Designing the science labs of the future

Author: Inez Cornell
Date: Nov 09, 2017

Future Lab

For years lab design has been fairly predictable and it often calls to mind endless rows of benches. While the buildings labs are based in have meant research teams tend to work in self-contained spaces.

Now this is beginning to change, thanks to technological developments and the need to work more collaboratively. Among the new research institutions being celebrated for their innovative design is The Francis Crick Institute in London. The building won the 2017 Laboratory of the Year Awards, while a report from the real estate specialists CBRE said they expect it to become a prototype for future lab designs.

The building has been designed to foster greater collaboration between researchers who work there. They have done this by creating plenty of breakout areas and large open plan spaces, so people are more likely to have a chance meeting. Researchers at the Crick Institute hope this collaborative way of working will help them tackle some of the big health concerns of our age, such as cancer and heart disease.

Their core facilities include many recognisable instruments, like mass spectroscopy and NMR machines, but they have largely shunned the idea of having endless rows of work benches. Instead, almost every aspect of their labs’ modular components can easily be moved by researchers who want to work more closely together. The flexibility to adapt so easily also makes it possible to bring in new researchers who can offer a fresh perspective.

The CBRE Lab of the Future report delves into the changes that are influencing the design of new labs. Among them is increasing commercial pressure, which means researchers have to work more quickly. In the pharmaceutical industry, this means shortening the typical 10 years it takes for a drug to go to market. Personalised medicine also means labs are more likely to be pursuing multiple lines of research and working flexibly allows them to do this.

Scientists also need to be able to collaborate more easily as new markets emerge. According to the UN, two thirds of the world’s population will live in Asia by 2025. Tools like video conferencing are expected to become more important to researchers who need to collaborate globally.

The impact technology is having

Technological advances are driving many of the changes we are seeing in lab design. As researchers use computer simulations to do more work, wet labs are shrinking. Techniques like data analysis and computer modelling now go hand in hand with traditional wet lab procedures.

Technology has also led to the miniaturisation of many instruments, so less bench space is needed. Automation is having the same effect.

The result is that researchers are no longer tied to their benches, so they can spend time on more innovative work. The Internet of Things (IOT) - where just about any piece of equipment can be linked to the internet - is likely to further increase the scope for working remotely.

But we have so far only got a glimpse of how technology is likely to change labs. As artificial intelligence, virtual reality and the internet of things become more mainstream labs could change beyond recognition. The age of the robot scientist may not yet be here but technology is likely to take over more mundane and labour intensive tasks even more.

At MIT, researchers are working on using machine learning to predict the most efficient way to make a molecule. According to Klavs Jensen, the Warren K. Lewis Professor of Chemical Engineering; “The vision is that you’ll be able to walk up to a system and say, ‘I want to make this molecule.’ The software will tell you the route you should make it from, and the machine will make it.”3D printing also presents another way for scientists to make molecules. We have already seen the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US approve the first 3D printed drug - a prescription treatment for epilepsy. As the technology becomes faster and cheaper, it is likely to become more mainstream.

The need for sustainability

Another trend that is shaping the way new labs are being built is the drive to be more sustainable.

In the UK, this is exemplified by GlaxoSmithKline’s Carbon Neutral Laboratory for Sustainable Chemistry which opened at Nottingham University earlier this year.

Throughout the lab’s construction, the team worked closely with BREAM, who set out the principles and requirements for creating sustainable buildings. This led to them being awarded an outstanding rating.

The building’s innovative features include using natural ventilation, which is unique for a lab. This minimises the energy used to heat and cool the building and of course it saves money. As does the building’s use of natural light.

They also received full credit in the water category as BREEAM calculated their water consumption to be just 5.47mper person, per year. They did this by using water efficient fittings and metering water intensive activities separately, so those consuming the most could be easily identified. A leak detection system is also used to monitor water use.

They specifically chose equipment designed to keep greenhouse emissions down by minimising leakage from refrigerants.

The lab was built with sustainably sourced timber and used a remediation strategy to enable them to build on previously contaminated land that would otherwise have been left unused. Even the building’s location was chosen for its environmental credentials because it has good public transport connections. The end result is a building that has been hailed as "a Cathedral to Chemistry."


In the next few years, we can expect to see more research buildings challenging the traditional lab set-up. It certainly seems fitting that new scientific advances should be bolstered by pioneering working environments.

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