Laboratory design can be challenging. There are many voices with differing priorities. They all want the same thing, however; a safe, well-designed, highly serviced, ergonomic, and efficient space, which caters for all the needs of the users and can be delivered on time and in budget. This doesn’t sound too much to ask; so how can this be accomplished, and what are some common issues?

Identifying the processes and scope for lab design

A laboratory is a space in which a number of processes are undertaken in a methodical order, similar to any production line or manufacturing facility. Understanding these processes seems like an obvious element in laboratory design, but members within the client team often have differing opinions as to the scope.

A good client will always call on the expertise of the lab users - the scientists - to help define the brief. Meeting with those users to understand the processes being undertaken is fundamental to delivering a successful laboratory design project. However, this can lead to budget issues; the laboratory designer must evaluate the costs of the users’ requests against the functionality of the lab to determine the scope. Some clients will have a very clear scope, especially if the lab is an expansion or extension of an existing process, but some clients will need help in creating the scope, especially for new processes. It should also be noted that users often have a fixed solution in mind based on what they have done in the past - their solution may not be the best for the laboratory design project, and it is our job to challenge their assumptions and offer alternative, perhaps better, solutions.

Lab processes can be grouped into distinct functional spaces, for example: dry processes, milling, synthesis or analytics. These functional spaces are theoretical zones which have no spatial definition, acting as a visual way of defining a group of processes which are related to one another.

Working with users to categorise the laboratory processes into these distinct functional spaces enables us to generate flow diagrams for the process.

Lab design layout: identifying the flows

As with any project, many stakeholders see a lab design layout as the primary early deliverable to determine that progress is being made on the project. It’s important to make it clear to the client team as well as the laboratory design team that the information needed to form the lab design layout is the priority.

Once we have determined the functional spaces within the lab, for example materials, people, and waste, we can arrange them into flow diagrams to create adjacencies between the different spaces of the lab, allowing us to create a rudimentary layout. The aim is to reduce movement between the spaces to make the laboratory design layout more efficient.

We can then classify the client equipment to fit into each of these functional spaces and undertake the same exercise at a smaller scale to determine the adjacencies between the laboratory equipment.

Laying out the client laboratory equipment into a space is the last element of producing a laboratory design layout, once these flows have been established. This practice means that, if new laboratory equipment is introduced throughout the design period (as is often the case), it can be categorised into the correct functional space within the flow diagram and inputted into the lab design layout with confidence that there is a design basis for its location.

Client laboratory equipment

The client should carry out a cost benefit analysis of the requested laboratory equipment, as overpromising on lab equipment early on can lead to issues with laboratory design layout and services down the line. Therefore, a considered approach to the requirements provided by the lab users should be implemented. Understanding why a piece of laboratory equipment is requested can determine if it’s necessary, or if its process can be combined with another piece of equipment and managed from a user perspective. This can help not only reduce capital cost on purchasing laboratory equipment, but also operating costs on the services required for that piece of kit. An example of this is reducing the number of dust booths in a space by combining the processes of two dust booths into one.

Generating and maintaining an up-to-date client laboratory equipment list with all requirements is a lifeline for any laboratory designer, as it becomes the gospel for all aspects of the laboratory design. Many of the causes of delays and cost overrun with laboratory design come from not having a comprehensive laboratory equipment list stating the services requirements and specialist requirements. Frequent reviews with the client, including confirmation that the current information is still correct, can go a long way in reducing risk in the laboratory design.

It is often the case that the laboratory equipment list is updated and changed well into the design stages, with many meetings and complicated reasoning behind changes. Keeping a detailed action and decision log is very important, therefore. The laboratory equipment can have a major impact on not just the design philosophy behind the lab design layout and services, but also the environment, health and safety (EHS).

Environment, Health and Safety (EHS) Requirements

Some processes within labs are hazardous or toxic to health, and these are usually communicated to the laboratory design team by the client early in the design phases. It’s important to ask for all processes being undertaken as to the EHS requirements, as often it affects the laboratory design layout or services design.

For example, consider processes which require either containment or clean room status. In both instances, this means that process, along with perhaps all the other processes within its functional group, will need to be separated physically from the other functional groups and an air pressure differential adhered to. This directly drives the lab layout, plus the services requirements and the finishes specifications.

Hazard studies, conducted with both the users and the laboratory designers present, should identify the major EHS issues with the aim to design out all the risks. Some processes may use hazardous material or be explosive, so a Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations (DSEAR) assessment must be undertaken by the client with the lab designer involved, as it will affect the plant selection and design.

We must be aware of design elements which are assumed to be inherently safe. A fume cupboard, for example, is only safe if it passes its face velocity tests, and that depends on the air velocity within the room. We ensure that these additional tests are specified to ensure compliance and avoid high velocity air supply grilles near fume cupboards, and we always design labs containing fume cupboards to BS 14175.

Architectural requirements for lab design

The laboratory design architect’s role does not end with laying out the laboratory equipment. It’s important to work with the client team to agree the lab furniture and necessary finishes, as there may be specific Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) requirements or chemical properties which can dictate the solution.

There are lots of specialists for lab furniture, with the lab users being a good resource for their preferred manufacturer or issues with their current furniture. Understanding what the users want the laboratory furniture for will enable us to provide the correct solution. Often it’s just a worktop for a piece of lab equipment to sit on or for writing-up, but sometimes it’s storage or mobile benching. For storage solutions, we will always try to find out what users plan to store in the unit, as sometimes it may require ventilation to prevent the build-up of gases.

We have had issues with the floor specification not being suitable for specific chemical spills, and even with the impact resistance for when the client installs their laboratory equipment. The users will often be able to help with the specification of finishes, but typically wipe-down surfaces are suitable for most applications.

When it comes to lab sinks, it is important to determine what the lab sink is for before selecting a standard unit. Metal sinks are often not suitable for chemical discharge, and an epoxy or other material lab sink should be selected. Non-standard sinks come in non-standard sizes, and large lab sinks need to be supported due to the potential for a large mass of water within. As well as splashbacks, there should be no gaps between lab furniture and lab sinks as dirt can accumulate. The aim is to ensure there’s no surface that can’t be easily reached for cleaning.

Ceilings in labs can help reduce the surfaces for dust to settle on, such as the various high-level services. The counterargument to this is that the ceiling itself is one large dust trap. In our experience, the ceiling type is dictated by the services; a ceiling can provide a plenum for air distribution at very low air velocity to the room, which is good for labs with a high air change rate, but it can also limit the space for service crossovers and distribution.

One final note is that the colour scheme of a lab can have a big effect on the users, not only from an aesthetic point of view, but also for safety reasons. Making walkways a contrasting colour to work areas can help with circulation around the lab, plus help prevent busy scientists from walking into worktops and dropping samples or chemicals.

Structural requirements

The main issues we have come across for structural engineers have been coordination with services. There can be many changes throughout the lab design period, particularly with client equipment, and this can result in lots of changes to the services.

Coordinating the services at high level can be difficult, so every effort should be made to reduce beam depths or use castellated beams if this is not possible.

The biggest and most recurring challenge, however, is usually due to new services needing penetrations or alternative routing due to changes to client laboratory equipment. Labs need a higher air change rate than offices or other building types, which means lots of ductwork to and from the lab. This is exacerbated if there are fume cupboards, as the discharges go to the roof and discharge vertically. The discharge stacks for these fans can be quite high, so we may have to design roof supports for flues.

One unusual issue we encountered was a vibration requirement for an X-ray machine. This is further evidence of the importance of understanding the purpose of the laboratory equipment being installed early in the lab design process.

Finally, we must be aware of how the laboratory equipment is to be delivered to the site. Some lab equipment can be extremely heavy, and the beam layout may dictate where the equipment can sit within the space. We will also always consider how this lab equipment gets to the location in the first place, and any subsequent special requirements.

Mechanical Electrical and Plumbing (MEP) requirements for lab design

A laboratory design should be services-led. It’s up to the services engineer to fully understand the client laboratory equipment, the room requirements, the health and safety issues and the processes within the lab, as well as understanding what the other disciplines need to provide. The purpose of the lab space is to provide the users with a safe and controlled environment for their experiments and processes, which are undertaken by and within lab equipment. The equipment is the primary point of a lab. This equipment is often heavily serviced, so the services take priority; perhaps much more so than in other building types. It’s the services engineer’s responsibility to coordinate the disciplines and disseminate information to all the relevant parties to ensure their services can be properly provided.

Following a review of the functional spaces, we will set out the basis of laboratory design in zoning diagrams for the different rooms, including any ISO or GMP requirements, pressure regimes, temperatures, air change rates, lux levels, circuit zoning, and keep all this information on a set of drawings. These types of drawings are often created at RIBA Stage 2 then never carried through the project, but it’s vital information which develops the basis for the calculations and lab design. For labs we will therefore update this drawing at every design stage and use for quick reference.

Maintaining the client lab equipment list with all the necessary services is a must. As the information becomes more detailed, the list should be updated to reflect the latest information. Most issues we come across on a project are due to missing services or undefined duties within the laboratory equipment list.

Labs without extracting equipment can follow the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE) guidance for air change rates, with supplementary cooling required from internal units such as fan coil units. For spaces requiring close temperature control, we do not use refrigerant-to- air cooling.

In labs with extracting equipment, especially fume cupboards, the make-up air required may be a very high volume and allow for centralised air cooling. We always review the possibility of variable-volume fume cupboards to reduce the energy demand, whilst being aware that the stack discharge on fume cupboards must remain constant, which means the fans will require a bleed damper to allow make-up air to enter the fan to maintain constant efflux velocity. With any fume extracting system, we will ensure the material of construction throughout the entire system is suitable for the extracted fumes. Solvents and acids are particularly good at corroding metal, such as the metal fixing a fire damper to a wall.

The electrical engineer should review with the client the earthing requirements, including static discharge within the floor construction or electromagnetic interference for sensitive equipment, and inform the lab design architect. Some client laboratory equipment can be damaged or become dangerous if there’s a loss of power, so understanding any Uninterrupted Power Supply (UPS) requirements early on is essential.

As usual, the coordination between the MEP services becomes the difficult part of the latter stages. It’s not unusual to have an extremely busy ceiling void, so it is important to start with the drainage and then the ventilation. We have to bear in mind the coordination below the ceiling too, with dropping services, wall-mounted isolation and panels, shut-off valves and emergency stop buttons, all competing for space on the walls. Internal windows will be needed in labs with dangerous atmospheres to ensure line of sight for occupant safety, which will further impact the below ceiling coordination. While external windows will need to be maintained to introduce daylight, this can lead to solar heat gains. Blinds can be used but they can trap dirt, so we will place them between secondary glazing. Alternatively, we use solar film and external blinds, and if possible, design the building so the lab is north-facing.


In our experience, most of the issues with a laboratory design stem from the client laboratory equipment list. It could be it lacks definition, keeps changing, contains unknown elements or assumptions, or is poorly set up and kept. A successful lab must be designed with heavy involvement from the client and user team to remove all doubts and uncertainties. Therefore, we allow for many meetings, and keep detailed notes. We make sure that the processes are understood by the entire team so the functional spaces can be determined to enable flow and adjacency diagrams to be created. And we keep this visual representation of the lab through to service requirement drawings and zoning diagrams.

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