A team of designers explores environmental interventions and strategies that elevate the human experience in the scientific workplace.
As performance pressures mount and life science companies push for innovation, the time is right to focus on healthier lab environments that do more to support creativity and productivity. Recent research found a wide array of benefits from incorporating health and wellness in the lab workplace, including reduced absenteeism, higher stress tolerance and increased efficiency. Human-centric lab design can spark invention, encourage collaboration and improve cognitive functions, studies show.
A group of LPA designers recently set out to explore the different ways the built environment can positively impact the human experience within the lab. Their research involved interviewing researchers, examining precedents from diverse project types and researching relevant journals and papers. They focused on the “human-centric” lab, which expands the definition of sustainability to prioritize human comfort, health and well-being.
“The human-centric lab is more aspirational as to what’s possible when we take things to the next level,” says LPA Director of Laboratory Planning Isabel Mandujano. “The health and wellness aspects are taking what we already have learned in our workplace design and applying the principles to the scientific world.”
The human centric lab is more aspirational as to what’s possible when we take things to the next level. The health and wellness aspects are taking what we already have learned in our workplace design and applying the principles to the scientific world.
The design team organized their research around core elements that impact scientific environments: multisensory design; equity, diversity and inclusion; biophilia; technology; and the physiological implications of sustainable design. Research in the different areas provided a framework for developing a lab-work environment that was more responsive to the needs of researchers and staff.
Laboratory and workplace spaces engaging more of the senses allow people more control of the space, providing a better quality of life and more immersive, engaging and memorable multisensory experiences. This leads to healthier, happier and more creative responses to the task at hand, according to a 2020 study by University of Oxford experimental psychology professor Charles Spence.
Flexible and adaptable spaces can be designed to support all users. Microenvironments that allow a person to step away from their work can reduce stress and improve cognition, leading to more “aha” moments. Multisensory rooms with a variety of lighting, sound, aromas and textural experiences can reduce anxieties, rebalance those who feel overstimulated and support the neurodiverse.
Natural elements and sound masking help mitigate sensory overload and contour spaces with different audio levels. “We all feel and think better when we are provided opportunities to select the noise level of our workspaces,” says LPA architect Raul Hernandez. “A spectrum of loud to quiet workspaces facilitates creativity, productivity and cognitive performance in all staff members.”
Researchers should not be required to modify themselves or disguise their identities to conform, fit in or feel included and secure professionally.
“In a culture which expects long hours and where work-life balance is not always supported, inclusivity may be the most important part of human-centric design,” Mandujano says. “Stress and burnout are common issues, especially to those who experience hostility, marginalization and implicit bias on a regular basis.”
Inclusive design removes barriers and recognizes gender and racial disparity and the need to support different cultural practices and rituals. Providing a variety of activity-based work environments with varying degrees of privacy and stimulation supports choice and empowers individual needs. Wellness rooms designed for medical privacy can also address the needs of new parents, those with sensory issues or simply those needing a private moment. Including spaces for ritual washing or prayer ensures a welcoming environment, creating acceptance and a more cohesive communal experience. Genderless restrooms offer greater privacy, shorter lines, better access to those requiring extra assistance, cleaner spaces and safer experiences for the wider population.
Biophilic design can directly impact the health and wellness of our lab users. Design selections with connections to nature elicit positive physiological and psychological responses, improving our ability to be more resilient to stress, significantly impacting cardiovascular, digestive, endocrine and cognitive health. Access to views of nature has been shown to relax musculature, lower blood pressure and heart rate, decrease stress hormone levels and improve overall health. Natural patterns, plants and views of water specifically improve one’s ability to recover more quickly from anxiety attacks and evoke positive emotions and mood.
All of this strengthens and reinforces feelings of safety and connection, which leads to significant improvement in mental health and creativity. The use of organic-feeling or natural geometric patterns and materials and fractals provide indirect exposure in the laboratory environment, where safety restrictions limit the availability of views or plant life. “Fractals seen in the natural world are easily imitated,” says LPA Project Designer Kelly Pavey. “They can be part of a multisensory experience providing visual, tactile, auditory, continuous or fleeting, spatial or organizational moments.”
The scientific workplace experience is reimagined for health, wellness and human comfort.
Technology in laboratories can facilitate ergonomic performance, sustainability and inclusivity.
Automating portions of experiments is one way of reducing hazards and reducing injuries from repetitive motion tasks. Robotics can be implemented to perform a variety of time-consuming tasks, alleviating the potential for soft tissue injury and musculoskeletal disorders. Waste removal, the cleaning and distribution of glassware, material storage and delivery, and even complex pipetting can all be automated.
Artificial intelligence (AI) can also aid in removing barriers associated with the constraints and limitations of human capacity and allow scientists to focus on the activities in which they excel. Augmented reality (AR) supports modeling, life science research, remote experimental collaborations, regulatory compliance, education and training. Visualization technology (VR) implementing AR allows data to be understood and shared by humans and provides another mechanism for communicating information. All of these technological advances lead to process uniformity, which translates to clearer and more reliable experimental outputs.
Human researchers can easily work with AI, augmented reality and robotics.
While carbon neutrality and sustainability are paramount to addressing the current climatic conditions, they are also essential to improving laboratory occupants’ health and well-being. Good ventilation and air quality, a comfortable temperature, low noise levels and natural light are all components of a “healthy” building.
Researchers are already in positions where they encounter toxic materials, and lab design should do everything possible to limit those hazards presented by construction and furnishing,” says LPA Project Designer Kelly Pavey.
Reducing the use of materials containing Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and Perfluorooctanoic Acids (PFAs), which are biopersistent and remain in the environment indefinitely, improves endocrine function and cognitive ability.
The goal is to reduce environmental impact on the human body. Laboratory design that supports mental, respiratory and cardiologic health can offer a direct ROI. For example, research conducted at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health showed in 2016 that a shift of 20cfm in ventilation rate could result in an astounding 12% increase in cognition test scores.
Typical floor plan concept.
A Human-Centric Design Solution The design team leveraged the data in the different focus areas to develop a conceptual design that transforms the typical research and development laboratory and office space. “Each of us had our areas of study, but at the end the elements were integrated into one holistic design where design strategies address multiple aspects simultaneously,” Mandujano says.
While the concepts break down the paradigm of traditional lab spaces, the emphasis remained on safety, scientific protocols and developing strategies realistic for the needs of life science companies.
“The design concept is futuristic, but not impossible,” Mandujano says. “This is attainable.”
The Human-Centric Lab is a responsive and inspirational space in which researchers can explore their world, create and make exciting breakthroughs. The design was modeled on the tenant improvement of a typical three-story, 100,000-square-foot R & D office/lab building. The lab is organized on an organic flow circulation path mimicking a trail or river through the building. Spaces are arranged in zones according to use, privacy and acoustics. The program features adaptable multisensory spaces, focus and wellness rooms and a variety of work and collaboration areas.
Biophilic elements are intrinsic to the design and organization of the zones, which include planters where appropriate. Geometric fractal design elements and materials mimicking nature are integrated throughout the building. Views to the outdoors and access to daylight were maximized and include multistory light wells. Green spaces with a variety of native plants address air quality concerns, while addressing the researchers’ overall well-being and health.
Communal connections between the laboratory and office spaces were emphasized in the shared spaces. Automation and robotics were incorporated to support ergonomics and increase collaboration, connections and work-life balance.
Visual connection between workspaces and testing areas encourages communication across disciplines and fosters a sense of community. Collaboration areas are incorporated into the labs to encourage communication and brainstorming sessions. A meditation space, gym and wellness center are provided for employees to be able to take care of their minds and bodies.
“Human-centric design allows us to truly address the human concerns of lab researchers,” says LPA Project Architect Levy Minemann. “It puts the focus on the value of the research team and the importance of elevating their reasoning, creativity and imagination.”
The Human-Centric Lab is a responsive, healthy and inspirational space in which researchers can explore their world, create and make exciting breakthroughs.