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The Elephant in the Lab Room - The Path to Resolving Storage Space Issues

Wed, 04/02/2014 - 8:28am
Deborah Suzan Huff, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C, SSOE Group

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It seems simple enough . . . when planning a new laboratory facility, ensure that there is adequate storage space and that it is located in the right place and arranged to accommodate access based upon frequency of use.
And yet, much can go wrong…and often does.

Inadequate or misplaced storage space in the modern laboratory becomes that obstinate elephant in the room that everyone must work around, yet no one can seem to come up with an adequate solution to remove.
Laboratory space is expensive, which makes planning for a proper ratio of bench, office and storage space in new construction essential. Too much planned storage adds to the cost of the facility without the opportunity for return in productive use.  Too little saves money, but may affect functional efficiencies and output in the laboratory.  Getting that optimal amount of storage space placed correctly takes experience, collaboration and creativity; so paving the way forward requires a proactive outlook, consistent dialogue, ideal synergy, and informed decision-making.

Dialogue: Start with Plenty of Communication
The first step in creating a well-designed lab facility necessitates significant interaction between the building designers and future building occupants. In the planning phase, designers will consult with owners, CEOs and senior managers to get a broad overview of corporate goals and identify objectives and financial constraints. Subsequently, designers will consult with a cross-section of researchers and support staff, the “primary users,” to expand on these directives and formulate a holistic view of needs.

Basic input gathered from these “primary users” typically consists of inventory data and any unique requirements such as adjacencies or environmental restrictions. Detailed lists will indicate information such as significant equipment (e.g., a large environmental chamber/tabletop autoclave), semi-permanent bench space gear (e.g., glassware/measuring devices) and consumables/utilities (e.g., chemicals/gases). This quantifiable data is used by designers to gauge gross area requirements and basic laboratory organization per current industry standard guidelines. 

Often, planning stops here and the opportunity to optimize the laboratory design and properly address storage is missed. A recommended next step involves the collection of data, which is indefinable yet specific to the primary users and the laboratory culture. This supplementary input is collected by the designers through a process of interviews with users and observation of routine activities.

One effective exercise is the “day in the life of” application. This occurs as direct-observation of laboratory work flow where actual movements of users, use of materials, equipment and utilities, and user interactions are documented by the designer. Where this is infeasible, this same daily routine may be self-documented and verified via interview. The designer then prepares a laboratory profile which identifies gaps, overlaps and opportunities for improvement. The intangible is made demonstrable. Movement patterns and distances, use of bench top space, equipment location and utility placement reveal what equipment is in frequent use that requires readily available storage and what may be stored outside the laboratory proper or even off site.

This type of discovery, realized from the Supplemental Investigation, enables the designer to go beyond the generalities of industry standard to identify inefficiencies and opportunities for a singular laboratory design.

Synergy: Cooperation, not Competition
Designers are not the only ones who should be asking questions! In some organizations, seamless internal communication is part of the existing culture, but in others, extensive inter-departmental interaction will be a new and perhaps uncomfortable experience. Many organizations have internal “territories” that stem from various sources such as corporate structure, budget allotments, or unit research focus.  This inherent division within the laboratory culture affects workflow, bench space allocation, equipment use and storage. Where designers encourage owners, CEOs, senior managers and primary users to communicate, territorial obstacles can become opportunities for collaboration.

For example, several research units discover that a significant amount of essential bench space may be unencumbered if certain equipment is shared. In discussions, it is confirmed that the equipment can be scheduled adequately for use by each research unit. By identifying this overlap (the common use of equipment) internal communication informs the new laboratory design. Specifically, this information will enable designers to prepare a floor plan that locates the affected research units and the identified equipment adjacent to one other. The result is a tailored laboratory design that supports proper workflow and an efficient use of space allocation; all made possible through cooperation, not competition.

Informed Decisions: Too Much Storage?
When it comes to storage, effective designers recognize that different storage solutions address different needs. Utilizing the basic and supplementary data captured during the planning process, the designer will present options for storage solutions to the “primary users” for deliberation. Even the most common items require scrutiny.

For example, glassware is regularly used in the laboratory and needs to be readily available; yet it takes up a significant amount of storage space and must be housed in enclosed cabinets to protect the fragile items. Instead of taking up essential bench area or shelving within the laboratory proper, a solution presented is to provide a series of shallow, tall cabinets with adjustable shelving situated along a common corridor directly adjacent to the laboratory bench area.  The pros: this configuration allows for readily available, shared access of resources. The tall cabinet provides flexibility to store various types, sizes and quantities of glassware, and rarely used or bulk items may reside on higher and lower shelves with the mid-section reserved for most commonly used items. If a partial glass cabinet front is provided, inventory of daily use items could be readily conducted without opening each cabinet.  The cons: this configuration is shared and resides outside the laboratory bench area. With this information, the “primary users” will determine if this solution meets their specific needs.

Consumables are an example of yet another given within the laboratory that must be carefully considered and stored appropriately. Materials quantity, type, and distribution are all variables. But, consistent material delivery is essential to user efficiency and morale. A solution: the designer will facilitate a conversation between the “primary users” and the owners, CEOs and senior management, whereby a clearly defined plan of action is developed to enumerate material flow patterns in a variety of situations. For example, it may be cheaper to have weekly delivery of certain consumables/utilities than to have storage areas large enough for a month’s supply; but for those savings to be actualized, an effective intra-building distribution system is needed to prevent shortages at the benches. most viable solution.

Proactive: Smart Steps for Future Proofing
Planning for the future is key to assuring a well-designed and realized lab facility. However, because it is difficult to predict future equipment and spatial needs as research and development is by nature a constant variable, here are some steps to future-proof any building from storage mishaps.

First, identify potential trends and research opportunities so future technologies, equipment and materials may be anticipated in the current building design.

Second, be flexible! Introduce areas within the laboratory which have dual purpose. For instance, provide laboratory suitable infrastructure to all areas of the building including storage and office areas. So, conversion of space is just a matter of changing the furniture. Or, many laboratories have areas known as Pilot Labs. These are typically large, flexible areas where short run manufacturing activity or large experiments can be performed in a controlled environment. The pros: when these areas are not in use, they are suitable for material/equipment staging or storage. The cons: material delivery and storage may not align with scheduled activity in the flex-space and alternate arrangements are required.

Third, develop a master plan. A comprehensive master plan that coincides with the corporation’s long term financial plan informs design decisions in the present and future. Master planning includes site utilization, utility infrastructure, and development of building standards. An example: it is determined that the number of required “primary users” will double within five years. With a master plan, multiple options are available for consideration. One option may be to double the size of the current design, but leave part of the interior unfinished for future development. The pros: the facility can be completed quickly in whole or in stages to accommodate additional users with minimal disruption to existing operation. The cons: initial construction cost is higher. Or, pre-install foundations for the future additions. The pros: site work is limited and construction activity can commence immediately with limited disruption to existing operation. The cons: initial construction cost is higher, the building looks unfinished, and expansion plans are difficult to change.
Space efficiency, in general, and adequate storage, in particular, are absolute essentials for a high performing laboratory environment. Finding the perfect balance and maintaining it takes planning. With collaboration, foresight, and some creative solutions, the elephant in the room can be managed, if not escorted to the exit.

About the Author
Suzan Huff, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C, is a Senior Associate and Architect at SSOE Group (www.ssoe.com), a global engineering, procurement, and construction management firm. Her experience includes laboratory/research, healthcare, institutional, educational, retail, commercial office, and industrial/warehouse project types. She can be reached in SSOE’s Nashville, Tennessee office at 615.661.7585 or Suzan.Huff@ssoe.com.

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