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Challenge Of Building World Class Research Facilities

– Contributed content –

Chemical engineering lab

(ThisIsEngineering, Pexels)

19 May 2020. World class research facilities are more important now than at any other point in history. With the Covid-19 situation becoming this generation’s major crisis in health and the economy, more research facilities are needed to investigate and explore the virus. Laboratories and scientific research buildings are crucial in the fight against the virus. Scientists, epidemiologists and virologists are seeking facilities that will enable them to explore potential cures through drug trials, as well as to facilitate testing and trials of potential vaccines.

While the research facilities we have now are imperative to the fight against coronavirus, we can learn how well they operate and consider improvements for future builds. The world has become a very different place over the course of a couple of months and we are quickly learning the value of world class research facilities.

Building research facilities is a challenge. These are not like normal office spaces or places of work. They need to fulfil a specific medical, scientific and architectural criteria that mean that only specialists can build them so that they can be maintained in an ultra-hygienic way. Research facilities still need to be comfortable, function effectively and be sustainable. These challenges are ten-fold when thinking about laboratories and research spaces. Take a look at how research facilities are built and the challenges that they present.


Currently, research facilities are going down the open plan route. These more open plan labs echo the current trend in open plan offices. Scientists are now keen to work together to improve collaboration and the sharing of ideas. Open plan, however, cannot mean a risk to safety and security. This is a challenge that all projects face. With new technology coming to the fore all the time, modular labs allow technology to be installed quickly rather than in a compartmentalized way. Labs also require the same levels of WiFi capability as any other place of work, so it’s crucial that scientists can log onto a cloud based server to securely store the results of trials and tests.

By having this approach in an open plan lab, there are fewer walls, etc. to slow down connectivity. With many research facilities requiring more testing capability, cleanrooms are the norm. By ensuring optimum cleanroom access points installation, even the most dust-free and sterile environments can be connected to the servers that all researchers are using.

With more state of the art tech, building research facilities is obscenely expensive, which is why most of the building is funded by private companies. It is companies like Roche and GlaxoSmithKline that are continually making waves and trying to out do one another technically. While every private company will work together for the good of the world and its citizens when trying to find a cure or a vaccine to coronavirus, they are still businesses that need to make a profit to survive.

The future

The building of research facilities has slowed down recently simply because the Covid-19 crisis has seen social distancing measures alongside the diversification of labor to ensure a vaccine or cure can be found. The future, however, still looks promising for research facility building as post-crisis, we can expect an upsurge in pandemic planning. This will include the building of new open plan, modular labs for research scientists.

With the future looking economically unstable as the number of unemployed increase and the world falls into recession, there will be less money to build these world class facilities. This puts pressure on the private companies funding them and the architects and tradespeople building them. People will be looking to get the maximum bang for their buck come the next decade or more, especially if we are living with the coronavirus for the foreseeable future.

In terms of architectural trends, windows are seeing a massive overhaul in terms of functionality and connectivity. Window shades connected to lights are paramount to ensure the correct lighting and heating conditions within the facility. Energy saving window shades are also being welcomed in the newer modular labs. This is part of a wider trend to reduce the carbon footprint of these facilities.

Labs consume a huge amount of water, electricity and other forms of energy. Architects are looking at ways to make scientific research buildings more sustainable and off-grid. Some are being built with solar panels and wind turbines on site to power their own testing and research capabilities. This is a trend that will only continue to ramp up throughout the twenty first century.

Many companies are expecting research facilities to be built quicker. In China, labs are built at almost prefab speed, with modular buildings requiring little in the way of foundations. While these feats of engineering haven’t made it west as yet, there is still the move towards faster building projects. This is where sound project management principles come into play such as Lean and Prince2 to ensure maximum productivity and minimum spend.

A major challenge to the future of building world class research facilities is the knowledge of the architect. An architect knows how to build a structure to house workers in a comfortable setting. They can even use a technical specification and ensure that it functions in a niche way. However, many do not understand the hazards that lab researchers may face. For example, when experimenting on a virus, how can an architect ensure that the building will keep the scientist safe? And to ensure a containment strategy can be implemented, scientists need to be part of the architectural project which can put limitations on the creativity of the architect.


With cryogenic capable freezers, 3D printers, lab technician software and other research equipment, these all need to be factored in to every build. This requires a site to harness more power to ensure that they can work as and when needed. Back up generators are not to be relied upon as a rule of thumb. And reliability is crucial when conducting experiments otherwise results and work could be lost.

It can be challenging to create a laboratory that harnesses all the technical necessities and yet still remains a pleasant environment to work in. There cannot be artwork on the walls or touches of greenery dotted about. A sterile environment tends to be stark and difficult to manage for scientists long term. This is why chairs and stools need to be ergonomically designed for maximum comfort all the while ensuring that labs remain secure and safe for those individuals working within them.

Recent builds

The Nextgen Precision Health Institute in Missouri has a $220 million budget. This shows the scale and cost of such a build. This research facility is part of a university campus and provides labs for those students reading medicine and veterinary science. There needs to be a teaching element factored in to the design of this building. By integrating learning technologies into the project, all students can receive a world class education while studying at a world class research facility. It is still being built with completion expected in late 2021. However, with the current Covid-19 pandemic, this may be pushed back.

Most recent builds have an educational element and are often part or fully funded by a university. The finest students and the brightest minds want to learn from the experts in facilities that can harness their research aims. The University of South Florida also has a research facility being built that has taken the issue of sustainability to the next level. Using hydronic heat recovery loops, the architects are aiming to transfer the heat from outside the building and converting it to cooler air internally. This sustainable approach gives this research facility green credentials and gives it beacon status.

Air needs to be pumped through labs to maintain a constant temperature making them relatively energy inefficient. The trend is to improve this through innovative building. Most architects are looking to recycle air or transfer one air source to another without as much wastage. Wind power, solar panels and natural hydraulics are being utilized to create more energy efficient buildings. It can be massively challenging to please every stakeholder when it comes to energy efficiency.

Many research scientists want the optimum working space and pay little attention to energy efficiency. Those companies funding the projects simply want a project completed as cheaply as possible. And architects tend to want to see their sustainable ideas come to fruition. The energy saving balance is a hard one to strike.

Every research building is different. They deliver different research goals and house different professionals. It is not like building an office block or a street of residential houses. There is so much more to consider. Every research facility requires its own blueprint, dependent on what is to be the function and aim of the work being carried out inside the building. This is what makes these projects so challenging. However, with demand for world class scientific research facilities sure to increase in the coming years, these challenges are ones to be tackled head on.

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