Effective Design Approaches For Academic Teaching Laboratories

Effective design approaches for academic teaching laboratories

The teaching lab environment is one that presents its own unique set of design parameters for the architect/laboratory planner.

A Successful Way To Use Charrette Sessions With Academic Science Faculty

One major challenge in the design of academic teaching laboratories is that laboratory instructors and faculty members have rarely been involved in the design of new facilities and can get lost in the process. They come to projects with little to no experience in (1) how the design process works, (2) what and how they need to work with architects and designers and (3) what their future needs may require for their science programs. The other challenge with lab users is that they don’t know how to communicate with the design team. They speak a different language than architects and engineers and oftentimes don’t feel that the design team really understands what they need. It is the architect’s and designer’s responsibility to lead them through this process by effectively communicating with them on a level that they will understand.

CRB has found that by actively involving lab owners and especially faculty in the programming/design process at the start of the project, the chances for a successful project increase dramatically. Two approaches that we have found to work extremely well with science faculty are interactive goal finding and participatory laboratory design exercises. These processes have been developed through many years of specialty laboratory design experience and experiencing many different methods of architectural design charrette workshops.

Goal finding

The first step is a goal-finding exercise that is relatively simple, albeit one in which laboratory users are rarely involved. This method is a process that involves everyone associated with the project: lab users, department members and client project managers. The purpose is to have everyone on the owner’s side talking with each other rather than just responding to questions posed by members of the design team. This process only takes an hour or two to complete, and the final outcome is one that has given everyone the chance to participate and be heard.

Begin by dividing up the overall group into smaller groups; four to five people are ideal. Each group should be represented by a mix of different people.  If the project is at the college or university level, you might also want to include a couple of upper-division students in the mix. Group members are asked to write down one primary goal for the project for each member of their group. If there are five members in the group, for example, each member writes five primary goals on one card. Goals can be general or specific. When everyone has listed their goals, they pass their card to the person next to them with the direction to cross off one goal on their neighbor’s card that is the least important to them. The cards are then passed along again with the same process repeating.

Eventually, each person gets his or her own card back with only one goal left — the one that everyone in their group thinks is the most important on that list.  Everyone in the group may discuss each of their “crossed out” goals with their fellow group members and allowed to change their number-one goal.  The number-one goals from all the cards are then posted on a board for everyone to review. This gives everyone the opportunity for a full and open discussion about all of the goals. The next step is for everyone to prioritize the most important goals on the board. Everyone receives stickers to put on the goals they think are the highest priorities and these remain as major goals for the project.

Again, the purpose of this activity is for the users to communicate with each other. The lab designer’s role is to lead the users through and facilitate the process.  It is important to also remember all of the “crossed out” goals and those number-one goals that aren’t designated as highest priority.  An overall goals list should be prepared and referred to for the duration of the project to reinforce the thoughts and ideas of all those involved in the project.

Laboratory design process

After this exercise for the users to identify the most important goals in the project, the next step is to integrate the teachers and faculty into the design process—to help them understand how architects and designers think and work. This exercise takes a couple of hours to complete. In this process, only the lab faculty members and department chairs need to participate, and they are again divided into smaller groups with no more than four people per group. Each group should have people with similar backgrounds in them. For example, if designing a teaching lab facility with both chemistry and biology laboratories in it, pair the chemistry lab users and the biology lab users into separate groups.

The task for these groups is to design their own ideal lab or lab suite. The lab suite may include other areas like lab prep rooms, equipment rooms, offices, etc.

Each group is given a kit of parts with paper cut outs that make up the different components of teaching labs: lab benches, fume hoods, sinks, etc. They are also given a large-sized page/board that represents the boundaries of the lab or lab suite. The parts in the kit should be created at a large enough scale for everyone to easily see (1/2-inch scale works well). The direction they are given is to talk and work with each other to come up with what they feel is their ideal lab for their new facility. They should also make comments on their plans to denote additional thoughts on their designs. The lab designer’s role is once again to facilitate the process. Groups will likely need guidance on how to get started, such as where chemical fume hoods should go and how much safe aisle clearance they should have.

The next step in this process is to have the groups present their designs to the overall group and for all the lab users to discuss the thought processes behind them.  This discussion about the lab plans gives the lab users the opportunity to better understand what their peers are thinking about and what is important to them.  Many ideas will come out of this process that may not have been identified in a traditional work shop process.

The final designs for your project won’t likely be what the lab users have come up with. There will always be issues in their designs that won’t realistically work. They may have code problems they don’t know about and may have design issues contrary to good lab design practices. Your job is to explain to them where challenges may be, and work together to solve them. There will, however, be many important aspects of their designs that may not have come out in a traditional question and answer type of charrette session. Their goal in this process is to provide you with what they think is their ideal design. Your goal is just to get them talking with each other. As an architect/designer, you already will have ideas on what you think your project needs. This exercise gets the communications going with everyone, makes them feel like you are listening to them, and gives them a chance to participate in the process. Making them active participants is the best way to achieve a successful design that meets the owner’s needs.

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