Monday, November 9, 2009

The Process of Building a Better Lab

After many years, BioTek has moved forward with plans to upgrade its application laboratory. While the original plan was to renovate the existing space, with the need for BioTek to expand its work space it was decided to build a new lab in newly renovated space. Yes, “A Brand New Lab!” While the saga is a bit long I feel that it is representative of many lab renovations as they move from the concept stage to fruition.
Location, location, location…
Designing a new lab space is very similar to designing space for home renovation and all in all quite fun. There are a number of guides on how to design a lab, but to get started, you really only need two pieces of information. (1) What function is the lab space intended to serve? In this instance, the application lab is a general purpose lab with tissue culture capability with a staff of approximately 5. (2) What space is available? The space indicated for the applications lab was approximately 23’ x 26’, which was partitioned into a general lab work area and a tissue culture room. Once the rooms were more or less sorted out now it was time to decide what we wanted for bench space. It’s a lab so we need lots of counters and storage. The current lab has an island in the center which I like a great deal so this type of setup would be incorporated into the new lab space. Island type counters, unlike peninsula allow access from all directions making movement around the lab easier. In addition to island bench space, a great deal of wall mounted cabinetry with counters would also be included. This should allow sufficient space for the plethora of equipment that already resides in the applications lab. Once the space considerations have been decided upon, its time to put pen to paper and layout the space. If you are like me, you better make it pencil, as there will be a few changes before you get things right. I prefer the hand drawn method of design, but the use of computer aided design will work just as well.

Scale, scale, scale…Now that you have “planned” the design, now it is time to work with actual dimensions. If you have drawn everything to scale already things are pretty much already done when you complete the planning stage. Because the space intended for the applications lab was integrated with other departments, the overall space was always in a state of flux, depending on the whims of others. In my case the wall dimensions seemed to fluctuate daily, but over time the space seemed to reach some sort of steady state. In terms of the cabinetry, we decided to purchase lab cabinetry and counters. Unlike kitchen cabinets and counters, laboratory fixtures need to be chemical resistant. The old lab fixtures were surplus kitchen cabinets and countertops and were in process of delaminating. I contacted two different cabinet vendors and met with both. I explained what I wanted, provided scaled drawings and asked them for quotations. To their credit, both responded promptly with specific drawings and quotations. Neither was very close to what I explained or to the drawings that I had provided. After a series of phone conversations, e-mail exchanges and a second meetings, drawings that closely resembled what we were interested in eventually evolved. In regards to laboratory cabinets, there are really two choices for materials; steel or laminated composite. Steel last longer and is stronger, but is approximately twice the price. Laminate, while not as robust fit our budget better than steel. In the end, both quotes were very close to one another, but during the process I got a sense that one company had a better handle on lab design while the other specialized in office design. This made the choice pretty easy. Now we had to pick colors…
Stuff, stuff, stuff…
In addition to the cabinetry items such as safety equipment (i.e eyewash and safety shower), sinks, faucets etc have to be decided upon, along with their location. Large equipment purchases such as freezers (-80°C, -20°C) refrigerators, autoclaves, tissue culture incubators, biosafety cabinets, floor model shaking incubators, etc. all had to be purchased and places designated in the new lab space. These items can be purchased new and/or used. We used a combination of both to outfit the lab space. As the budget was not eligible for TARP funds, not everything could be purchased in the same physical year. Hopefully, we will get to buy some more presents for ourselves next year.
Change, change, change…While all of the planning is taking place several things are happening outside one’s control that directly impact all of your well made plans. As I mentioned previously, others are involved in the overall design so wall positions and dimensions are still changing as a result of newly discovered code requirements, discrepancies in the original layout plans, the need for janitors closets, pre-existing plumbing design, builder’s whims, etc. With a 6 inch change here and a 6 inch change there, your carefully laid plans for equipment placement is soon a piece of fiction. The plan is soon obsolete and in need of being changed.
Decisions, decisions, decisions…After the basics equipment has been chosen now it s time to decide water and electrical requirements. This is basically answering a number of questions: Where do I need power outlets? How high off the floor do they need to be? Are they 110V or 220V? Do they require a special outlet? The island cabinets require power that is dropped from the ceiling. The plumbing questions are a bit more basic. What size fitting do you need? Does it require a drain? Answering these questions of course requires that you know where everything is to be located, which as I explained previously can change. Fortunately I wasn’t asked about the color of the switch covers or outlets.
Time, time, time…You have ordered the cabinetry along with the installation based on a predicted finish date supplied by the builders. You have mentally checked that piece of work off from your list of things to do only to find out that the completion date has been put off. This requires that you contact the cabinet manufacture to find out if you can push the delivery date back; only to find out that the cabinets have already been manufactured and that it will cost more to store them for a period of time. Meanwhile boxes of other purchased items are starting to pile up outside your office. Having learned your lesson, you pad the new delivery date by an extra week, only to find out even that date was optimistic and you need to contact the cabinet guys a second time. If you are fortunate vendors for other installed items are flexible in the installation date. As the days progress, boxes of parts and equipment begin to form a mountain around your office and your co-workers make polite inquiries as to when the mess of boxes will be removed.
The labHelp, help, help
At this stage the installers are now busy at work. As one begins to see the design taking shape it becomes obvious that some things need to be changed. Much like working on your own car, the parts you have ordered don’t quite fit and there seem to be parts left over. In our situation, the base cabinets didn’t quite fill a wall. Our solution was to leave a gap in the center of the cabinet run that will make a nice spot for a trash bin. In addition we had an extra upper cabinet that was installed on another wall. As we were installing the center shelving for the island work areas it became obvious that some of the shelving was not necessary. The section we omitted should work nicely for the automation support work the apps group performs. The electrical drops to the island needed some customization as well. With the assistance of very good installers all of these issues were dealt with. After you think that everything has finally been dealt with and the lab is coming together you realize that a 36” freezer will just not fit through a door with a 34.5” opening. After a short period of panic regarding all of the other equipment that you have ordered, you realize that if you open the freezer door as you pass through the doorway that things will fit. On to the next crisis…
Move, move, move…The day has finally arrived. The space renovation has been completed and you can now move into the new space. Only now do you realize exactly how much new stuff has been ordered, along with how much instrumentation you plan on moving from the old laboratory space. Time to purge some stuff. With good fortune there will be a facilities manager that will arrange for assistance to move much of the material. Regardless, plan on spending considerable time and energy (mental as well as physical) with this task. With the placement of instrumentation in the new space you find that carefully thought out planning only goes so far. Much of the layout design will work, but expect to have made a number of misjudgments. It will take some time to work out the best layout.
End, end, end…The bottom line is that with some hard work and a large pile of money you too could have new laboratory space. In my case, a number of different people provided valuable assistance, without their help the new lab would not have happened. As with any renovation, a positive attitude and sense of humor go a long way toward making the process tolerable. In the end, the result was worth it.


  1. Nice write up Paul. Now... What kind of plate reader are you going to buy for your new lab? I've got the perfect one your ya.. Oops. I guess VT isn't really my territory :-)

  2. can we have this kind of a lab setup in india. because we have lot of querries come up here. it could be very fruitful...