How you can minimize future lab reconfigurations with flexible, space-efficient layouts

Labs are one of the most reconfigured spaces on campus. Many institutions must offer custom lab modifications for every researcher recruited to campus, often installing specialized equipment promised to the principal investigator (PI) during the recruitment process or when they have received additional funding. This practice has led to spiraling costs, as institutions scramble to keep up with ever-changing lab needs.

Download the full research brief to learn more about flexible labs

To combat the high costs of constantly remodeling labs, many institutions are moving toward flexible, shared research lab space. The University of Colorado Boulder (CU Boulder) is one institution that leverages flexible designs to meet evolving research needs.

How CU Boulder meets various needs with shared research space

This floorplan shows the design of CU Boulder’s new research building, which houses 16 labs. Each lab can accommodate six to eight PIs and provides communal access to frequently used lab equipment, such as fume hoods and utility connections. In addition, each lab has an attached storage room and spaces to accommodate specialized research needs, such as a darkroom or climate-controlled area.

CU Boulder's New Floorplan

Flexible labs

This flexible and shared model has three advantages.

  • First, it is more space efficient than a typical lab design, averaging only 300 square feet per PI. The model’s flexibility allows the amount of space assigned to each PI to expand or contract depending on their research needs.
  • Second, flexible labs can better accommodate PI turnover. Fewer walls mean less reconfiguration to accommodate a new PI’s requirements.
  • Third, shared space readily accommodates multidisciplinary research. PIs in shared spaces may not always work together, but the lab design makes it possible.

Two considerations before implementing flexible designs

For universities looking to implement flexible and shared lab designs, there are two considerations to bear in mind.

1. Install foundational infrastructure to minimize future customization

Effective flexible lab space needs to include foundational equipment (such as fume hoods, cleanrooms, and movable, modifiable benches) that allows any principal investigator to use the lab. In addition, shared labs should include underlying infrastructure (such as exhaust shafts and connections for each lab to compressed air, gas, and deionized water) to ensure seamless installation of future equipment.

While building in flexibility will likely increase upfront building costs, flexible labs will ultimately yield long-term cost savings because the labs will require renovations less frequently.

2. Allow lab space based on PI space requirements

Effective shared lab space also needs to consider carefully the space assignments for each principal investigator. For example, some PIs with highly specialized research space needs or extensive funding will still require customized labs, but these PIs are only a small number of researchers at most institutions. As well, while flexible labs are designed to accommodate multiple disciplines, some combinations, such as chemistry and geology, are not well suited to sharing lab space.

Grouping PIs with similar research interests and requirements makes researchers more amenable to sharing space and may spark collaboration. Institutions should establish protocols governing how PIs will share space within the lab. One popular protocol is to charge PIs for bench space, as it creates an incentive for PIs to be as space efficient as possible and return space they do not need.

Discover how you can reclaim the fastest growing space on campus

Custom lab modifications are not the only expense taxing facility leaders' limited resources. Faculty office space is growing faster than any other type of campus space, but remains one of the most underutilized spaces on campus. Download our excerpt to learn best practices for improving office space utilization, such as no-office protocols and voluntary office withdrawal incentives. Download the resource

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Shared and Flexible Research Labs

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