows for a reduction in the structural bay size. This increases the number of columns required, but decreases the sizes for main girders and joists, translating into a cost savings based on structural steel quantities required.

Currently, many of the lessons learned from this observation are being implemented in the design of the vertical expansion of the Feigin Center including:

• Installing the Aircuity air sampling system throughout to reduce air quantities.
• Reducing lab size by pulling desks out of the lab.
• Creating a central storage room with a high-density storage system.
• Changing the benches to 6-ft units. We reconfigured the bench length from 19 ft using 4- and 5-ft units (only accommodating two researchers due to the “space bubble” effect) to 18 ft of 6-ft benches (to comfortably accommodate three researchers). The change reflects the usage patterns we observed.
• Reducing under-counter storage.

Reconfiguring the laboratory to remove “non-lab” functions and some support functions should reduce operational and construction costs and energy consumption, as well as provide a more efficient space for users. We look forward to further study of how researchers actually use “flexible” lab space, which should guide planners and designers toward more efficient models.

Wendy Burke is VP client development with Linbeck Group LP, a nationwide facility solutions company offering a variety of services, including project management, program management and construction management services ( Linbeck operates offices in Texas, California, Massachusetts, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee; Burke works in the firm’s Houston office.

Cynthia Walston, AIA, is an associate principal and Jane Baughman, AIA, LEED, is a project architect with FKP Architects Inc. ( FKP provides architectural services for healthcare, research, and educational environments, and operates offices in Houston and Dallas, as well as Charlotte, N.C.

The authors acknowledge the cooperation of research partners Susan Blaney and Matteo Vatta, Texas Children’s Hospital; George Bennett, Rice Univ.; and Julia Collins, The Univ. of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Members of the Laboratory Innovation and Implementation Council include the Houston offices of Affiliated Engineers, FKP Architects, Linbeck, P&W Architects, Smith Larock, and Walter P. Moore.

Air exchange rates analyzed with sampling technology

Click to enlarge.
In addition to questioning what tasks we could move out of the lab to reduce the amount of one-pass air, our study questioned the amount of air being used in the lab. Life sciences labs are basically “clean.” In a climate such as Houston’s, why are labs working so hard to condition hot, humid air for eight to 10 air changes per hr and just throwing it away? Modern exhaust systems are designed to respond in case an “event” happens.

Texas Children’s Hospital is seeking ways to reduce the operational costs of labs in the Feigin Center as it plans its vertical expansion. To that end, during the observation study, TCH installed the Aircuity system on the fourth and seventh lab floors to study the impact of reducing air exchange rates. With the Aircuity design, laboratory air is continuously sampled and analyzed for levels of key parameters (i.e., chemicals or particulates). These measurements serve as the basis to vary room ventilation rates if contaminant levels rise due to spills or releases.

As a result of installation of the test system, outdoor airflow rates have been reduced significantly. The fourth floor ft3/min (cfm) was reduced by 7,898 cfm and the seventh floor reduced by 5,827 cfm. The monitoring data showed that even the “worst” lab was well below acceptable parts per million 99.5% of the time (diagram, left). By reducing outdoor airflow rates, the operating speeds of the main supply and exhaust fans were reduced by ~30%.

The fan speed reduction, coupled with the subsequent reduction in heating and cooling requirements of the outdoor air, will result in energy savings of ~$103,000/yr (at $7.50/cfm). The payback for this retrofitted system is estimated to be less than one year. More information on this study can be found at



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