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The Future of Labs

David Fox is a Senior Associate and Eric Gordon is a Principal at Entuitive. Together, they work closely on a number of lab projects across Canada and wider afield.

In this article they talk about the future of labs, with a bit of a glimpse at changes that could occur in a post-COVID world.

Labs Today

Today, there is a general need for labs and research facilities that can house researchers comfortably and live up to the high technical and regulatory standards required to perform different types of research and testing.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen an increased need for testing facilities and, at least in the early days of the outbreak, a desperate demand for rapid testing, which has led to some creative short-term solutions as well as some interesting longer-term prospects for the future of more traditional lab settings.

The other effect of the pandemic is that around the globe we’re seeing stimulus funding geared toward research and labs, for instance in the United States, where Congress has provided $3.6 billion in funding to the National Institutes of Health for a variety of pandemic-related programs. Interestingly, this funding can be distributed over the course of five years, allowing for more planning and longer-term research.

In Canada, too, we’re seeing an increase in funding directed to COVID-specific research, with the federal government funding 99 grants to the tune of $54.2 million. And in the UK, the UKRI has launched a program where COVID researchers can apply for grants to fund 80% of the full economic cost of their studies for up to 18 months. With this push toward more research and testing, we thought this was the perfect time to look at the labs that will be the hub for much of this activity.

The Rise of the Emergency Lab

COVID-19 has brought some interesting innovations to ensure we’re testing as many people as possible for the virus as quickly as possible. One such creative solution has been the rise of the emergency lab.

Often created from shipping containers, these modular units can be shipped and set up almost anywhere and provide convenient, portable solutions to increase the number of testing sites in a community, including high traffic and remote locations.

Offsite and modular construction is a process whereby buildings are planned and designed to allow for discretization and standardization of building components that allow for efficient off-site manufacture and rapid on-site assembly.

Some examples of these include Z Modular’s Care and Control Units and ForgeCraft Architecture’s COVID-19 Modular Treatment Centre.

One of ForgeCraft Architecture’s COVID-19 Modular Treatment Centres. Image c/o ForgeCraft Architecture and available here.

Following the pandemic, the easiest way to repurpose the modular units would be to customize them for use during flu shot season or for testing and screening during flu season or in the case of future outbreaks.

Solutions like this one can also be repurposed by businesses, public works, sports and entertainment venues, and transit hubs such as stations or airports. They also provide a great way for governments, businesses and communities to be proactive in terms of healthcare and emergency response.

Entuitive’s modular team works closely with architects, building owners, contractors, manufacturers, and other forward-thinking design professionals to design offsite and modular solutions that achieve a balance between design excellence, economy, aesthetics, and high productivity. In addition to building design, we assist with the development of new components, construction strategies, and emerging technologies.

Another example of emerging creativity is the makeshift cabin bio lab built in three days in Beijing. The lab will be a site for conducting COVID-19 nucleic acid tests and greatly boosted the efficiency of testing in the city. The lab houses eight sample taking rooms, four rooms for making orders and two for comprehensive services for streaming the flow of people.

A final point on emergency labs to consider is that similar to other work environments, laboratories have generally shut down during the COVID-19 emergency except those deemed to be essential.

For those labs deemed essential, the workload has often dramatically increased during the pandemic due to the need for more testing. This has presented a challenge, as increased productivity with the associated higher occupancies is hindered by the need for social distancing and other safety protocols.

So, a question we’re asking is, for these essential laboratories with anticipated peaks in workload during pandemic situations, is it time to consider the design of flexible dedicated “overflow” space within these labs to accommodate emergency needs? Or, should organizations consider as a minimum, creating an emergency plan, which identifies suitable labs that could be easily adapted to support the efforts associated with peaks in workflow during pandemic situations?

Retrofitting Existing Buildings to Provide More Permanent Solutions

While the modular testing facilities mentioned above do offer a wide array of advantages and some adaptability for operation in post-pandemic situations, the traditional lab will continue to be the main home of research and testing.

With the RetroFirst campaign in the UK we’ve seen the beginnings of a movement and we want to take a few minutes to explore some of the key arguments for retrofitting and reuse and tie them back to labs.

By boosting the retrofit and reuse of buildings, jobs will be created and will thereby contribute to a post-COVID economic recovery. Moving forward, retrofitting an existing building will still continue to be cheaper than building new.

And, retrofitting is a sustainable alternative to building new because “the greenest building is the one that already exists.” This was said by former American Institute of Architects President Carl Elefante and quoted by RetroFirst in their letter to Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer the Rt. Hon. Rishi Sunak.

Retrofitting in Practice

Working within existing buildings presents challenges for all design disciplines and no less so for the structural engineer. Entuitive’s recent lab updating or repurposing projects have primarily focused on the Institutional Sector and have somewhat coincided with funding opportunities presented by various government initiatives.

Examples of works associated with labs within existing buildings include general updates to existing labs, conversions of dry labs to wet labs or wet labs to dry labs, reconfiguring non-lab spaces to provide additional lab spaces or physically adding new spaces to expand existing lab facilities by adding new space to roof areas or at grade level.

Key success points for working with labs within existing buildings include having a reliable set of existing structural drawings that incorporate any modifications made to the structure during its life. Of course, working within a building that’s always accommodated labs has its advantages. For instance, many already have the appropriate floor loading capacities, existing vertical service shafts (that could be adaptable due to their potential for spare capacity), and some may already have spaces within penthouses for new equipment.

The date in which the existing building was created also matters for the outcome of the lab alterations. There is a period and style of existing buildings that lend themselves extremely well to alterations and adaptation due to the robust type of structural systems.

Vibration studies present their own challenges. Clear communication with the client is key – with the understanding that we may or may not be able to provide reassurance that the existing structural systems meet the required floor vibration criteria and the consequences of not meeting the criteria may result in re-planning spaces (moving equipment around) or strengthening structure.

Converting a dry lab to a wet lab at Ryerson University, a project we’re working on with IBI Group, had its challenges. The fact that the existing roof had no structural capacity to accommodate additional equipment and the lab was being converted to a wet lab which required hundreds of floor openings. Strategies for roof top equipment were to support on steel grillages that were raised sufficiently above the existing roof to limit snow drifting whilst transferring loads back to existing columns. Floor openings were carefully coordinated with existing openings and structural beams, ribs and rebar and when a strategy was established for one lab module, we could easily repeat throughout the space.

At the University of Toronto, we’re currently working with Baird Sampson Neuert Architects on a lab project that involves adding an addition on top of an existing building. The building was designed in the 1950’s and it has the capacity to accept a new floor. With this project, because of the heavily serviced mechanical systems of today, considering floor-to-roof height was critical in matching the appearance of the new addition to the existing building. We also considered the location of columns and the ability to provide open space. Other key considerations included supporting new mechanical units, providing as much light as possible, and creating an outdoor accessible student space for experiments and data collection. In all, even though the building had the capacity to accept a new floor, there are many other considerations to ensure adding the new addition meets today’s standards.

Designing New Labs and Modifying Existing Ones

For both essential and non-essential labs, a return to “normal” operations after a lockdown will present challenges. The challenges for the returning researchers will not be dissimilar to the general work force, namely access to PPE, Health and safety protocols such as cleaning, hygiene and handwashing, and social distancing.

Entuitive experts were the structural engineering consultants on the University of Toronto Terrence Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research pictured here.

Social distancing can be facilitated in the short term by strategies such as such as one way aisles, shift work and staggered teams but this is anticipated to be a problematic and an undesirable method of operation in the longer term since interaction and collaboration, both formal and informal, are important ingredients of a successful lab environment.

Reconfiguring existing labs to allow greater social distancing is more challenging than reconfiguring office space because of the highly serviced nature of the typical lab bench. For future laboratory designs for post-pandemic operations designers may need to reconsider the basic lab module to allow increased social distancing under normal operations.

The spatial layout of labs has been traditionally predicated on an individual lab module which consists of a double loaded working aisle with work benches on either side. This module is generally in the range of 10’ to 11’ and extrapolating the module leads to an efficient building grid for a lab building of 9m to 10m or 12m to 13.5m (30’ to 33’ or 40’ to 44’) if three or four modules are accommodated respectively in a typical column free bay.

Structural systems for these bay sizes range from efficient two-way concrete floor plates, as in our work at the SickKids Peter Gilgan Research Centre, for the shorter grid spacing to concrete beam and slab at Terrence Donnelly Centre for Cellular & Biomolecular Research, University of Toronto or steel framed systems, such as our work at Memorial University of Newfoundland Core Science Facility, for the longer grid spacings.

An image of a lab at the SickKids Peter Gilgan Centre for Research and Learning. Photo c/o Tom Arban Photography

If the basic lab module is increased to improve social distancing, longer grid spacings will be required to maintain the same number of column free modules.

The typical working aisle in the lab module is of the order of 1.5m (5’). If this is to be widened to accommodate 2m of social distancing then conceivably an extra 1.2m (4’) would be required which would increase the typical module to 4.2m to 4.5m (14’ – 15’) or a 40% increase. This seems to be a large premium and commitment for new designs at a time of essential uncertainty when, in an optimistic scenario, the emergence of a vaccine may in fact allow a return to pre-pandemic operations.

If a larger module is considered and three or four column free modules maintained, these longer span floor structures will be more costly and more susceptible to vibration caused by footfall.

Labs must meet specific floor vibration criteria to accommodate sensitive laboratory equipment. To mitigate the cost of stiff long span floors, a detailed analysis of the floor system can produce contour plans identifying the anticipated levels of vibration in various areas allowing sensitive equipment to be located accordingly. This will mitigate the need and expense of designing an entire long span floor plate to a stringent vibration criteria albeit at the cost of some reduction in flexibility. However, with other vibration isolation strategies available, such as desktop isolation, the impact may be minimal.

Alternatively, a reduced number of column free modules per bay can be considered. In this case two-way concrete floor plates are an efficient option especially if mechanical shafts for vertical services distribution are located mid panel. These mid panel riser shafts /openings require no special structural reinforcing and when located in the lab support bay and do not encroach on the open flexible lab space.

Get in Touch

If you have questions for our modular team, you can reach out to Tom Greenough here.

The image used in the header of this post is of the University of Lethbridge Destination Project and is c/o Adrien Williams


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