Designing flexibility into small space renovations

Every renovation project comes with its own unique set of challenges, and there is never a one-size-fits-all solution to incorporate flexibility into a project.


Incorporating flexibility into any space can be challenging. With a variety of concepts, tools, and equipment at a designer's disposal, it is easy to get excited about implementing new technology. Still, every renovation project comes with its own unique set of challenges, and there is never a one-size-fits-all solution to incorporate flexibility into a project. In this article, I will answer some common questions about how to execute a successful renovation project with flexibility in mind.

Q: What are the challenges associated with incorporating flexibility into small spaces?

A: Small space renovations are often part of a project with a short schedule, which means there is less time to be creative while also dealing with a limited "canvas." Trending design options or ideas that worked on previous projects may not be applicable at the scale you're working in now, either.

To successfully build flexibility in a small space, the team needs to take an "all-hands-on-deck" approach to the design. The choices you make to incorporate flexibility will impact the users, the engineering group, and the maintenance staff, so these design decisions must work for all parties involved.

Case study: Howard Hughes Medical Institute—The Vivarium Imaging Rooms renovation project

Working in a design-build partnership, CRB and Barton Malow addressed the renovation of two Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) imaging labs used to support vivarium work with small-animal research as well as broader laboratory research areas. To expedite the schedule, the design was issued in multiple packages. To address the need for scientific continuity, the construction was phased room by room to minimize disruption and allow for the use of one room to begin while the other is being constructed. Design efforts went so far as to accommodate specific tool limitations driven by acoustic needs of adjacent to vivarium operations.

Every renovation project comes with its own unique set of challenges, and there is never a one-size-fits-all solution to incorporate flexibility into a project. Courtesy: CRBThough flexibility was not an initial driver for the project, HHMI had expressed a desire to get more out of their capital investment in the renovation, knowing change in research campaigns is inevitable at their institution. We investigated various possibilities to offer flexibility and sustainability during the basis of design (BOD) phase. Working with end users and facilities staff, it was identified that spaces are often repurposed after a program or study concludes. So with flexibility in mind, we implemented a unique lab design that allows for support of common research practices should the purpose for the space change in the future.

Flexible design elements included:

  • High-tech airline ceiling grid that supports hanging equipment and utilities and can be moved around the space
  • Retrofitting the existing utility structure to accommodate future changes by making it reconfigurable with neat and tidy utility connections and without the need for outside trade labor.
  • Plug & play equipment
  • Adjustable task lighting
  • Dividable room with multiple laser curtains to maximize flexible use of the space for multiple users
  • A flex zone location between vivarium and research laboratories with multiple entrances to allow access from the lab research side or the lab animal science side
  • Zoned HVAC will accommodate changing the layout of the room without moving utilities.

Ultimately, to change the space in the future, infrastructure and walls will not have to be ripped down to repurpose the space.

Brian Peasley is the science+technology core team leader at CRB’s Philadelphia office. Courtesy: CRB

Q: Is it ever too late in the design process to incorporate flexibility?

A: It is dependent on the execution structure—timing is important. For our HHMI project, we were partnered in a design-build contract. By keeping the construction manager informed of the design choices that we wanted to make to increase flexibility, they could easily test cost, schedule, and constructability for any proposed changes. Such seamless communication allowed flexibility to remain a focal point of the project from start to finish.

-Brian Peasley is the science+technology core team leader at CRB's Philadelphia office. This article originally appeared on CRB is a CFE Media content partner.

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