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Old Labs Die Hard


New automated processes are forcing lab designers to break away from the basics


Planning a laboratory has to start somewhere. The problem is, without fail, the starting point is 1839. That was when Justus von Liebig, a pharmacy professor teaching in Geissen, Germany, invented the modern chemistry lab. His configuration, bench-high workspaces arranged in parallel where researchers work back to back, continues to define lab space for chemists and biologists. In more recent times lab architects set the footprint into square modules. Eleven feet to a side, plus or minus a foot, makes for safe, comfy conditions for two wet-lab bench scientists to tackle their bio or chem research, working back to back.

That’s far too long without a disruptive technology coming along to shake up the status quo. But good reasons exist for the traditional barracks-style lab configurations. Principally, arrangements of square modules are tried and true designs that make for inarguably efficient workspaces. According to Jay Brotman, principal of Svigals+Partners architectural firm, the flexibility these modules allow in reconfiguring workspaces also has major value: a research team occupying a three- or four-module area can relocate in a day’s time, while the incoming workgroup plugs right into the same pre-configured infrastructure. Newer, flexible casework systems can increase the number of layout options within the grid.

There’s some fiscal reality, too. “You should always have an exit strategy for your facility,” says Brotman, sounding a bit like a VC. “A uniform layout, which everyone in the field recognizes as a standard lab, makes for a more easily transferable asset. It’s a safe bet, especially with a startup, that someone else will be using those labs down the road. They’ll succeed, grow, and move out, or unfortunately go out of business and need another lab user to occupy their facility.”

Coming Change

As so often happens with technology, progress renders obsolete what had been good reasons for doing things. Brotman’s firm planned the haplotype factory for Genaissance Pharmaceuticals. It broke the module and the grid. “Robotics is a major catalyst that’s changing the standard lab plan. Integration of automation into the laboratory will require specialized equipment that you can’t deliver services to in the same way,” Brotman says. In the case of Genaissance, though the haplotype factory occupies only one-twelfth of the current building, it’s using 30 percent of the entire facility’s chilled water and electrical resources — which means being efficient is more than just fitting the most lab benches in one space.

That statistic traces to the triple redundancy Genaissance and Svigals set in place for cooling the machinery-filled, 4,000 square-foot room. The company’s 59 ABI Prism 3700s, it turns out, have a much narrower comfort zone than their warm-blooded caretakers. Lasers central to the machine’s operation suck up electricity and throw off considerable heat. In addition to the building-wide and room-wide control systems, five half-ton, moveable Airflow industrial-strength air conditioners manage hot spots that materialize as Genaissance builds capacity.

In fact, it would be hard to imagine the room looking much different with 144 machines, its optimal density, than with 59. When all one sees is jam-packed row after row of automated equipment interrupted only by the occasional support column, the indication that the room is more machine-friendly than people-friendly is overwhelming. It’s disappointing at a sensory level. Compared to the aroma of a bread factory, or the clackety-clack of a metal works, there’s not a strong non-visual indicator for what’s going on — nothing palpable besides the slight chill and low buzz that makes you aware of the overwhelming volume of DNA and data being processed in this grid of machinery.

Beyond Cubes

“A perfect planning grid that will be efficient isn’t always the final answer,” says Brotman. “It’s important in terms of flexibility.”

Flexibility is as much about design process as it is about product. The flexibility that modules afford early in the planning process set the stage for the productive end-design clients appreciate. “It’s an excellent planning tool, but it’s only a tool,” Brotman says. He points to projects at Genaissance and startups like Cellular Genomics, where his firm is currently at work on lab expansions: “The module was only the beginning of the planning process.”

In time, robotics and bioinformatics could prove to be the disruptive technologies that will cast aside the practice of lab design based on traditional modules, but the cycles of innovation proceed slowly in this field. Before von Liebig, chemistry research was carried out in a different type of room, one that still occupies a prominent place in daily life. We call it a kitchen.


Brad Stenger is a freelance journalist who researches human-computer interaction in computational biology at the Georgia Institute of Technology, designs bioinformatic interfaces for Yale’s Gerstein Lab, and worked as a laboratory planner for architectural firm CUH2A. Send your comments to Brad at [email protected]


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