Academic Laboratory  

by Daniel Watch, Deepa Tolat, and Gary McNay
Perkins + Will



Academic laboratory buildings are living laboratories that advertise, enable, excite and inform everyone within range. They include both research and teaching labs. Academic research labs can be very similar to those of the private and government sectors while teaching labs are unique to the academic sector.

This Building Type page will further elaborate on the attributes and characteristics of Academic Laboratories.

Building Attributes

A. Types of Spaces

An academic laboratory incorporates a number of space types to meet the needs of the students, teachers, faculty, staff, and visitors. These may include:

  • Laboratory: Dry
  • Laboratory: Wet
  • Conference / Classroom: For academic labs, the passive, front-facing lecture/ discussion room is becoming obsolete, yielding to the team-based interactive learning theatre where everyone can see the faces and hear the words of all in the room and those connected by the web. At Wallenberg Hall at Stanford University, there is no fixed furniture and the space can serve formal presentations, dynamic team based activities and support virtual concerts. Rooms like this are designed to allow small teams to work together in addition to dynamic full room discussions. Sophisticated audio speakers and microphones, image capture cameras and immediate digital connections to science communities around the world are the norm. In medium-to-large lecture rooms, triple projector screens are common with combination rear projection and or flat panel monitor systems often served by multiple computers with a single wireless control for the lights, blackout screens, and electronic media. These environments allow a view of the audience with the room fully illuminated; a view of the remote location; and a view of the information being shared in any combination, while capturing the entire event for future use.
  • Auditorium
  • Office
  • Library
  • Automated Data Processing: Mainframe
  • Automated Data Processing: PC System
  • General Storage
  • Light Industrial
  • Loading Dock
  • Lobby

B. Teaching Laboratories

The Science Center-Spelman College-Atlanta, GA

The Science Center provides a state-of-the-art setting for innovative teaching and research in the sciences and mathematics at Spelman College, Atlanta, GA.

Today's teaching laboratory acts as a flexible framework, holding dynamic student work groups, research zones, and support equipment in unlimited arrangements. As such, new design strategies must be put in place to address the needs of academic laboratory facilities:

  • Plan for the unexpected. Too many buildings are designed for current needs and technologies. Buildings must have extra power, data, cooling, and space over and above the minimum current requirements to serve the future.

  • As disciplinary barriers dissolve, there is a greater need for labs and experimental spaces to stage special short and long-term events. Scheduling challenges will become more difficult and the buildings and their technologies must be ready to adapt.

  • Special visualization and virtual reality labs are becoming common elements of new science buildings, with a dramatic impact on the way space will be used.

  • Personal digital devices that merge all computing, communication, and locating technologies will soon be common. Theses devices will need to connect with networks embedded in buildings or furniture to create a seamless net of information access and sharing.

  • Sustainable design is a basic responsibility and should serve as a research, teaching, and policy-changing tool. Buildings will more intentionally express the impact of day-lighting strategies, the use of local and recyclable materials, will show off on-site wastewater and storm water systems strategies, and will be more thoughtfully and actively integrated into their sites.

  • Building planners and owners must clearly understand where they are on the technology continuum and design to embrace the most current technology while creating a framework for the best technologies that will come.

Teaching laboratories differ from research labs in a number of ways. They require space for teaching equipment, such as a lectern and marker boards; they require storage space for student microscopes, book bags, and coats; and they have less instrumentation than in research labs. Also, teaching labs must support a wide range of dynamic activity from standard lectures to active team-based inquiry with all the tools and technology necessary to enable any teaching and learning task easily.

Interaction of learners and teachers occupying the same room has become more intentional, flexible and transparent to eliminate barriers and energize immediate and seamless collaboration. Classrooms must provide a greater level of visual and auditory contact between those sharing the room, and those beyond, to meet a higher standard of service to collaboration. Virtual reality and computer simulation technologies require more flexible space to serve these rapidly growing fields. Spaces must respond by becoming more flexible, changeable, and attuned to the senses.

4 options for flexible teaching labs showing 24 stations, 52.5 nsf per station

Flexible teaching lab designs.

Lighting and acoustic control must be more sophisticated and flexible in every room, to allow the varied technologies to perform at their best. Powerful image capture and audio technology is becoming more pervasive in rooms, including offices, where people share information. Acoustic control and the design of the HVAC systems must be more sophisticated and flexible in every room, to allow the varied technologies to perform at their best. The sound level in laboratories-including those with fume hoods-must be as low as the classrooms' to allow normal conversations and collaboration. Lighting systems are more energy efficient and typically include daylight sensors and occupancy sensors. In all spaces, the control of the lighting is more adjustable to serve the varied presentation technologies and changes in scientific events that occur in each space.

Some disciplines will require fixed casework, benches, and utilities, but many teaching labs have mobile casework (equipped with locks) installed in a way that allows for different teaching environments and for multiple classes to be taught in the same space. Some teaching labs even use casework that a student can easily change in height to accommodate sit-down (30 in.) or stand-up (36 in.) work. The flexibility of the furniture encourages a variety of teaching and learning scenarios. In fact, properties of traditional, fixed lab furniture (stability and vibration resistance) are merging with properties of rolling/adjustable computer furniture (infinite mobility, plug and play capability, changeability) to create a new type of furniture for most scientific pursuits. This new breed blends the need for computer connections to everything with the ability to change the individual and team work environment immediately, or move it to another space. The additional cost of flexible furniture is offset by the amount of space saved by eliminating the requirement for separate sit-down and stand-up workstations.

2 diagrams of teaching lab casework options: left shows 6 oval tables with four seats each and right shows 9 rectangular tables with 2 seats each

Teaching lab caswork options.

Depending on the discipline and number of students, shared bench space can range from 15 to 30 linear feet per teaching laboratory; is usually configured as perimeter wall bench or center island bench; and is used for benchtop instruments, exhibiting displays, or distributing glass materials. Ten to 20 linear feet of wall space per lab should be left available for storage cabinets, as well as for built-in and movable equipment such as refrigerators and incubators. A typical student workstation is 3 to 4 feet wide with a file cabinet and data and electrical hookups for computers. Fume hoods shared by two students should be at least 6 ft. wide. The distance between student workbenches and fume hoods should be minimized to lessen the possibility of chemical spills.

For undergraduate courses, write-up areas are usually provided inside the lab. (Write-up areas for graduate students are generally located outside the lab, in offices.) A teaching lab must accommodate more people (i.e., students) and stools than does a typical research lab. Prep rooms, which allow faculty to set up supplies before classes, may be located between two teaching labs. The number of students typically enrolled in a course usually determines the size of the teaching lab used for that course. A typical lab module of 10 ft. 6 in. x 30 ft. (320 net square feet [nsf]) may support four to six students. An organic chemistry lab for 24 students would be approximately 1,600 nsf. Usually there is very little, if any, overhead shelving in the center of a lab. Overhead storage is at the perimeter walls, and the center of the lab has only base cabinets so as to maintain better sight lines for teaching and learning.

Lab courses are commonly taught from 9 A.M. to 5 P.M. from Monday through Friday. As budgets tighten and continuing education and distance learning continue to grow in popularity, however, evening and Saturday classes may become more common in many colleges and universities. Moreover, some teaching labs being designed today will also be used for research. Because of these reasons, mechanical systems should be designed to be able to run at full capacity 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Also, a flexible design is recommended to accommodate enrollment fluctuations. A separate discussion room shared by several teaching labs may be an alternative to accommodating lectures in the lab. Teaching labs may be located adjacent to research labs in order to share resources. For example, if adjacent, advanced organic and inorganic chemistry labs and introductory chemistry labs can share some equipment.

C. Integrating Teaching and Research Labs

As the need for flexibility has grown and as science instruction, even at the undergraduate level, focuses more and more on hands-on experience, the traditional distinction between teaching and research labs becomes less important. An increasing number of institutions are integrating these areas to enhance undergraduate curricula and to facilitate communication between faculty and students at all levels. The greatest variances between teaching and research labs are space allocation and equipment needs. To compensate for those differences, some new facilities are designed with greater flexibility to allow lab space to be more adaptable and productive. There are several reasons for creating "homogenous" lab facilities:

  • Students at all levels are introduced to current techniques.
  • Such facilities encourage interaction between faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates.
  • A standard laboratory module with basic services accommodates change quickly and economically.
  • Common and specialized equipment may be shared.
  • Common facilities can share support spaces, such as instrument rooms, prep rooms, and specialty rooms.
  • Greater utilization of space and equipment enhances project cost justification.
  • Teaching labs can be used for faculty research during semester breaks.
Diagram of integrated teaching and research lab designs
Diagram of integrated teaching and research lab designs

Emerging Issues

Technology in Academic Laboratories

  • Few things are more compelling than a public display of learning. Large and small scale events and interactions should be encouraged by a building's easy access to simple technologies, including power and wireless networks – inside, outside, and at the student center and local café. Entrances and public greeting spaces must make the first impression unforgettable. A mix of scientific displays, interactive flat panel screens and real-time or digital video views into best teaching and research labs in action should be a basic requirement. The design should provide an unlimited access to the rich world of discovery.

  • Smart board technology allows immediate capture of the projected image and anything written on the surface while surfing the web. The smart board type touch-screen interface creates an impressive and engaging presentation in the hands of a skillful user.

  • Movable tables, equipment carts, and mobile lab casework will change the way students interact overnight, in response to pedagogical, curricular, or technology changes. Many teaching and research labs that do not require water and piped gases at each student position have fixed permanent casework and plumbing at the perimeter of the room only, with movable tables and wheeled casework providing the student work stations. The room configurations are limited only by the room size and our imagination. Overhead service carriers provide the hard-wired services needed at the movable tables. The cost and physical weight of lab furniture will begin to decrease, while the adaptability will increase.

  • Teachers no longer have to be anchored to the podium or fixed technology platform. Using wireless computing and media controls, drawing and noting on the projected image or multiple images from any computer source in the room are possible. Wireless projectors provide picture-in-picture displays, are partnered with ceiling-mounted document cameras and can receive and project images from any wireless tablet or laptop in the room. Smart technologies allow the faculty to see the screen of every student computer in the room to track attention and progress.

  • Labs now combine the best media control features of a technology-rich classroom with those of the most flexible lab. A lab may include one or two full teaching stations for projected and/or chalkboard presentations. The media systems and lighting for the lab are managed by a media control system that can be wall-mounted, desk-mounted or included in a remote wireless pad which can be carried around the room. Internet resources, past lectures, and the full media infrastructure of the campus is easily accessed and displayed in any lab or classroom in the building. Faculty (and students) can be anywhere in the room and control the presentation technology for their teaching lab or classroom. Soon partners in other cities or countries will be able to access the projector (with proper security permissions), sharing images and data real-time.

  • Research labs must include a robust technological infrastructure accessible on-demand for an unpredictable range of unique opportunities. In some cases all elements of a research setting may be on wheels or demountable. An example of this plug-and-play approach in use in a pure research setting is the Bio-X initiative at the Clark Center at Stanford. The building was planned for almost any research use, without making any space specific to any single use or discipline. All lab furniture is on wheels and can be docked to overhead services in any configuration imaginable.

  • Special scientific equipment that was typically held in a few rooms designed only for that purpose is now distributed in instrument rooms, student faculty research labs and teaching labs. More robust and more adaptable electrical and mechanical systems must be designed to allow the distribution of such equipment throughout the building.

Clients are pushing project design teams to create research laboratories that are responsive to current and future needs; that encourage interaction among scientists from various disciplines; that help recruit and retain qualified scientists; and that facilitates partnerships and development. As such, a separate WBDG Resource Page on Trends in Lab Design has been developed to elaborate on this emerging model of laboratory design.


Representative Example

Florida Atlantic University, Charles E. Schmidt Biomedical Science Center, Boca Raton, FL

Architect: Perkins + Will      Completion: Fall 2001      Size: 90,000 gsf

Exterior of Charles E. Schmidt Biomedical Science Center-Boca Raton, FL
Lab inside the Charles E. Schmidt Biomedical Science Center

Charles E. Schmidt Biomedical Science Center—Boca Raton, FL
Photo Credit: STH Architectural Group, Inc.

Florida Atlantic University has created a new concept that combines both open and closed labs to accommodate core research teams. Many researchers still prefer to have some research space of their own. Consequently, 640 nsf are provided for each researcher, primarily for his or her own use and specific equipment. Another 640 nsf have been programmed for each researcher, located in a large open lab. This lab has fume hoods, laminar flow hoods, equipment, and casework to be shared by the entire research team. There can be a variety of research core areas (82 ft. x 82 ft.) on the second and third floors.

Another idea implemented in this facility is a two-directional grid that allows the casework to be organized in either the north/south or east/west orientation. This provides for maximum flexibility and allows the researchers to create labs that meet their needs.

The labs are arranged with 50 percent casework and 50 percent equipment zones. The equipment zones allow the research team to locate equipment, mobile casework, or fixed casework in their lab when they move in. The equipment and future casework will be funded with other budgets or grants. This concept is very important for this project for two reasons. First, the university has not yet hired the faculty, so the specific research requirements are still unknown. Second, this concept reduces the casework cost in the initial construction budget by at least 40 percent ($600,000). The cost will be added to the furniture budget when the mobile casework is purchased.

The interior design is being developed with the use of the three-dimensional (3–D) modeling. Computer modeling gives the design team, and most importantly, the client, an opportunity to study all aspects of the interior spaces as they will exist when the project is completed. The 3-D modeling also ensures that all design decisions are thoughtfully resolved by the end of the design development process.

Concept diagrams for all the engineering systems are fully coordinated at the end of the schematic design phase. Creating these diagrams gets the engineers involved in the design, makes sure the design team has fully coordinated all systems in the building (not just architectural), and should simplify coordination for the rest of the project. The intent here is to be proactive early in the design process so as to reduce the number of change orders during construction. See also WBDG 'Whole Buildings' Approach. The building is zoned with lab and non-lab spaces to decrease overall construction costs.

Relevant Codes and Standards

The following agencies and organizations have developed codes and standards affecting the design of research laboratories. Note that the codes and standards are minimum requirements. Architects, engineers, and consultants should consider exceeding the applicable requirements whenever possible.

Additional Resources



  • Laboratories for the 21st Century (Labs21)—Sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy, Labs21 is a voluntary program dedicated to improving the environmental performance of U.S. laboratories.
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