by Chu Foxlin
Over the past few years, those who work in the life sciences industry have noted major changes in their facilities. Many factors are contributing to these changes: decreases in government funding, increases in the complexity of scientific research, an accelerated pace of technological development, integration between computational science and biology, and a changing workforce demographic.
Due to funding limitations, institutions must be intelligent about how they utilize their resources. Today, state-of-the-art facilities are designing wet labs that are larger, more modular, and more flexible, in order to accommodate projects that tend to start and end quickly and that engage larger interdisciplinary teams. Computational work in dry labs now compromises 50% of research work, on average. As a result, physical barriers between dry and web labs have become less rigid. Not only are there greater visual and physical connections between the two labs, but also barriers are often constructed to be easily movable and to facilitate expansion and contraction of these spaces as needed.
Regardless of these shifts, the most valuable asset of a research institution continues to be its people. In order to retain talent, institutions are seeking to provide optimum environments that foster creativity, collaboration, and work/life balance. By increasing researchers’ well-being, an institution can maximize the collective intellectual wealth of its scientists. To meet these growing needs, laboratories are adding teamwork spaces and conference rooms, along with amenities like cafeterias, gyms, and even play centers. These once-expendable “soft” spaces have become essential — some even consider them to be the “scientific glue” of research today.
With companies like Google and Facebook setting new trends for office design, our culture has begun to see the workplace as somewhere that can be fun and stimulating, with options for where, how, and when work is to be performed. While this approach may be relatively new to the life sciences field, it will inevitably continue to make an impact. As people with backgrounds in software and engineering enter this industry at faster rates, they bring expectations for more dynamic and innovative working environments.
Such changes are also fostered by new workplace demographics. As Millennials complete their degrees and enter the research fields, their dominance in the workforce brings new values and attitudes. A Cambridge-based research institute notes that 60% of their employees are under the age of 34, with a greater range of racial and gender diversity than ever before. These employees expect to uphold meaningful and satisfying lives outside of work, to have a community within their institution, and to feel connected to the scientific world at large. In general, they are more engaged in environmental sustainability than previous generations and look for places to work with public transit and bicycle access. Cities like Boston, San Francisco, and New York are thus becoming hotbeds for the life sciences industry: Cities like these offer the wide-ranging cultural and social activities that young employees seek today.
The laboratory environment will continue to change to accommodate the priorities of younger, more technologically savvy workers. Enclosed office spaces, once invested with status symbols, are now seen as temporary spaces to conduct work requiring high levels of concentration and privacy. At some institutions, PI’s do not have private offices but sit with the rest of their team, along with post-docs, computational researchers, and wet-lab technicians in an open office setting. Enclosed rooms of varying sizes support quiet work, small team meetings, and remote collaboration.
How successful these changes will be in shifting productivity and workplace well-being remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: As designers for the modern life sciences industry, we must have greater insight into the nature of these environments beyond understanding laboratory and equipment planning. When we take into account the needs of human occupants and their desired interactions with physical spaces, we can create a better workplace for tomorrow’s scientists.
Chu Foxlin, AIA, IIDA , LEED AP, is a principal and design director at Steffian Bradley Architects.