How lab design lays the foundation for scientific discovery

How lab design lays the foundation for scientific discovery

What is lab planning? Lab planning and design lays the foundation for efficient scientific work. It is the process of taking both basic program elements and highly technical blocks and arranging them to create a space that is both safe and efficient.

Great lab design solves the riddle of how to incorporate more science into less space while creating architectural and engineering balance.

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In lab planning, the main puzzle pieces that need arrangement are:

  1. Benching: Includes work tables, casework, and adaptable moveable systems with gases, power, and other utilities.
  2. Equipment: Ranges from small weighing balances to large freezers and highly technical robots.
  3. People: Considers how researchers and scientists can be kept safe while working as efficiently and comfortably as possible.

What are the types of labs?

There are several types of labs. Each one requires a slightly different approach to lab planning. Before diving into the various kinds, it’s important to understand the basic difference between wet labs and dry labs.

Testing Labs

Testing labs are usually wet labs and are often used for Quality Control (QC) or analytical purposes. Testing labs often support a bigger piece of the project, such as a manufacturing space, and are responsible for extracting pieces from the line (eg. a drug vial) to test to ensure the product is safe and is doing what is advertised to do.

Research Labs

A research lab could be virtually anything from a dry lab focused on engineering or cancer breakthroughs to a wet lab focused on chemistry research related to pharma or biotech. There is a trend in research labs transitioning from wet lab to dry lab or bioinformatics process as computers allow for more powerful and complex work to be done. Artificial intelligence allows algorithms to make powerful predictions.

Teaching Labs

Academic-based labs have traditionally been found in universities but are now also found increasingly in CGMP facilities that are training and teaching the workforce. Again, they may function as either dry or wet labs.

Lab Guidelines & Practices

The National Institute of Health is a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It is the largest biomedical research agency in the world and provides extensive safety regulations and guidance to labs across America.

Biosafety in Microbiological and Biomedical Laboratories (BMBL) became the cornerstone of biosafety practice and policy in the United States upon its first publication in 1984. It remains an advisory document laying out recommendations for “best practices for the safe conduct of work in biomedical and clinical laboratories from a biosafety perspective, and is not intended as a regulatory document.”

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) lays out standards for labs regarding chemical hazards, biological hazards and PPE. There are 28 OSHA-approved State Plans, operating state-wide occupational safety and health programs.

The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) is an American professional association that provides comprehensive reference manuals for the planning, design, and operation of laboratories.

The Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) regulate laboratory testing and require clinical laboratories to be certified by the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) before they can accept human samples for diagnostic testing.

The American National Standards Institute provides safety standards for clinical and chemical labs; testing labs; and research and development labs in both industrial and educational facilities pertaining to protective clothing and equipment such as lasers, as well as procedures and lab designs that promote safety.

Biosafety Levels

Scientists use biosafety labs to work with contagious materials safely and effectively. These state-of-the-art labs are designed to protect researchers from contamination and prevent microorganisms from entering the environment.

There are very specific criteria to decide which biosafety level is most appropriate for each individual lab. For example, if a lab is working with a live virus, then the mode of transmission (eg. droplet vs. airborne) will decide which biosafety level the lab will need to follow. Biosafety levels are decided by the environmental health and safety group.

There are four biosafety levels (BSLs) that define proper laboratory techniques, safety equipment, and design, depending on the types of agents being studied:


BSL-1 labs are used to study agents not known to consistently cause disease in healthy adults. They follow basic safety procedures and do not require any special equipment or design features. No special PPE is required for workers.


BSL-2 labs are used to study moderate-risk agents that pose a danger if accidentally inhaled, swallowed, or exposed to the skin. Safety measures include wearing PPE in the form of gloves and eyewear. The labs must have handwashing sinks and waste decontamination facilities.


BSL-3 labs are used to study agents that can be transmitted through the air and could cause a fatal infection. Researchers in these labs perform manipulations in a gas-tight enclosure. The lab includes safety features such as clothing decontamination, sealed windows, directional airflows, filtered ventilation systems. Staff are required to wear a full PPE suit, so the lab needs to be cooler (approximately 66 degrees) to accommodate comfortable working conditions.


BSL-4 labs are used to study agents that pose a high risk of life-threatening diseases for which no vaccine or therapy is available. These labs incorporate all BSL-3 features and are housed separately from other areas. Staff are required to wear full-body, air-supplied suits and to shower when exiting the facility. They will require significant training before being allowed to work in a BSL-4 lab.

Lab Equipment

Choosing the right equipment is a critical part of the lab planning process. This equipment will also control exposure, thereby keeping scientists safe. Here are some of the main pieces of equipment used.


Biological Safety Cabinets

In their 70 years of use, the basic purpose of biological safety cabinets (BSCs) hasn’t changed much: to filter, recirculate, and exhaust air. However, there have been great technological advances during that time.

Today’s BSCs are more sophisticated, diverse, and efficient so lab owners are able to find and install cabinets uniquely suited to their needs. Lab owners should look for the right-sized cabinets for their lab’s specific hazards and biosafety level.


Fume Hoods

A fume hood is a safety apparatus that acts like a giant exhaust fan. Fume hoods are used in chemistry labs to allow operators to use chemicals in a safe manner. Some chemicals cannot be exposed to the environment safely, so when a lab employee is pouring and mixing such chemicals, it needs to be done in a fume hood with a closeable window in front of them. This window creates a barrier between the operator and any hazardous chemical reactions that could cause toxic fumes. The fume hood also simultaneously pulls exhaust out of the building into the airspace, eliminating the possibility of a spark or explosion.



Isolators are a main form of protection within labs, creating physical barrier between operators and organisms. But they also have a reputation for slowing things down. Traditional isolator setups were once a major barrier to efficiency due to lengthy decontamination and gowning processes. Today’s isolator technology has changed all that through the use of ionized hydrogen peroxide (IHP) to decontaminate materials much faster, making efficient, continuous throughput possible.



Ventilated Enclosures

This equipment is similar to fume hoods; however, instead of exhausting out of the room they employ HEPA filters. This is important when weighing out powders, for example, which can be lighter than air and disperse into the air. The filter traps the powder and stops it from dispersing.

Ventilated enclosures are especially valuable in robotic installations within labs. Although they require far less safety infrastructure than a human worker, robotics do need an enclosed clean room to ensure safe and consistent sample handling. Today’s ventilated enclosures ensure only particulate-free air comes in contact with the robotic work surface.

How do you make a lab layout?

Why do some research facilities produce more patents? Why do some have greater throughput given the same amount of time and space? Not all labs are created equal. While brilliant minds push science forward, great lab design supports their work by anticipating and filling their needs so they can focus on the work.

Designing an efficient and safe lab is a multi-step process. Here’s how our CRB lab design teams use evidence-based research to work with clients and bring their lab vision to life.

Plan for success

A design kickoff meeting gives all stakeholders an opportunity to voice their ultimate vision for their lab. The goal of this meeting is to arrive at a consensus of the purpose of the space and how it will be used. The planning session is also a good time to review client preferences re: the openness of the work environments. There has been a trend of massive open labs, but certain pieces of science need to happen in private spaces. Understanding what works culturally for a certain lab is an important piece of the puzzle.

In many cases, a high-level visioning process can be used in combination with practical approaches to create that vision in a day. Lab owners are often familiar with certain lab layouts, but it can be exciting to bring new configuration options into the mix.

With careful advanced planning and use of interactive, visual tools, the process itself can build consensus and be fun for the groups involved.

Compile an equipment wish list

A huge component of lab design is configuring the equipment layout. Equipment selection will impact almost every aspect of lab planning:

  • Spatial planning
  • Determination what type of benching on which to place equipment
  • Understanding power, data, and backup power requirements
  • Planning for plumbing and HVAC services

When selecting equipment and creating a layout, it’s important to think about what could happen five years into the future. For example, a lab may currently need ten freezers, but it might need many more down the road. Good lab design will allow for additional utilities and floor space.

Know your system requirements

Prior to designing a lab, it is important to gather information on the necessary utilities: HVAC, plumbing/piping, and electrical. Here are the questions lab owners should be asking.


How many air changes are required? The regulations do not dictate how many are required per hour for every scenario, so good judgment is required. It tends to be more prescriptive than absolute, with a need for balancing safety with sustainability and cost-effectiveness.

Is pressurization required? The reasons can vary but usually, it is for the following. A chemical lab uses chemicals that are hazardous – this creates a negative pressure space to keep these hazards from leaving the lab. In microbiology labs, many times the material or product needs to be protected from us or the spaces outside of the room. In this case, the room is kept at a positive pressure to keep the room in a clean state.

Are there heat gains that need to be accounted for? Some equipment, such as freezers, will generate a lot of heat. Equipment that generates heat will need plenty of space so the heat gains don’t cause overheating issues. This kind of equipment should never be placed, for example, next to the thermostat.


Would a centralized vacuum system or a point-of-use system work better? A central system can be a large piece of equipment that distributes services throughout the lab from a single room. Current trends show many central systems such as those used for vacuum and pure water are being replaced with point-of-use systems because they require fewer distribution needs and are more cost-effective. They also offer more redundancy and generally require less maintenance for upkeep.



How much power do you need? Labs typically have very high-power needs but the exact wattage per square foot required is based on how the space will be used. One fume hood usually burns as much energy as two houses per year. Freezers, which may need to store products at -80℃, require a lot of power. (Although, there are new freezers that don’t have a compressor and function similarly to a basic refrigerator.)

How can I centralize power? Electrical system requirements will need to be met with a balance of power and cost. For the sake of efficiency, it’s best to locate higher equipment driven needs in central areas.

What kind of backup do I need? Even a momentary power loss can have significant consequences for computerized equipment. In the worst-case scenario, all data can be lost. If it’s critical data, as it often is in a lab setting, then battery power protects it. You might also need larger backup systems in the form of a UPS or generator that will kick on to cover everything from computers to freezers to incubators.

Define lab capacity

Laboratory capacity is a variable component. One lab’s capacity might be determined by its output, while another might be defined by the number of personnel. Each company must determine how it will define capacity for its laboratories. The options for measuring laboratory capacity generally fall into three categories:

  1. Operations-based: These are the labs that are throughput oriented. A capacity statement for this type of lab would be: “The maximum capacity of X-Laboratory is 10 projects running simultaneously or 5,000 samples tested per day.”
  2. Equipment-based: These labs are equipment oriented, with only one or two major types of equipment—and lots of it. A capacity statement for this type of lab would be: “The maximum capacity of X-Laboratory is 14 HPLCs.”
  3. Headcount-based: These labs are personnel oriented. Capacity for this type of lab is based on a careful examination of the amount of bench space that each researcher/scientist requires to do his or her work. A capacity statement for this type of lab would be: “The maximum capacity of X-Laboratory is 10 people.”

A detailed understanding of lab processes will help to determine capacity. It can also ultimately impact the company’s bottom line. For example, identifying lab equipment and processes that can be shared with other groups can help save on future costs and help redefine the most efficient lab capacity for planning purposes.

Creating flexibility

Science is changing faster than ever, and it can be frustrating to feel that a lab is barely complete before it’s time to renovate and accommodate new technology. Traditionally, laboratory design has been based on a rigid layout with rows of benches. In many cases, this can be a very effective and efficient approach, but integrating modular layouts with collaboration and workplace spaces can also have a very positive effect on the culture and environment of the research.

Instead of renovating a lab as science changes, a modular lab design creates adaptable spaces. It may use things like tables on wheels, electrical connections hanging from the ceiling, and sets of plug-and-play quick connects.

Modular designs factor in:

  • Relationship of the office to the lab
  • Level of openness and flexibility
  • Percentage and location of collaboration/interaction spaces
  • Blurred lines of territory
  • Technology

Modular layouts can also be set up to run in both east-west and north-south directions. A traditional lab layout is usually based on only one direction, but if your module allows for benches to be rotated 90 degrees you can have more freedom in your design. There are also other unique ways to use a modular layout. A hexagonal shape can create a unique way of displaying work for touring while also increasing the linear feet of usable bench space.

Safety first

Lab safety is constantly in flux. Every industry is under pressure to continually audit their equipment and make decisions about when and how to install the latest solutions. As labs become more sophisticated, their safety infrastructure must keep pace. In many older labs, workers are protected by equipment that was once sufficient but can no longer keep up with modern safety guidelines.

When embarking on a new lab design, it’s important to integrate safety within the project from the start. Here are some to keep in mind:


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Chemical storage

It is paramount to incorporate a hazardous chemicals management strategy into your building’s design. The building code has regulations about how certain chemicals should be used or stored in the space. Larger amounts of chemicals will bring in stricter regulations, as will where the building is located. Unfortunately, many labs still don’t organize their chemicals using an effective inventory management system and may not know what potential chemicals are in use.

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Good signage

Using good signage is a simple way to promote safety without any added cost. For example, gas bottles and cylinders can be strapped to casework and equipment, but unless they are properly positioned, they can cause safety issues. Post clear signage on how to do so. The same can be said for fire extinguisher locations.

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Establish tour routes

Want funding? You will need to show your work. When planning your lab, include tour routes for potential clients and donors so that they can safely visit without affecting efficiency. The bonus? Greater built-in safety from the start.

Lab safety is a complex issue that requires close, individual assessment. One lab’s solution may involve cutting-edge exposure control technology, while another lab may simply need better signage. Regardless of your lab’s scope, keep safety front of mind in every step of lab planning and design.

The Human Factor

If a lab is a place of research, then it is also a place for researchers. Good lab planning, therefore, must take the human factor into account. In the past, lab spaces had a bad reputation for stale air and basement vibes with little or no daylight. There is an increased focus on employee wellness and good workflow to encourage happy workers. Some labs have even gone as far as creating bright, social space like Silicon Valley tech startups.

Bring the outdoors in

Let the sun shine in! Outdoor views positively impact overall well-being and attentional focus. There are specific health benefits too: when your eyes can refocus on different distances, it exercises your dilating muscles. Providing views to lab occupants has been shown to decrease cases of eye strain and nearsightedness.

Daylight also helps regulate circadian rhythms, which improves health and productivity. Employees with views of natural light experienced a reduction in absenteeism and an increase in productivity, job satisfaction, work involvement, and organizational attachment.

Collaboration zones

Collaboration fuels creativity. Therefore, creating comfortable spaces for collaboration is part of good lab design. “Collision” spots—the places along circulation routes and public areas where occupants cross paths—can be leveraged to create serendipitous encounters. These small nooks and other gathering spots can encourage face-to-face interaction and sharing if they include connection (Wi-Fi), comfortable seating, coffee, and other amenities.

It is also very valuable to have designated meeting space within the lab zone. This removes the need for researchers to take off all their PPE, leave the lab space, and travel back and forth from a conference room. By using a location adjacent to the entry/exit to the lab, someone from the outside can come into this interim space with lower levels of PPE required. Consider adding a table, comfortable seating, a whiteboard, and a TV screen to these areas.


Lab planners design spaces for the scientists who use them, not just the science. This means taking ergonomics into account to promote good posture and minimize the exertion and motions to complete a task. Using adjustable chairs, benches, sit-to-stand desks, and other ergonomically beneficial furniture and fixtures contribute to a comfortable and safe work environment.

In the lab, ambient lighting is often insufficient for work at the bench. Beyond proper brightness, task lighting can also provide other important lab features, such as proper color rendering, temperature, directionality, and diffusion.

The bonus? Paying attention to ergonomics boosts productivity. For example, positioning a workstation for easy access to instrumentation and tools saves both time and effort.

Robotic automation

Robotic automation has arrived in labs and it has brought endless exciting opportunities with it. There are three different tiers of automation available to labs:

Entry-level automation

There is probably a low level of automation already in every lab. This might be a small piece of equipment—sometimes no larger than a coffee machine—that automates a repetitive task, such as extracting DNA from samples. Implementing one low-level piece of automation in a lab can free up the scientists significantly, allowing them to use their time and increase productivity more effectively.

Another place to consider adding low-level automation is in the data entry process. Digitizing the system for recording patient and sample information frees up time and personnel. It also ensures more accurate records.

Mid-level automation

A medium amount of automation typically puts a couple of processes into a contained box. There are still manual functions in the lab, but a few repetitive tasks can be eliminated by bringing in an equipment system that addresses part of the process.

This medium example takes our coffee machine and turns it into an entire room that could be 11’ x 20’ in size (call it a Starbucks if you want). In this example, all the equipment associated with both pre- and post-polymerase chain reaction work can be placed on a racking system with a sliding collaborative robot arm.

Pro-level automation

While a high-level of automation or a fully automated process might not be the most expedient or feasible solution currently, it is worth mentioning for the future. In this instance, robotic automation would conduct the entirety of test processing, even moving samples in and out.

While the equipment to make this happen is hard to come by now, new robotics for lab automation are constantly developing. Consider budgeting to invest in more automation as it becomes available to better prepare your lab for future uncertainty and fluctuations. This can create a great opportunity to have a sustainable lab with a greater reduction in air change rates.

QualTex Laboratories incorporated a new 17,000-square-foot production facility with automated blood testing capabilities.

The future of labs

Lab capacity is at an all-time high due to both rapid innovation and pressing pandemic needs. However, the life sciences boom predates the pandemic. From 2009 to the end of 2019, the amount of lab space in the United States grew from 17 million to 29 million square feet, buoyed by big technological advances such as the sequencing of the genome and rising computational prowess. Add in a significant investment in ramping up lab space amid the race for coronavirus therapies and vaccines, and labs are experiencing an unprecedented push. The urgency of creating more lab space has triggered new trends:

Converting empty offices

With the pandemic triggering remote work and thus an exodus from office buildings, life science labs are looking to convert those spaces to fit their needs. After all, researchers cannot do their jobs from home. Commercial landlords are being asked to swap out cubicles for centrifuges. Making the flip isn’t always easy though: labs typically need generous ceiling heights of 15 feet or more to allow for utilities, large amounts of square footage, and solid foundations to protect against vibration.

Banding together

To bolster resilience and reduce overhead, incubator-style lab ecosystems are popping up around the country. Often, these research hubs are located near universities to tap into their talent pool. In these setups, a multi-story building houses lab space on each floor, each hosting a different tenant—often startups in cell and gene therapy or immunotherapy. The hubs combine shared state-of-the-art lab equipment and business services, offering scalable lab spaces and adjacent office spaces for corporate partners, venture capital, and contract service firms. The goal of these ecosystems is to offer spaces for every business from small start-ups to multi-floor tenants.

Building Up

As companies look for lab space, many are headed into the city. An unprecedented number of labs are making their homes in downtown cores. This means they must build up rather than out. This trend brings with it a host of code conundrums, as many chemicals have strict restrictions on how high they can be stored. A thorough knowledge of the applicable regulations and creative solutions are required to make these labs work.

Laboratory owners in all fields are challenged to create research environments with limited budgets and resources. To meet the needs of their people, the planet, and their company’s profit, they need meticulous lab planning and design. Labs should not only meet the vision and business objectives of lab owners, but should also include flexibility, efficiency, safety, and robust utility/engineering systems.

Working with an experienced team of lab designers who understand how to optimize every element, know the relevant regulations, and can bring an intimate knowledge of trends will set your lab up for long-term scientific success.

Ready to start your next lab project? Our laboratory design experts are here to help.

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