Effective design approaches for academic teaching laboratories

Communication strategies help everyone involved understand the goals of the project while creating a design that meets the owner’s needs.

By Dan Dozer, RA, CRB, Raleigh, North Carolina December 26, 2016

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

One major challenge in the design of academic teaching laboratories is that the instructors and faculty members are rarely involved and can get lost in the design process. They come to projects with limited experience in how the design process works, what/how they need to work with architects and designers, and what their future needs may require for their science programs. The other challenge is lab users don’t know how to communicate with the design team. They speak a different language than architects and engineers, so oftentimes the lab users don’t feel that the design team understands their needs. It is the architect’s and designer’s responsibility to lead them through the process by effectively communicating with them on a level they will understand.

By actively involving lab owners and faculty in the programming/design process at the start of the project, the chances for a successful project increases dramatically. Two approaches that 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 being involved in many different methods of architectural design charrette workshops.

Goal finding

The first step is a goal-finding exercise that is relatively simple. This method is a process that involves everyone associated with the project from lab users and department members to 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 everyone being given the chance to participate and be heard.

Begin by dividing up the overall group into smaller groups with four to five people in each. Each group should be represented by a mix of different people. If the project is at the college or university level, a couple of upper-division students should be included in the mix. Group members should then be asked to write down one primary goal for the project for each member of their group. For example, if there are five members in the group, 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 least important to them. The cards should be 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 and be 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 creates 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 should receive stickers to put on their goals of highest priority, and the goals that remain are the major goals for the project.

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. Also, it is important to remember all of the crossed -out goals and number-one goals that weren’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.

Laboratory design process

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. By doing so, it will 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. 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 must talk and work with each other to come up with what their ideal lab for the new facility. They should also make comments on their plans to denote additional thoughts on their designs. The lab designer’s role is 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 gives the lab users the opportunity to better understand what their peers are thinking and what is important to them. Many of these ideas may not be identified in a traditional workshop process.

The final designs for the project will most likely not be what the lab users 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. The purpose is to explain to them where challenges may occur and work together to solve them. However, there will 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 what they think is their ideal design. The architect/designer will already have ideas on what the project needs, but the exercise gets communication going with everyone involved. It makes them feel heard and gives them a chance to participate. Making them active participants is the best way to achieve a successful design that meets the owner’s needs.  

Dan Dozer is a senior lab planner at CRB. This article originally appeared on CRBlog. CRB is a CFE Media content partner.