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From the Design Quarterly: 3 strategies to design academic research facilities to last

November 12, 2019

By Cynthia Labelle

With research and science education rapidly evolving, it’s critical that academic institutions get the best value in building design

Research culture and teaching pedagogy are rapidly evolving. Building new space to support these endeavors requires a large investment, so educational institutions want to build a facility that meets today’s needs while being flexible enough to see it into the future.

At the same time, these institutions have more types of spaces on the menu for science education and research than ever. Those spaces may include traditional wet labs, dry labs, practical labs, and high-bay labs as well as support space, computational areas, and simulation labs. The question becomes—how do you set the stage to maximize utility and flexibility, leverage resources, and provide solutions to the institution’s unique goals and aspirations?

Below, I share some major considerations and pathways to finding a solution that suits your institution and some useful tools we’ve developed to achieve the best design outcome within this rapidly changing field.

The Biosciences Building at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Michigan.

A variety of approaches to collaboration

In both research and teaching environments collaboration, cross-disciplinary and translational modalities are becoming the norm. How collaboration occurs varies between institutions and can be greatly influenced by the culture of the institution or a single department. For example, At Yale’s new Science Building, one large department is the predominant occupant. The building is designed to encourage collaboration and leverage resources within a single discipline.

At the University of Lethbridge’s Science Commons spaces are purpose-built for cross-disciplinary research and teaching to encourage synergy between chemistry, physics, neuroscience, and other departments. Collaboration can be approached in different ways. For its new Engineering Building, Tarleton State University took a typical CAD classroom and put it in the public corridor spread out over three floors, making the resource accessible to all and promoting team building. At Texas Woman’s University’s new graduate research building, researchers are assigned to labs by the type of science or process being conducted in a space (rather than by department) to leverage space and promote collaboration between disciplines.

The type of lab spaces and the proportion of those program spaces to each other is also changing. As science moves toward more instrumentation, computation, and simulation in and outside the classroom, the proportion of wet to dry and damp labs is changing—especially in life sciences. Strategies that allow institutions to convert spaces from one use to the other in the future in a cost-effective manner is a critical design consideration. We must also embed enough technology and infrastructure to support more group-centered activities.

Read and download the Design Quarterly Issue 07 | Adapting to Change

Cleveland State University’s Center for Innovation in Medical Professions brings aspiring nurses, doctors, and other health professionals together in core classes and labs.

Built to last

Science buildings are some of the most expensive spaces on campus. They are utility intensive and often require higher floor-to-floor heights to accommodate the required utilities. They also can require specialized spaces with criteria for vibration, exhaust, and weight capacity or all three as with high-bay labs for engineering activities. Achieving the right combination and proportion of new spaces with today’s resources while designing a space with the flexibility to have a long life might sound daunting. There are, however, three strategies—modularity, sharing resources, and infrastructure—we are finding useful in achieving these goals for our education clients.


It’s not a new idea, but modularity is helpful when institutions anticipate expansion/contraction within a lab type over time. For example, at Yale’s Science Building, there are several open labs made up of island-bench modules and each researcher is assigned a bay or module, with associated bench space within the open lab. If that researcher receives additional funding, a modular lab can easily accommodate the required expansion to another bay, if required, and conversely contract if space needs change. So, there’s flexibility within the lab type itself.

We’re seeing more and more need to convert spaces from one use to another within academic research facilities. If we approach lab-space design from a modular perspective, using a typical space module for all types, the ability to convert lab space types from wet lab and lab support space becomes easier and the infrastructure delivery can be simplified.

Another modular strategy entails creating a module of a space type and making it work for two types of users. At University of Texas Permian Basin’s new Engineering building, a single module was created for both the research and teaching labs. This allows the university the flexibility of prioritizing research or teaching in this building in the future without having to do extensive renovations—a design solution that helps them stay nimble.

Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas, has many high-bay labs used for both teaching and research in its Engineering Building. By sharing specialized equipment, TSU maximizes its investment and increases the diversity of equipment.

Shared resources

Sharing resources is also growing in popularity, particularly with large institutions, but it can also work at a smaller scale. Sharing resources can mean creating core lab components that multiple researchers, or in some cases multiple departments, can use. At Texas Woman’s University new graduate research building, we designed a microscopy suite and vivarium that will be utilized by TWU’s biology, psychology, and food and nutrition science departments. TWU is a smaller institution and recognized that by pooling resources it could efficiently invest in new equipment, make it shared among departments, and increase access for all. By designing core labs as shared spaces, institutions can leverage infrastructure, resources, and apply research grant money to the maximum benefit of the whole institution.

Institutions are also looking to increase the utilization of their investments in teaching labs. They are freeing up specialized teaching labs for use by multiple departments. At the new Center for Innovation in Medical Professions, Cleveland State University wanted to bring medical and health science education together under one roof—educating doctors, nurses, and other allied health professionals together. By doing so, CSU was able leverage many of the classrooms and specialty practical labs that can serve all these students, maximizing their interaction and the institution’s investment.

Teaching and research can also come together in one space. At Tarleton State University’s Engineering Building, due to the investment in specialized equipment, high-bay space, and utility requirements, our design organized the high-bay spaces by process/equipment so that both teaching and research will take place in the same spaces.

Science buildings are some of the most expensive spaces on campus. Achieving the right combination and proportion of new spaces with today’s resources, while designing a space with the flexibility to have a long life, might sound daunting.


As we have seen on recent projects such as the Yale Science Building, the more we can standardize the utilities within facilities, the better. Taken to the extreme, this approach means that we design so that all utilities are everywhere—the ultimate flexibility, however, can be economically challenging. Or an institution can take a baseline approach, bringing the basics to all spaces while planning for future pathways or by using a nimble point-of-use approach for specialized services. For example, all spaces could receive power, data, and compressed air, but vacuum or specialized gases could be smaller, room-based systems rather than building-centralized systems. Technological advances in utility equipment now make it easier for researchers/institutions to bring specialty services exactly where they are needed, which is good news for researchers and institutions who want to be nimble and resourceful with capital resources.

In some engineering spaces, particularly high-bay spaces, an overhead utility grid can be a powerful and flexible solution. At Tarleton’s Engineering Building, utilities are provided from an overhanging grid, meaning equipment can be moved and changed easily as the focus of the class or research changes.

Flexibility for the future

The sky is the limit when it comes to long-term flexibility and adaptability in the research and teaching laboratory environment. Ultimately what’s important is that designers work with their clients to illuminate the unique goals and aspirations for the programs and building. Only then can we design labs with right fit to educate students and support research in a future that’s constantly changing.

  • Cynthia Labelle

    A principal, Cynthia has spent more than 20 years designing science, research, and higher education facilities. Her architecture projects take the opportunity to create something interesting for users.

    Contact Cynthia
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