Advice on wet and dry labs from lab design experts
As technology and testing advance, wet labs and dry labs have become more interconnected, but these spaces still have fundamentally different purposes and design considerations.
The advancement of computational technology has expanded the capabilities of scientific testing. We have gone from simple manual testing with notebooks and mental calculations to dry and wet laboratories with interdependent functionality underpinned by supercomputer networks.
At CRB, our job is to help you create the right space for your science. In this interview, a couple of our experts explain the difference between wet and dry labs. Industry leaders in laboratory planning, Matt Decker and Mark Paskanik have been helping clients create the best spaces for science for a combined 30+ years.
What are the differences between a wet lab vs. a dry lab?
Decker: The simple distinction between the two lab types is in the material involved: wet vs. dry.
Wet labs are for manipulating liquids, biological matter, and chemicals. Dry labs are focused on computation, physics, and engineering. Each type is best described by the science that is conducted within. Each has a purpose. The science that begins in a dry lab is often confirmed in a wet lab. Even still, results achieved in a wet lab can contribute to continued development in a dry lab.
By the time space is constructed for testing equipment, computers, and people both types of laboratories may have similar size requirements. The difference in the material of study is what largely determines the facility’s necessary design elements. The hazards presented by the science occurring in these spaces can also vary widely and result in facility mitigations ranging from radiation shielding to ballistic glass.
What are the major design differences between a wet lab vs. a dry lab?
Paskanik: Wet labs tend to have more intense design requirements. Manipulating and testing live cultures, as well as storing samples, creates a number of variables that often need to be controlled to maintain the integrity of the results. Add to that the safety of those who perform testing and the administrative support required for the operation. The general activity within a wet lab increases the demand of nearly every building system.
The OSHA requirements for liquid hazard exposures state that safety showers, eyewash units, and exposure control devices (fume hoods, BSCs, ventilated balance enclosures) must be included to protect laboratory staff. Biological Safety Levels (BSL), which determine the precautions needed to handle infectious microorganisms, are associated with wet labs. If a lab must achieve a particular BSL, there are more complex design requirements.
When we’re building a wet lab, we have to increase the plumbing capabilities of an existing space, not only because of the increased demand but also to accommodate certain types of waste. The mechanical system is also big deal when it comes to protecting the scientists and integrity of the testing environment. Incorporating outside air, proper ventilation, and maintaining humidity levels can be complex in these spaces.
Refrigeration systems that protect samples often produce a large amount of heat, noise, and vibration. This is an area where laboratory design is improving. New refrigeration technology not only maintains the extreme temperatures required for the samples, but it’s also more efficient. The improved operation creates a better laboratory environment by reducing residual heat and minimizing sound and vibration disruptions.
Dry labs also present a number of unique design needs. While the number of computers, 3-D printers, and lasers place an increased demand on electrical and mechanical systems, it is often architectural components like sound and vibration that demand attention in the design process.
The “dry” component is what creates many of the design challenges in this type of space. Dry labs don’t need the same type of chemical resistance or biological safety as a wet lab, but dry labs have a greater risk of electrostatic discharge (ESD). Rooms filled with electrically powered equipment which generate heat require surface materials that help prevent static or sparks. Emergency power, proper air supply, humidity levels, and exhaust are extremely important to the ongoing operation of these labs.
Decker: Structural rigidity must be considered in laboratory design for both wet and dry. In both cases, laboratory equipment may be extremely sensitive. Structural vibration can disrupt the equipment operation and impact testing results. In extreme cases, vibration can damage equipment and even present a safety hazard.
Every facility will have its own unique structural considerations. Compounded with the presence of large pieces of building equipment that contribute to vibrational resonance, the structural rigidity of a laboratory is a major priority.
What type of flexibility can be incorporated to help operations transition as needed?
Paskanik: Flexibility is a hot topic right now. Often the theories that are tested in a wet lab are analyzed in a dry lab. That data, analyzed in a dry lab, can lead to the need for more testing in a wet lab. A space can be converted between a wet lab and a dry lab if it is planned and designed appropriately. This type of solution allows for the ultimate flexibility without a huge investment to reconfigure the facility in the future.
Laboratory equipment is getting smaller and smaller. The science that used to be conducted on a fixed table with wall mounted storage overhead and fixed utility supply is no longer the standard. In a wet lab, the standard is shifting to stations that can move and be connected to overhead utilities; these have created greater flexibility. Operational procedures are put in place for fixed equipment like fume hoods and sinks but, overall, space can easily convert between a dry and wet lab.
Decker: Most components in a dry lab can move, and technological development continues to enable this flexibility. One example of rapid advancement is the proliferation of additive manufacturing through 3-D printers, which were recently the size of a refrigerator but are now compact bench equipment. This example is an interesting intersection of flexibility in terms of the arrangement of space but also prototyping capability. Dry labs can often take the form of workshop environments where open floor space and recoiling utilities abound. This type of laboratory has a rougher appearance than more pristine lab environments that often come to mind, but the importance of these labs should not be understated. The materials research in these labs has a wide impact from the buildings where we live to the spacecraft leaving our planet.