Designing better clean labs for exact usage


When you're moving forward in the design for a new construction or retrofit of a biotechnology lab, the key to success is fully understanding the exact usages that lab is going to have during its lifespan. Once that's in place, the selection of the most appropriate design resources should be elementary.

Major cost savings are achieved when this thorough understanding of lab usage is applied to six key design areas:

  • Floor plan layout;
  • Space volume;
  • Finishes and furnishings;
  • Control room placement;
  • Waste systems;
  • Shared spaces.

Achieving efficient space

The most economic floor plan layout is a modular design. Biotech labs often work best when designed in a regular grid pattern, with each module about 10 to 12 feet in width. Understanding the lab technicians' exact needs will determine whether this size is appropriate.

The lab should be about three modules deep, or about 30 feet from the entrance to the room's far side. A lab that approaches 35 feet in depth has the greatest design efficiency, allowing for a 20-foot bench with double-loaded end passages at either end of the island.

Reducing space volume

Volumetric economy in a lab is reached when spaces are designed to the lowest height possible. Taller, higher spaces are more costly because the overall area for painting is increased; and, in the long run, the larger volume of air requires more changes.

Early understanding of which piece of equipment will be needed and where it will be located allows the floor-to-ceiling height of certain areas to be minimized. A lower ceiling (a minimum of nine feet) can be placed over areas where no equipment will be located, as well as over aisles and corridors.

Designing the lab spaces to be as small as possible lowers the total volume of space that needs to be conditioned and illuminated. Overall construction and operations can be reduced significantly. Again, knowing which functional areas can be reduced requires a clear picture early in the design as to how the spaces will be used.

If a multi-story building is being retrofitted for lab spaces, keep in mind that upper floors do not have the same floor load-bearing capability as do lower floors. Activities requiring heavier loads should be placed on the lowest floors to avoid costly structural changes. Knowing which biotech functions in the lab will necessitate the heaviest equipment is critical to this decision.

Selecting finishes and furniture

Appropriate finish and furniture selections in lab design include flooring, caseworks, lab tops and fixed equipment. Each has several options from which to choose. The final specification relies on the precise level of durability and cleanliness needed in the new lab.

Flooring. In lab design, the typical selections are from vinyl, VCT or epoxy flooring. VCT is the least expensive, seamless vinyl is the next costly, and epoxy the most expensive. It's important to avoid over-specifying flooring and wind up buying a more expensive flooring product than needed. Unless a very high level of cleanliness is required, VCT flooring is totally acceptable and much easier to maintain and repair.

Casework. Possible selections for cabinetry include plastic laminate (the least expensive), metal, or custom wood products (the most expensive). Because frequent changes are made to its floor plan layout, the typical commercial lab's life span is usually not long enough to justify more than plastic laminate caseworks.

If it's known early on that the lab's floor plan needs to be flexible, metal can be the best casework selection. Metal casework is more easily reconfigured, can be sent out for repair or repainting, and can be an economical selection depending on the need for longevity.

Wood casework can be the best selection for a lab in a campus setting, for example, where a warm-looking, attractive lab is appealing. Wood is also a good selection for labs in which the same group of scientists and technicians will be working for long periods of time. Wood, however, is relatively difficult to repair compared to plastic laminate and metal, so it may not be the right selection depending on your level of use and abuse.

Lab tops. Plastic laminate, epoxy and stainless steel are the selections for laboratory tops. While plastic laminate is not as chemical-resistant, it may be the best and most economical selection for a microscopic lab that does not heavily use chemicals. Epoxy is available in a range of thickness; it's important to know that a 3/4-inch epoxy is just as durable but less expensive than custom metal.

In cleaner spaces, stainless tops are often the best choice, with the 304 stainless being the most common selection. Unless there is need for high resistance to acid materials, it's unnecessary to specify the more expensive 316 stainless.

Fixed equipment. Fume hoods may be composed of metal or fiberglass. The latter is much less expensive, but if fume hoods are subject to high abuse and expected to have a long life span, fiberglass is often not the best selection. If the lab, however, has lower usage or is occupied by a staff of highly trained technicians, fiberglass may be used. In a student lab, for example, where many different people are using the space, a higher grade, metal fume hood will have greater durability.

Lab sinks are generally either drop-in stainless steel or epoxy. Either can be fitted to any casework top; however, it's important to specify a high-usage product only when it's absolutely necessary. The stainless sink is offered in the less-resistant 304 or the more durable 316 versions. The 304, while less resistant, is also less expensive and may be appropriate if the new lab will not be using corrosive materials.

Use low-population areas

To avoid the re-rating of corridors, temperature control rooms are best placed in lab areas that will be sparsely populated. These rooms include freezers and walk-in incubators that can be built into a biotech lab. Various surface material choices are available for enclosure, but use stainless steel only if necessary for durability. Placing a cold room along a corridor that is heavily used may require a fire-rated door and special access doors, so this approach should be limited. Such rooms are better placed off corridors that don't require a rating, or in hallway areas with relatively low traffic.

Disposing waste

Many labs have separate waste systems; however, in an existing building that's being converted, a neutralization tank at each sink, which allows lab waste to go into the normal waste system, may be suitable.

The question of how much space the tanks will require, and if you can afford it, must be examined. What is the nature of the material that will go into the system? Can it be neutralized? These lab details must be understood before the correct waste system can be selected.

Installing a separate waste system is much more costly, involving digging up an existing floor and installing an additional plumbing system.

Sharing space

In programming for a new lab, the amount of material that needs to be stored is always carefully examined. Various future users of the new lab often name the same items, creating numerous redundancies. When these are identified, shared storage space can be created between different labs. The result greatly increases space efficiencies.

Understanding your lab's usages gives designers a decisive edge in making the right resource selections. The greater the degree you can be specific, the greater savings you can achieve.

LEAFORD BLEVINS is a senior laboratory planner with HDR in San Diego. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

Editor's note:

With CleanRooms East 2004/PDA SciTech Summit taking place next month in Orlando, Fla. (March 8-12), much of our editorial concentration has been geared toward contamination control in life sciences facilities. A majority of our technical coverage has been geared toward production and manufacturing areas, with little emphasis placed on the importance of the clean laboratory space; specifically, in the biotechnology arena. Fully understanding the laboratory's evolving role in biotech's growth, HDR's Leaford Blevins offers a few guidelines for getting the clean lab that suits your facility's specific need.


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