University of Texas MD Anderson Laboratory

Designing Transformative Research Environments with Risk-Based Zoning

Science is rapidly changing, driving the need for new design and planning solutions for research environments. However, creating transformative research environments—be it higher education, clinical, biotech, etc. — can only be achieved by clearly understanding the benefits to both individual principal investigators and institutions as a whole.

Research Trends Driving Lab Design

Several global research trends need to be understood and addressed to meet the needs of both researcher and institution:

1. The move to team and theme-based research: This shift has catalyzed rich knowledge transfer both within and between teams.

Lab design solutions need to allow researchers to work out shared space needs, allowing for better flexibility and utilization. These solutions should consider both wet and dry lab space and analytical, office and collaboration space.

2. A focus on increasingly smaller biological components in biomedical research: As laboratory environments were planned to reduce risk from hazards, the environment should change as hazards change. Biological work is evolving from whole organisms to nucleic acids, proteins and other non-infectious sub-units while growing in the use of new live models such as 3D-cultures and organoids. Other assay techniques are replacing radioisotopes. This move to molecular and then atomic scales has rapidly reduced hazards through a drop in chemical, radioisotope and biological hazards.

New planning models can be based on lower levels of these hazards.

3. Models of data analysis and bioinformatics are changing: Automation, machine learning and other technological advances continue to shift the balance of time between hands-on bench work and data analysis. Informatics experts embed with laboratory research teams and post-docs and graduate students learn and utilize data informatic tools to complement their laboratory work. Centralized bioinformatics groups are also adding satellite cores.

More flexibility and connection between lab and support spaces and between experimental lab workstations and dry analytical work envrionments is required.

4. Maintain bench space, with fewer fume hoods: HDR surveys clients' research teams before designing their biomedical space. Biomedical research respondents said bench space is still at a premium and multiple forms of cell and tissue culture research is expanding, and with that comes sample, media and supply storage. Also, fume hood use is dropping, with less than 25% of respondents using a fume hood on a daily basis, while isotope work and histology have also dropped.

Wet space needs to be accommodated by flexible planning solutions that can change as equipment, storage, and hazards change.

The Response: Risk-Based Zoning

Risk-Based Zoning Diagram

To respond to these drivers, enrich our designs and provide effective present and future solutions to clients, HDR has been developing and applying our “risk-based zoning” concept to biomedical research facilities for the last decade. This planning approach rezones lab space by wet, damp and dry spaces to lower costs, increase safety, maximize the efficiency of personnel and systems and create flexibility as a byproduct. As hazards, needs and uses in labs evolve, laboratory space should evolve with them.


wet laboratory symbol

Wet zone: Characterized by higher chemical use and biological containment requirements, wet space requires enclosure due to research, heat output or noise. Chemical and isotope fume hoods and hazardous tissue cultures are located in the wet zone, consolidating high HVAC and plumbing requirements in a smaller footprint. Sub-divided areas within the zone minimize chemical and waste transport through the laboratory. Careful planning of these zones with service elevators can minimize the paths of chemicals and chemical waste in the laboratory both reducing hazards and the need for his air change rates

Damp Laboratory Symbol

Damp zone: Damp space is a traditional open lab space used for biological, biochemistry, engineering and bioengineering and other low- to medium-intensity work with lower risks, lower HVAC requirements and lower containment requirements.

Dry Laboratory Symbol

Dry zone: This area is for analytical, computational and other work at dry workstations. Spaces for relaxation, rejuvenation, informal work and collaboration are also included. Lower HVAC and plumbing requirements are needed.

Planning Innovation

Flexibility in the wet zone comes from the range of fume hoods that can be provided on each floor, as well as sufficient space for cell culture and other work requiring enclosure. Adequate freezer space is provided, but non-day-to-day samples are kept in spillover freezer space elsewhere in the building, or in central on-campus repositories, freeing up more space. Laboratories should be for people and their collaborations, not for freezers. Also, low-hazard wet zone functions such as clean tissue culture can be flexed into the damp zone because of its adjacency.

The damp zone can also flex into the dry zone and vice-versa, as the balance of experimental and analytical work shifts. This allows for lab workers and researchers to sit at a dry workspace, a lab bench or a touchdown/informal area and can allow for hybrid hot-desking and benching.

MEP Innovation

Risk-based zoning provides an innovative way to deal with ventilation/conditioning, electrical and plumbing in the research environment, which lowers construction and operating costs, as well as the energy use for the facility.

The wet-damp-dry configuration allows a transfer of air between different zones or a cascading of air from less hazardous zones to more hazardous zones. This redefines the classification of spaces for better and more efficient ventilation.

Outside air comes in through dry and damp spaces and is cascaded through the zones, while exhaust leaves in the wet space through heat recovery. This reduces heating, cooling and fan needs, thus reducing energy use.

Due to reduced chemical needs, fume hoods can now be shared, lowering infrastructure requirements and operating costs. If these fume hoods can be relocated to alcoves or access corridors, risks and hazards in the lab are significantly reduced, allowing lab space to be downgraded from wet to damp, allowing for more cost and space flexibility and sustainability.

Plumbing follows the same trend but is placed on the outside wall in the damp zone, creating a “ballroom” style open lab that increases present and future flexibility while reducing the extent of piping required in the labs. Careful planning of the reduced HVAC systems and piping can also reduce floor-to-floor heights in laboratory buildings.


Underpinning risk-based zoning are concepts that require organizational change – flexibility, space and equipment sharing, operational protocols. As a result, successful execution requires making sure you bring the right people to the table. Successful design processes include all organizational stakeholders, integrate their feedback and insights into proposed solutions, and leverage institutional data to help validate assumptions. This requires a team of highly qualified architects, lab planners, interior designers, equipment manufacturers, and general contractors to work together towards the client’s vision. This type of effort sets both the institution and the individual PIs up for long-term success.

Jon Crane
Director of Translational Health Sciences