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Fundamentals of Planning and Designing Research Labs

by | Jan 30, 2023

Want to build a research lab soon? These are some fundamental pillars you should know before you start the journey. It will help your journey smoother.

Research labs are different and more complex than labs that are used for routine work such as QA. Research labs need more elaborate planning, often involving internal and external stakeholders. A small gap here or an omission there at the planning and designing stage is going to cost heavily over the lifetime of the lab. Hence it is important to arrive at a logical sequence of activities to be coordinated with periodic reviews.

It is a team effort involving the Users, Engineering, Procurement and Finance arms of the organization. Hence a project steering team is required to be constituted. Listed below are the next guiding steps for this project team:

1. Statement of Purpose and preparing a Concept Note

The first task for the project team is to clearly define the purpose(s) for which the new research lab is conceived. Sometimes it may not be possible to list down every reason, but still, it is important to capture the essence in the purpose statement.

What is the profile of the customers? Is the lab needed to be air-conditioned? Do you need a cleanroom? How many fume hoods/ Biosafety cabinets/ Laminar airflow units/ Isolators are required? Which design standards to follow: American or European ? Are customers likely to visit the facility? Is research going to be multidisciplinary? Is any special purpose area needed? Is the lab needed to be reconfigurable and flexible to a certain level? What would be the divisions and subdivisions in the overall shell of the lab? What kind of office spaces would be needed? Record rooms? Sample storages? Clean rooms? Microbiology and Tissue Culture labs? Several such questions will need brainstorming and finalization. At the end of the extensive deliberations, a well-drafted Concept Note should emerge.

Often, external stakeholders such as Consultants, Planners, Architects, Vendors, etc. are invited for a first meeting. They are straightway drawn into discussing the lab setup, without basic information being shared. A concept note prepared by the project team will serve as a sound foundation for further discussions.

2. Knowledge Updating

At this stage, external stakeholders such as consultants, architects, and vendors can be invited (with the concept note shared), to showcase the latest trends and advances in their field. It is possible to get some inputs that will do a great service to the project and may save costs. At this stage, it is important to get abreast of international standards and codes. Also, decide upon the standards and codes to which your lab would adhere to.

The project team sits through presentations and evaluates the vendors too. At the end of this stage, a shortlisting of possible vendors, materials, and technologies is expected to be ready. Various options for technology and materials with their cost implications need to be evaluated. Maybe the budget needs to be tweaked a bit or the timelines are relaxed a bit, as the project team is now well-updated on the critical aspects of the project. The next step is planning the lab.

3. Planning Process: The Role of URS

Lab Architects bring along not only their technical skills but a wealth of experience too. Ideally, these professionals design the lab to reputed international standards. In the process, they would share a format called as- User Requirement Specifications or URS. It is important for the project team to clearly define their needs in this format. In case of any assistance is needed the same should be asked. In any case, the URS must be filled-in and shared with the Lab Architect. That will be the most sacrosanct input to her and form the basis of lab planning and designing. A well-prepared URS is the backbone of the planning and designing process. Its importance therefore cannot be compromised.

4. Designing, Feedback, and Modifications

Architect led planning team would begin the elaborate design process. It is not a good practice to rush back to them with new requirements or fundamental changes at this stage. It is seen that projects get delayed because of continuous changes being dictated by the project team. The design stage can accommodate some changes within limits. However, if major changes are pushed at this stage, it is going to have a bearing on the costs and timelines. Moreover, it would interrupt the thought process and planning of professionals working with you. It is seen that ultimately such changes lead to more complications in further stages of the project. Sometimes perceptions around aesthetics might differ between the host project team and the external agencies. Such issues have to be resolved in the light of the right engineering practices.

On the other hand, constructive feedback is appreciated by architects and engineers. A fine balance must be kept between expectations, requirements, codes, and good practices.

Designs need approvals. Once they are presented debated and finalized the drawings need approvals for the record. Remember, shop drawings for manufactured items will be released based on project teams’ approvals. A drawing sign-off brings finality to this stage. A delay in sign-off has a direct impact on the cost and timelines. All MOMs must be well-recorded to capture finer details that aren’t reflected in drawings.

5. Safety

A safe lab is mandatory. The safety of your lab must align itself with the corporate safety of the organization. Safety evaluation must run in parallel with all the steps described above. The design must be critically evaluated against safety codes and good practices. The Safety Head of your organization must approve the layouts and designs. Moreover, the logic of Hazard Management, Safe Evacuation, and PPE policies relevant to the designs must be charted out and finalized. This will help avoid any rework when the lab is ready for occupation.

With these basic steps of the process, you are ready to go ahead with the execution. A well-purposed, aesthetic, comfortable, and safe lab is the outcome when the discussed process is followed religiously.

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