Enabling innovation: designing research facilities

by Dr Tolga Durak
Around the world, organizations are building next-generation research facilities intended to encourage communication, collaboration and creativity. However, these new spaces must overcome a wide range of complex challenges to meet the needs of researchers today and in the future. This article explores five important questions that should be considered in order to build an innovation space that is safe, successful and productive.

Fundamental questions for good design

Research facility design and construction is evolving rapidly, as organizations around the world strive to create work environments that meet the needs of today’s scientists. Whether these new spaces are relatively small-scale makerspaces, large pharmaceutical manufacturing plants, or tightly regulated high-containment laboratories, they are being built to foster communication, collaboration, and innovation, often in ways that depart significantly from the traditional R&D rubric. As a result, every stage of the process – from initial site assessment, architectural design, and construction and continuing all the way through to ongoing maintenance and operation – must be approached with fresh eyes. To get started, design and construction teams must consider the following five fundamental questions.
1. Who is going to work in the facility and what will they need to be successful?
Most research projects now span multiple disciplines, and laboratory spaces often need to accommodate the varied needs of biologists, chemists, engineers, physicists and/or others – all working together but with different methods. Research facility design must accommodate each specialty’s unique requirements across a wide spectrum that includes equipment, infrastructure (electrical, ventilation, etc), information technology (IT), workflow and compliance. In addition, designers must factor in flexibility, so workspaces can adapt as the research advances and needs change.
2. What is required for compliance?
Navigating regulatory boards and obtaining approvals can be a complex, time-consuming, and expensive process, especially for clinical research facilities. Typically, these structures must be constructed in compliance with Good Laboratory Practice (GLP) regulations, Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) regulations, and other guidelines and mandates from local, state and federal jurisdictions. In addition, laboratories that research or use infectious agents or other biological hazards must comply with regulations based on the degree of the health-related risk associated with the work being conducted. The four biosafety levels (BSLs) of containment – BSL-1, BSL-2, BSL-3, and BSL-4 – aim to safeguard against the accidental release of pathogenic organisms and other biohazards and may involve airflow systems, containment rooms, sealed container storage, waste management, decontamination procedures, and security capabilities. Clearly, the challenges of compliance need to be tackled early in the design process because meeting all of the requirements can take years, which increases the risk that research priorities change and/or that key staff moves on to other projects.
3. How sustainably can we build it?
When people think about sustainable research facility design, they usually focus on power and water consumption. Granted, researchers typically use lots of heat-generating equipment (which then require complementary cooling solutions). Their labs also generally need extensive ventilation, sophisticated sensor networks, uninterrupted power supplies – as well as back-up redundancies for all of these systems. However, in a broader sense, sustainable research facility design also addresses the health and well-being of the workforce. That means air quality, natural light, workflow and productivity considerations, material selection, and all related aesthetics can drive design and construction processes as well.
4. How will the needs of this facility change?
Science is constantly evolving, and research priorities will shift over time. Likewise, technology, regulations and workforce needs will change too. Flexibility and adaptability need to be key considerations of every plan, and designers and developers have to strike a balance between short- and long-term needs. In some cases, permanent or portable modular components may be the most efficient and cost-effective options.
5. Is building the best business decision?
For some organizations, the best business decision may be to share laboratory space, rather than to build their own. Entering into a partnership, collaboration or lease agreement with an organization that is already operating a facility can expedite research results, reduce costs, ease the burden of meeting compliance requirements and even stimulate innovation. Of course, benefits like those must be weighed against potential disadvantages, such as the lack of customization, loss of control and the risks associated with failure to protect intellectual property.


Thoughtful consideration of these five key questions will help you create an innovation space that will meet your research needs today and for years to come. As you work through your answers to each one, be sure to solicit input from architects, engineers, builders and others who have the experience and expertise to guide you in the process. Adopting a team approach is essential to building a next-generation innovation space that is that is safe, successful and productive.
The author
Tolga Durak PhD
Environment, Health and Safety Office, Professional
Education, MIT, Cambridge, MA 02139, USA
E-mail: tdurak@mit.edu