Creating a Future Lab within an Aging Infrastructure

/// By Mary Carroll and Scott McNallan and Mike Morris

How do you engage a client in a way that frees his/her mind to the prospects of an open flexible lab design? How do you lead them to see the potential within an old, tired building? Many of our clients, life sciences and otherwise, have antiquated labs in antiquated buildings on campuses that have been built to their limits. 

The new R&D boom in the pharmaceutical sector is reinvigorating desire to provide research environments that will produce innovative science.  However, many clients are proceeding cautiously – scarred from the slow period during the early 2000s, and now providing only modest budgets that have lofty goals of transformational change. Avoiding Greenfield buildings in order to control developmental costs and work within constrained campuses, these projects are mostly accepting the core and shell as-is, while planning to gut the old segregated labs within the bowels of the building and the compartmentalized offices on their perimeter.  

Reimagining the layout and interior planning of an existing facility into new configurations not anticipated by the original design provides an option to create a modern lab within a dated building. Such an option makes the best use of a smaller budget while achieving the transformational change desired both for the building itself and for the culture of the organization. However, when creating open and flexible labs that seek to blur the lines between offices and labs, challenges abound.

EXTERIOR-PERSPECTIVE connecting-stair CRB-renderingAging infrastructure and inflexible legacy core/shell elements often conflict with a client’s goals; maximizing their investment by achieving both flexibility in design and densification of traditional planning metrics is challenging, especially while attempting to keep costs in check. Conditions such as unfriendly structural grids, low floor-to-floor heights, poorly placed shaft locations, and “rat’s nest” mechanical rooms make reconciliation of all the competing factors a challenge. In addition, if a building was not constructed originally to support laboratories, establishing proper control area separations can be a challenge, especially in a Type IIB building.

By gaining a combined understanding of 1) the lab’s adjacency needs and supply-chain capacity, 2) the lab user’s day-to-day functional and operational concerns, and 3) the company’s desire to support the lab users, you can often arrive at a unique solution that doesn’t bend to the project’s limitations, but instead finds creative methods of achieving balance.

Replacing walls with transparent engagement areas, and linking disconnected and inaccessible buildings / levels with sun-lit atriums, will break down barriers between people and departments to create a dynamic environment for the sharing of science.

interior-formal-engage web

To make this happen, gaining owner and user buy-in is critical to moving forward with a project of this type and complexity. It is the Design Project Manager’s primary job to educate and guide the owner on this journey, helping a client to see the possibility while keeping in mind the original goals and constraints of the project… being the cheerleader to encourage new ideas and thinking. Furthermore, harmony must exist among the entire design team, with all parties embracing the same philosophy as the Project Manager. The success of the project will ultimately be achieved by creating a space in which a scientist can effectively conduct his science, so the entire team must place priority both on the aesthetics and the owner’s goals to create the best end result.

About the Authors

Mary Carroll

Mary Carroll

Mary Carroll, AIA, LEED AP is a Senior Project Manager for the Science + Technology Core Team in our Philadelphia office.

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Scott McNallan

Scott McNallan

Scott McNallan, AIA, LEED AP BD+C is the Architectural Design Lead at CRB in our Philadelphia office.

How Can Scott McNallan Help?


Mike Morris

Mike Morris

Mike Morris, RA is a Project Architect at CRB in our Philadelphia office.

How Can Mike Morris Help?


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