Research Laboratory  

by Daniel Watch and Deepa Tolat
Perkins + Will



Research Laboratories are workplaces for the conduct of scientific research. This WBDG Building Type page will summarize the key architectural, engineering, operational, safety, and sustainability considerations for the design of Research Laboratories.

The authors recognize that in the 21st century 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.

Building Attributes

A. Architectural Considerations

Over the past 30 years, architects, engineers, facility managers, and researchers have refined the design of typical wet and dry labs to a very high level. The following identifies the best solutions in designing a typical lab.

Lab Planning Module

The laboratory module is the key unit in any lab facility. When designed correctly, a lab module will fully coordinate all the architectural and engineering systems. A well-designed modular plan will provide the following benefits:

  • Flexibility—The lab module, as Jonas Salk explained, should "encourage change" within the building. Research is changing all the time, and buildings must allow for reasonable change. Many private research companies make physical changes to an average of 25% of their labs each year. Most academic institutions annually change the layout of 5 to 10% of their labs. See also WBDG Productive—Design for the Changing Workplace.

  • Expansion—The use of lab planning modules allows the building to adapt easily to needed expansions or contractions without sacrificing facility functionality.

A common laboratory module has a width of approximately 10 ft. 6 in. but will vary in depth from 20–30 ft. The depth is based on the size necessary for the lab and the cost-effectiveness of the structural system. The 10 ft. 6 in. dimension is based on two rows of casework and equipment (each row 2 ft. 6 in. deep) on each wall, a 5 ft. aisle, and 6 in. for the wall thickness that separates one lab from another. The 5 ft. aisle width should be considered a minimum because of the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Two-Directional Lab Module—Another level of flexibility can be achieved by designing a lab module that works in both directions. This allows the casework to be organized in either direction. This concept is more flexible than the basic lab module concept but may require more space. The use of a two-directional grid is beneficial to accommodate different lengths of run for casework. The casework may have to be moved to create a different type or size of workstation.

Three-Dimensional Lab Module—The three-dimensional lab module planning concept combines the basic lab module or a two-directional lab module with any lab corridor arrangement for each floor of a building. This means that a three-dimensional lab module can have a single-corridor arrangement on one floor, a two-corridor layout on another, and so on. To create a three-dimensional lab module:

  • A basic or two-directional lab module must be defined.
  • All vertical risers must be fully coordinated. (Vertical risers include fire stairs, elevators, restrooms, and shafts for utilities.)
  • The mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems must be coordinated in the ceiling to work with the multiple corridor arrangements.

Lab Planning Concepts

The relationship of the labs, offices, and corridor will have a significant impact on the image and operations of the building. See also WBDG Functional—Account for Functional Needs.

  • Do the end users want a view from their labs to the exterior, or will the labs be located on the interior, with wall space used for casework and equipment?

  • Some researchers do not want or cannot have natural light in their research spaces. Special instruments and equipment, such as nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) apparatus, electron microscopes, and lasers cannot function properly in natural light. Natural daylight is not desired in vivarium facilities or in some support spaces, so these are located in the interior of the building.

  • Zoning the building between lab and non-lab spaces will reduce costs. Labs require 100% outside air while non-lab spaces can be designed with re-circulated air, like an office building.

  • Adjacencies with corridors can be organized with a single, two corridor (racetrack), or a three corridor scheme. There are number of variations to organize each type.

    Illustrated below are three ways to organize a single corridor scheme:

Diagram of a single corridor lab with labs and office adjacent to each other

Single corridor lab design with labs and office adjacent to each other.

Diagram of a single corridor lab design with offices clustered together at the end and in the middle

Single corridor lab design with offices clustered together at the end and in the middle.

Diagram of a single corridor lab design with office clusters accessing main labs directly

Single corridor lab design with office clusters accessing main labs directly.

  • Open labs vs. closed labs. An increasing number of research institutions are creating "open" labs to support team-based work. The open lab concept is significantly different from that of the "closed" lab of the past, which was based on accommodating the individual principle investigator. In open labs, researchers share not only the space itself but also equipment, bench space, and support staff. The open lab format facilitates communication between scientists and makes the lab more easily adaptable for future needs. A wide variety of labs—from wet biology and chemistry labs, to engineering labs, to dry computer science facilities—are now being designed as open labs.


In today's lab, the ability to expand, reconfigure, and permit multiple uses has become a key concern. The following should be considered to achieve this:

Flexible Lab Interiors
  • Equipment zones—These should be created in the initial design to accommodate equipment, fixed, or movable casework at a later date.

  • Generic labs

  • Mobile casework—This can be comprised of mobile tables and mobile base cabinets. It allows researchers to configure and fit out the lab based on their needs as opposed to adjusting to pre-determined fixed casework.

Drawing of mobile casework showing adjustable height shelves, shelves with vertical support which are easily removable, grommet to drop down power/data cords, table frame ht. adjustable from 26
Photo of mobile base cabinet

Mobile casework

Mobile base cabinet
Photo Credit: Kewaunee Scientific Corp.

  • Flexible partitions—These can be taken down and put back up in another location, allowing lab spaces to be configured in a variety of sizes.

  • Overhead service carriers—These are hung from the ceiling. They can have utilities like piping, electric, data, light fixtures, and snorkel exhausts. They afford maximum flexibility as services are lifted off the floor, allowing free floor space to be configured as needed.

Flexible Engineering Systems
Photo of labs designed with overhead connects and disconnects

Lab designed with overhead connects and disconnects allow for flexibility and fast hook up of equipment.

  • Labs should have easy connects/disconnects at walls and ceilings to allow for fast and affordable hook up of equipment. See also WBDG Productive—Integrate Technological Tools.

  • The Engineering systems should be designed such that fume hoods can be added or removed.

  • Space should be allowed in the utility corridors, ceilings, and vertical chases for future HVAC, plumbing, and electric needs.

Building Systems Distribution Concepts

Interstitial Space

An interstitial space is a separate floor located above each lab floor. All services and utilities are located here where they drop down to service the lab below. This system has a high initial cost but it allows the building to accommodate change very easily without interrupting the labs.

Schematic drawing of conventional design vs. intersitial design

Conventional design vs. interstitial design
Image Credit: Zimmer, Gunsul, Frasca Partnership

Service Corridor

Lab spaces adjoin a centrally located corridor where all utility services are located. Maintenance personnel are afforded constant access to main ducts, shutoff valves, and electric panel boxes without having to enter the lab. This service corridor can be doubled up as an equipment/utility corridor where common lab equipment like autoclaves, freezer rooms, etc. can be located.

B. Engineering Considerations

Typically, more than 50% of the construction cost of a laboratory building is attributed to engineering systems. Hence, the close coordination of these ensures a flexible and successfully operating lab facility. The following engineering issues are discussed here: structural systems, mechanical systems, electrical systems, and piping systems. See also WBDG Functional—Ensure Appropriate Product/Systems Integration.

Structural Systems

Once the basic lab module is determined, the structural grid should be evaluated. In most cases, the structural grid equals 2 basic lab modules. If the typical module is 10 ft. 6 in. x 30 ft., the structural grid would be 21 ft. x 30 ft. A good rule of thumb is to add the two dimensions of the structural grid; if the sum equals a number in the low 50's, then the structural grid would be efficient and cost-effective.

Drawing of a typical lab structural grid

Typical lab structural grid.

Key design issues to consider in evaluating a structural system include:

  • Framing depth and effect on floor-to-floor height;
  • Ability to coordinate framing with lab modules;
  • Ability to create penetrations for lab services in the initial design as well as over the life of the building;
  • Potential for vertical or horizontal expansion;
  • Vibration criteria; and
  • Cost.

Mechanical Systems

The location of main vertical supply/exhaust shafts as well as horizontal ductwork is very crucial in designing a flexible lab. Key issues to consider include: efficiency and flexibility, modular design, initial costs, long-term operational costs, building height and massing, and design image.

The various design options for the mechanical systems are illustrated below:

Diagram of shafts in the middle of the building

Shafts in the middle of the building

Diagram of shafts at the end of the building

Shafts at the end of the building

Diagram of exhaust at end and supply in the middle

Exhaust at end and supply in the middle

Diagram of multiple internal shafts

Multiple internal shafts

Diagram of shafts on the exterior

Shafts on the exterior

See also WBDG High Performance HVAC.

Electrical Systems

Three types of power are generally used for most laboratory projects:

The following should be considered:

  • Load estimation
  • Site distribution
  • Power quality
  • Management of electrical cable trays/panel boxes
  • Lighting design
    • User expectations
    • Illumination levels
    • Uniformity
    • Lighting distribution-indirect, direct, combination
    • Luminaire location and orientation-lighting parallel to casework and lighting perpendicular to casework
  • Telephone and data systems

Piping Systems

There are several key design goals to strive for in designing laboratory piping systems:

  • Provide a flexible design that allows for easy renovation and modifications.
  • Provide appropriate plumbing systems for each laboratory based on the lab programming.
  • Provide systems that minimize energy usage.
  • Provide equipment arrangements that minimize downtime in the event of a failure.
  • Locate shutoff valves where they are accessible and easily understood.
  • Accomplish all of the preceding goals within the construction budget.

C. Operations and Maintenance

Cost Savings

The following cost saving items can be considered without compromising quality and flexibility:

  • Separate lab and non-lab zones.
  • Try to design with standard building components instead of customized components. See also WBDG Functional—Ensure Appropriate Product/Systems Integration.
  • Identify at least three manufacturers of each material or piece of equipment specified to ensure competitive bidding for the work.
  • Locate fume hoods on upper floors to minimize ductwork and the cost of moving air through the building.
  • Evaluate whether process piping should be handled centrally or locally. In many cases it is more cost-effective to locate gases, in cylinders, at the source in the lab instead of centrally.
  • Create equipment zones to minimize the amount of casework necessary in the initial construction.
  • Provide space for equipment (e.g., ice machine) that also can be shared with other labs in the entry alcove to the lab. Shared amenities can be more efficient and cost-effective.
  • Consider designating instrument rooms as cross-corridors, saving space as well as encouraging researchers to share equipment.
  • Design easy-to-maintain, energy-efficient building systems. Expose mechanical, plumbing, and electrical systems for easy maintenance access from the lab.
  • Locate all mechanical equipment centrally, either on a lower level of the building or on the penthouse level.
  • Stack vertical elements above each other without requiring transfers from floor to floor. Such elements include columns, stairs, mechanical closets, and restrooms.

D. Lab and Personnel Safety and Security

Protecting human health and life is paramount, and safety must always be the first concern in laboratory building design. Security-protecting a facility from unauthorized access-is also of critical importance. Today, research facility designers must work within the dense regulatory environment in order to create safe and productive lab spaces. The WBDG Resource Page on Security and Safety in Laboratories addresses all these related concerns, including:

  • Laboratory classifications: dependent on the amount and type of chemicals in the lab;
  • Containment devices: fume hoods and bio-safety cabinets;
  • Levels of bio-safety containment as a design principle;
  • Radiation safety;
  • Employee safety: showers, eyewashes, other protective measures; and
  • Emergency power.

See also WBDG Secure / Safe Branch, Threat/Vulnerability Assessments and Risk Analysis, Balancing Security/Safety and Sustainability Objectives, Air Decontamination, and Electrical Safety.

E. Sustainability Considerations

The typical laboratory uses far more energy and water per square foot than the typical office building due to intensive ventilation requirements and other health and safety concerns. Therefore, designers should strive to create sustainable, high performance, and low-energy laboratories that will:

  • Minimize overall environmental impacts;
  • Protect occupant safety; and
  • Optimize whole building efficiency on a life-cycle basis.

For more specific guidance, see WBDG Sustainable Laboratory Design; EPA and DOE's Laboratories for the 21st Century (Labs21), a voluntary program dedicated to improving the environmental performance of U.S. laboratories; WBDG Sustainable Branch and Balancing Security/Safety and Sustainability Objectives.

F. Three Laboratory Sectors

There are three research laboratory sectors. They are academic laboratories, government laboratories, and private sector laboratories.

  • Academic labs are primarily teaching facilities but also include some research labs that engage in public interest or profit generating research.
  • Government labs include those run by federal agencies and those operated by state government do research in the public interest.
  • Design of labs for the private sector, run by corporations, is usually driven by the need to enhance the research operation's profit making potential.

G. Example Design and Construction Criteria

For GSA, the unit costs for this building type are based on the construction quality and design features in the following table . This information is based on GSA's benchmark interpretation and could be different for other owners.

Emerging Issues

LEED® Application Guide for Laboratory Facilities (LEED-AGL)—Because research facilities present a unique challenge for energy efficiency and sustainable design, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) has formed the LEED-AGL Committee to develop a guide that helps project teams apply LEED credits in the design and construction of laboratory facilities. See also the WBDG Resource Page Using LEED on Laboratory Projects.

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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