Science by Design

As research becomes more interdisciplinary, architects are designing buildings that foster collaboration.

After 15 years in his warren of offices and lab space on the sixth floor of the Laboratory of Epidemiology and Public Health, where he studies how ticks spread Lyme disease and ehrlichiosis, Durland Fish, Ph.D., has grown fond of its dark nooks and labyrinthine passageways. But by 2008 plans were in the works for renovations that would transform the floor into a more open, communal atmosphere—and pull Fish, professor of epidemiology, into the 21st-century world of science architecture. “Renovations have to be done,” he conceded. “I personally am not looking forward to it.” New interior windows will make the floor more transparent, and Fish doesn’t want to think he’s working in a fishbowl. “I don’t want anybody peeking in and seeing what I’m doing,” he said. “I want to get my work done in my own way and not be bothered.”

But science and architecture are moving in a new direction—away from the era in which a laboratory was built to order for a single principal investigator. While both new buildings and renovations to older ones aim to provide more support space for scientists, they also offer flexibility. Designed more like mittens than gloves, modern lab buildings include a little wiggle room. More ample common areas encourage mingling among scientists. And if a researcher departs for new academic pastures, their space can easily accommodate a new scientist.

Yale has been on an ambitious quest to increase lab space and improve its existing labs since the early 2000s. The Anlyan Center, which opened in 2003 at a cost of $172 million, was a major step. Its 450,000 square feet increased the school’s research space by 25 percent. The Amistad Street Building, which opened in 2007 with an $88-million price tag, added another 120,000 square feet. The school also spent $14 million in 2002 on a 23,700-square-foot extension of the Sterling Hall of Medicine’s B wing. By 2011, the school will have spent an additional $467 million in renovations to various lab buildings, not including Amistad, The Anlyan Center, and the B wing extension, or the West Campus in neighboring Orange and West Haven. Because of the economic slowdown, plans for renovations to the West Campus have slowed down and construction of a new building on the main medical campus is on hold. The medical school is awaiting word on applications to NIH for construction funding for other projects.

Despite these expansions, the way in which space is distributed and used by researchers remains an issue. The new philosophy in interior design promotes interaction among disciplines and provides more comfortable digs for collaboration to take place. At the same time, the new spaces segregate offices from laboratories, partly to discourage researchers from eating in their labs—food can contaminate experiments—but also to allow reconfigurations as circumstances change.

In the past, said M. Virginia Chapman, M.Arch. ’85, director of construction and renovation for facilities at the School of Medicine, “every lab was tailored to the specific needs of the researcher. … It was so specific that you had to do a comprehensive renovation when a new user came in.”

And, said Reyhan T. Larimer, project manager for facilities construction and renovation at the School of Medicine, noting the often transient nature of academic life, “The major trend in lab design is generic, flexible design.”

And that’s why a “plug-and-play” approach guides the design of lab modules, said architect J. Ian Adamson, a principal with Payette Associates of Boston—the firm that co-designed The Anlyan Center and designed the additions to the Sterling Hall of Medicine’s B wing. “As people come and go and research ebbs and flows, you’re not doing a lot of renovation. It looks like an Erector Set. These [new labs] are easy enough that the principal investigators could change things on a weekend and not have to put in a requisition order.” Desks, tables, and benches in the Amistad Street Building, for instance, are on casters and can be reconfigured easily. The generic design “stops some 800-pound gorilla from saying, ‘I want to do the lab,’ and when he retires, they’re stuck with this idiosyncratic lab,” Adamson said.

Academic fiefdoms are “a battle we deal with all the time” in building renovations, said Michael E. Schrier, project manager for facilities construction and renovation at the school, who has overseen renovations to many of the older structures. Once the building is renovated, the facilities “are turned over to the assigned department. If within five years Department A left, Department B could come in with little or no work at all.”

As science has changed, so has another element of lab design: support space. Historically, architects had set aside 30 square feet of support space for every 100 square feet of lab space; however, that ratio increased even as The Anlyan Center was under construction. Part of Schrier’s job is to make room by squeezing utilities that were once out in the open—plumbing, electrical, and computer lines—into walls and ceilings. With scientists spending more time at computers and in controlled environments, newer designs require that each square foot of lab space be matched by a square foot of support space. “We’re finding that far more time is spent in these specialized support rooms than on the benches, hence the shift in the ratio,” said Adamson. Temperature and humidity control have become more important in many fields, and “air displacement can have a huge effect.”

The school takes pains to give researchers what they need, said Chapman, while Larimer added, “You have to remind them that it’s a generic space.”

Flora M. Vaccarino, M.D., a professor in the Child Study Center, said she was happy to see renovations under way at Sterling’s I-Wing, where her lab investigates the responses of neural stem cells to genetic and environmental factors; but she wondered about the allocation of space. As priorities change with funding, space needs in laboratories also change. “What happens when labs undergo major changes in research directions?” Vaccarino asked.

A square peg in a round hole

The Amistad Street Building, which opened in 2007, offers an example of both the new philosophy at work and the perennial space problems facing the medical school. Amistad became a starter home for the Yale Stem Cell Center as well as the Human Translational Immunology program and the Vascular Biology and Transplantation program. In less than three years, however, the Stem Cell Center, which had been scattered around the campus, has expanded to six independent research laboratories and eight faculty members housed in roughly 30,000 square feet. “We have four new recruits,” said Diane S. Krause, M.D., Ph.D., associate director of the center. “Now that they’ve moved in, we will soon be bursting at the seams.”

Krause, a professor of laboratory medicine, cell biology, and pathology, appreciates the communal aspect of the Amistad building, which has lounges in the middle of the floors where researchers can gather. “It is nice to have these opening areas where people can interact,” she said.

Creating such gathering spots is a key element in designing new research space. “Where will the next Nobel Prize project develop?” said Robert Venturi, whose firm Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates co-designed The Anlyan Center. “In the lab? The meeting space? The café?”

To create that common shared space, The Anlyan Center is split into two wings—three stories for teaching and six stories for research—that are connected by walkways and share a lobby. The purpose of the lobby “was to simulate a street going through, a communal space between two buildings,” said Larimer. In the research wing, 450-foot-long corridors end in lounges that are part kitchenette, part cafeteria, and part mini-lecture hall. Blackboards (which won the battle against whiteboards in this instance) dominate one wall opposite fixed benches, with tables and chairs scattered about. The benches were added so that researchers could catch forty winks. “You get folks who are in these buildings for long hours,” Adamson said. “If you build these lounges, they can lie down and stretch out for two hours.”

Promoting multidisciplinary chats at the water cooler is not an attempt at social alchemy; it was born from necessity. “Science itself is becoming more interdisciplinary,” Adamson said. “Boundaries between departments are breaking down across the board.”

At The Anlyan Center, corridors and even the stairway landings act as meeting spaces, whether planned or impromptu. X-ray readers, for example, are in the hallway outside the anatomy teaching lab to promote group discussions.

The lengthy corridors that bisect Anlyan separate offices and research spaces; in Amistad, the offices are bookends between the labs. “In the old days, you could have your office in the labs,” Chapman said. “That’s something that’s hard to do now. The idea is to create open laboratories to allow for flexibility. If you insert offices midway through these labs, you create labs that cannot grow or contract with research needs.”

The medical school has heard some grumbling about the division. “People don’t like having their offices remote from their labs,” Chapman said, “so we try to make the offices as close to the labs as possible.” Since food and beverages aren’t allowed in the labs, shelving units or “coffee cubbies” are placed outside each lab so researchers can store a cup of coffee or other food items while they are in the lab. (At the newer Amistad Building, the “coffee cubbies” are tall enough to accommodate a Starbucks venti-sized cup.)

Fostering that water cooler collegiality, however, requires more than redesigning the physical plant. Jeffrey R. Bender, M.D., the Robert I. Levy Professor of Medicine (cardiology) and professor of immunobiology, notes that such labs as his, at the end of a corridor at The Anlyan Center, tend to be self-contained. And the labs between the ends might be occupied entirely by a senior faculty member with abundant grants. Such labs, Bender said, could have up to 36 work stations for one PI. “An assistant professor is going to get four to eight work stations,” he said.

And that’s where the interactions are likely to occur—in a large lab space occupied by up to half a dozen assistant professors and their lab groups. “Their graduate students and postdocs are going to be sharing the same space,” Bender said.

Girish Neelakanta, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in infectious disease, has worked in such a lab in The Anlyan Center for four years and finds it encourages collegiality in several ways. One is its location near other lab buildings. And within the building itself, he said, it’s easy to talk to other scientists. His first-floor lab, where he works on Lyme disease, is shared by four principal investigators.

“Here we are all friendly. We share a lot of equipment,” he said. “You can talk to postdocs working on different projects.”

Sarojini Adusumilli, Ph.D., also a postdoc in infectious disease, echoes Neelakanta’s comments. “We share ideas with people when we meet in the break room,” she said. “The break room is a place where we talk about science. Maybe someone saw a paper and they thought it was interesting. We also discuss the problems of science and the kind of work we do.”

But the building’s layout also encourages interdisciplinary conversations. “Doctors and postdoctoral researchers can all interact,” she said. “People working in basic science as well as clinical science can discuss things.”

A few miles away, the interdisciplinary approach is driving plans for the West Campus. Built in several stages over a period of years, the former Bayer facility has almost half a
million square feet of pristine lab space for both biology and chemistry researchers. Unlike spaces on the medical school campus, West Campus will not be home to generic labs but
to specialized core facilities and new institutes dedicated to specific fields of research. George Zdru, director of capital programs at the medical school’s facilities office, notes that so far three core research facilities—the Yale Center for Genome Analysis, the Center for High Throughput Cell Biology, and the Small Molecule Discovery Center—have opened up on the West Campus with few modifications to existing space. Five institutes are in the preliminary stages of planning—microbial biology, chemical biology, cancer biology, systems biology, and cell biology. “At this point it is hard to tell how much restructuring will be required,” Zdru said. “The West Campus in its totality is being thought of as a multidisciplinary environment by the nature of the definition of the institutes. The three primary research buildings are interconnected. Inherently, there is a multidisciplinary nature to the planning of West Campus.”

A room with a view

More glass and better lighting are dominant features in both the new buildings and the refurbished ones on the medical school campus. A driving force behind that is Yale’s sustainability initiative that aims to reduce energy use. But the school also desires more openness in its labs, which had been “like rabbit warrens,” Chapman said.

At The Anlyan Center some interior windows have been treated with translucent film or otherwise covered to offer privacy for occupants who don’t want everything they do on public display. Most labs, however, retain their original openness. Because the building was designed for transparency, it was left up to the departments and researchers to either keep it that way or have a modicum of seclusion.

Venturi said that science buildings should have work spaces near windows at the building’s exterior “for enjoying the amenity of natural light and the view,” while the mechanical space belongs in the center and on the top. The Anlyan Center, whose architecture is based on that of an old New England mill, follows that thinking even in the third-floor anatomy lab. “Because it has a lot of windows, it was controversial,” Adamson said. “We thought it was important to have natural light in there. If you’re stuck in a windowless room six hours a day, it’s depressing.”

Though Adamson said that most scientists are “more than happy to work in a shared space,” not everyone is fond of breaking the labs open; some researchers still prefer their warrens and cubicles.

“That attitude is really waning,” said Bender. “You can have a chunk of space that you feel is your own. It is more generic and it’s more flexible. If you need two extra benches, you don’t need to invade someone else’s room.” YM

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