Future Labs icons for skin, bones and lungs overlayed on a blue background with a transparent molecule

Future Labs: How Natural Systems Inspire the Lab of the Future

As architects who design laboratories to support and inspire research that advances humankind, we struggle with the negative environmental impacts these complex buildings might have on the very quality of life we seek to support. From the greenhouse gasses emitted to build and operate them to the unhealthy materials used to create their sterile environments, laboratories too often come with a significant cost to human and ecological health. 

Future Labs addresses this multi-faceted challenge. An exploratory project rooted in optimism; these design concepts intend to solve a straightforward albeit transformational hypothesis:

Laboratories can exist in a way that both accelerates scientific research and contributes to, rather than dismantles, a healthy environment for people and the planet.

Now we just needed to figure out how to make it a reality.

Introducing Future Labs

Like the natural world, laboratories are complex, rich and interdependent. Ultimately, human, animal and plant bodies provided us with a helpful analogy for a principles-based, natural-systems approach to this engineering and design challenge. Looking around, we recognised that models for low energy, interdependent, self-healing organisms surround us. Why shouldn't our architecture evolve similarly?

Our process started with a re-evaluation of the past to re-imagine the future. In doing so, we identified four key 'levers' to explore to help us transform conventional lab design into precedent-setting and regenerative exemplars for the future:

  • Fewer, more targeted air change rates: Can air change rates based upon activities within a changing and evolving lab paradigm be more energy efficient without sacrificing safety?  
  • Shrinking the standard grid: Can research be conducted within a smaller grid, like it has been successfully in the past, resulting in linear efficiencies in plan and cubic efficiencies in volume and materials?
  • Nature immersion: Do applications exist for increased use of bio-based materials (and thus lower embodied carbon) in the laboratory environment? 
  • A return to craft: Can a shift toward 'manufactured assembly,' an upstream and craft-based prefabrication model, result in faster, lighter, cheaper and more environmentally sound buildings?

We worked through these levers in parallel with a rigorous re-evaluation of the current architectural state of biological laboratories (typical biomedical research labs that are approximately 80% of lab stock) and where they are headed. In doing so, analogies to physiology kept appearing, at first inspiring us and ultimately leading to a new design framework. 

Future Labs Lungs Icon

Lungs: Human lungs support our body's metabolic responsiveness. Adjusting to the needs of the moment, they ensure the shortest and most effective direct path for oxygen delivery. Similarly, lab airflow should meet the conditions at hand by addressing research requirements, thermal needs, and occupant safety while accommodating ongoing changes such as the shift from open chemistry and reduced chemical and isotope use to robotics and computation and the elevated role of workplace and collaboration. In labs designed before 2022, air delivery systems were based upon air change rates per hour and 100% outdoor air, which requires a lot of energy to function, resulting in substantial carbon costs. Fortunately, with the release of ANSI/ASSP Z9.5-2022, lab ventilation has shifted from prescriptive to performance-based best practices. Our Future Labs design strategy features a cascading air flow model that delivers air based on research function and risk within a corresponding spatial arrangement.

Future Labs Bones Icon

Bones: Our skeletal system is adaptable, quickly responding to growth with variable and changing bone density. It is also the organisational framework and delivery chassis for our nervous system. In the lab environment, dynamic and variable structural systems that deploy building technology can utilise similar principles of localised stiffening and vibration control. For example, just as the spine supports the directionality of the lungs, structural support systems can accommodate an organisation of wet, damp and dry lab spaces in a way that facilitates better, more efficient airflow. Just as the ribs adapt to various human activity, flexible research benching supports varied levels of complexity. 

Future Labs Skin Icon

Skin: As the primary interface with the world, our skin is both a protective barrier and thermal-exchange mechanism. The level of protection we need, however, depends on where we are, the time of day, time of year, and climate. As the Scandinavian attributed saying goes: There is no bad weather, only bad clothing.' Building skins act in a similar way. The human body in a particular locale is analogous to a research lab in a particular place — interdependent. This duality of inward out and outward in is unique to the research environment in that it must be intricately structured as an "internal organism" while also being adaptable and densely connected to the external world. Thus, for Future Labs, skins matter. That means the building perimeter — often programmed with dry labs, workplace and collaboration spaces and prioritising internal thermal comfort, glare and daylighting controls — is also the point of exchange with the larger world. And that larger world is ever-changing. From environmental changes due to global warming to urban micro-climate changes, to material weathering and obsolescence, building skins should be designed for change and adaptability from the outset. 

Why now?

To increase the health of their occupants and the communities and ecosystems in which they reside, we need a new generation of labs that meet today's needs, anticipate changing research methods, and embrace regenerative design. These labs must be designed with circularity in mind and achieve more than an incremental improvement, rather a transformational one that goes far beyond singular design decisions related to materiality, systems or planning.

Over the next few months, we will release a series of design and engineering ideas, strategies and blueprints to help institutions, companies, universities, and governments build better labs, to help assure their research building and laboratory designs more closely align with a goal that is shared with much of the research that is conducted within them: to improve and sustain life. 

Jon Crane
Director of Translational Health Sciences
Thomas Knittel
Sustainability Design Director
Tom Smith, HDR
Design Director, Education & Science