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Toolkit: Designing Your Laboratory

Few young scientists get to design their new laboratory from the ground up, but most have some flexibility when they move into their new space. You may not be tearing down old walls or building new ones, but you'll certainly be making choices about how to organize your workspace, where to locate instruments, and similar lower-budget choices. And you may even get to move some walls around.

Who knows? Sometimes you get lucky. Maybe you will get to start from scratch. A friend of mine arrived at his new institution just as it was starting construction on a new building. He had to make do with inferior facilities for a year or two while the new building was finished, but even that proved to be an advantage, since he was able to learn from the problems of the old space and use that knowledge in setting up his new space.

Designing a laboratory is not something most science trainees spend a lot of time thinking about, but it's important nonetheless. The design of your lab space can either help or hinder your research career. Like a new graduate student whose skills and abilities you aren't familiar with, a lab can be an ally or an obstacle. If you botch the design of your new laboratory, you'll be paying the price for years to come.

When the time comes for you to set up your new lab space, will you be ready? Probably not. Setting up a new lab, I've learned, is as much art as science, as much about "chi" flows as about workflows. And there's precious little information out there to help you. You're pretty much on your own.

But speaking of "chi," the best information resource I've found anywhere on lab design is Next Wave's own original series Art of Laboratory Feng Shui, written mostly by former CDC editor Vid Mohan-Ram. Lab design is highly discipline-specific--physicists, marine scientists, chemists, and cancer researchers each require very different laboratories--but certain common principles apply. For one thing, the process of designing a lab is independent of the discipline. For another, complexity and human factors enter, regardless of the discipline.

Designing a space for a complex purpose is a complex business, so perhaps it isn't too surprising that the best reference on the subject--Mohan-Ram's series--evokes a thousands-of-years-old bit of mysticism. We scientists are generally a skeptical lot, but you don't have to believe literally in mystical flows of energy to find value in some of the old ideas. The National Institutes of Health, after all, is currently funding 51 projects about acupuncture and 11 involving tai chi.

As new resources become available, we'll tell you and share their wisdom, or as much of it as we can without getting in trouble with the copyright police. And where copyright laws prevent us from revealing too much, we'll give you the resources' references and tell you where to buy them.

But the fact is, there isn't much out there other than what's on Next Wave. I've looked long and hard and have come up with precious little. If I've missed anything, I hope you'll let me know. I'll be sure to add it to the toolkit. A few books I've found focus on big projects--designing laboratory buildings from the ground up--but aside from those Next Wave articles, that's about it. And those books generally aren't a good fit for most new faculty, who are usually more interested in creating a space that people can work in efficiently, happily, and creatively than they are in I-beams, concrete foundations, and dealings with subcontractors.

So without further ado, we present the Web's definitive resource for designing your new laboratory.

The Art of Laboratory Feng Shui



Welcome to your new lab.

Part One: Your Scientific Castle


The basics.

Part Two: Views From the Lab


University of Massachusetts, Amherst, microbiologist and friend-of-Next-Wave Klaus shares the lessons of his experience setting up his first laboratory.

Part Three: Common Sense Storage and Disposal


It is what it says it is: common sense advice for storing chemicals safely and getting rid of them legally. Be sure to check local rules and regulations, and consult with your institution's safety officer, since regulations vary in time and space.

Part Four: What Is Feng Shui?


Vid gets mystical.

Part Five: More Views From the Lab


More from Klaus.

Other Resources

The National Research Council has a publication--available for purchase or free online--that focuses on building, as opposed to designing, lab space. It's really about how to manage a large building project, with emphasis on the special challenges of laboratories. Committee on Design, Construction, and Renovation of Laboratory Facilities, Board on Chemical Sciences and Technology, Commission on Physical Sciences, Mathematics, and Applications, National Research Council, Laboratory Design, Construction, and Renovation: Participants, Process, and Product (National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 2000).

The American Institute of Architects publishes a guide, not available online, that also focuses on big building projects. T. Ruys, Ed., Laboratory Facilities, vol. 1 of Handbook of Facilities Planning (Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York, 1990).

I haven't read this edited volume and, considering that it costs $145, I'm not likely to. It sounds interesting, though ... maybe interesting enough to take a chance on if you've got a big start-up budget. Even better, maybe your library has it. If you buy it, I'd like to hear what you think of it. Just drop me a line. L. J. DiBerardinis, J. S. Baum, M. W. First, G. T. Gatwood, A. K. Seth, Guidelines for Laboratory Design: Health and Safety Considerations (John Wiley & Sons, New York, ed. 3, 2001).

If we hear about other resources, you'll be the first to know.

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