Not an Exact Science

A school or university should seek wide-ranging input to create labs specially designed for its curriculum.

When Frank Gehry began schematic drawings for the undulating, bulbous brick Vontz Center for Molecular Studies at the University of Cincinnati, Provost Donald C. Harrison feared that "the architecture might compromise the need for efficient lab space."

But a science building doesn't have to be as precisely controlled as the experiments that go on inside. Much of the success of scientific space, of which the Vontz is a highly visible example, is in its ability to inspire.

Planning for lab benches and equipment is important, but so is planning for informal meeting spaces, teacher-student contact opportunities, easy-to-see audiovisual materials, structured and unstructured group teaching, breakout spaces, team movement, equipment movement and class changes.

In a laboratory classroom teaching building, the demands for safety, supervision, and adequate exhaust systems and space are as great as those in traditional, structured labs. Without the right preparation and technical support, the challenges can be insurmountable. The resource to draw on for this support and preparation? The institution's own staff.

The unique challenges of building a science facility are, like those of all educational building projects, best faced during planning. The problems may be more specific, technical and measurable, but the solution is not necessarily to use the most sophisticated building technology. It is to understand in advance the purpose of each space.

Flexibility vs. responsiveness In approaching the design of a world-class research/teaching facility, it is tempting to seek out the leading lights in research. The assumption is that changes can be made without achieving consensus among insiders. Outsiders can design a lab building based on standards for safety, capacity or productivity without having to integrate classrooms into labs, account for the students' out-of-lab time or make difficult budget decisions.

In fact, in postgraduate or professional environments these issues are often solved with open laboratories that can be reconfigured easily.

But this sort of standardization and flexibility will not achieve payoff for not-yet-oriented students and their teachers, who share equipment on a semester-to-semester cycle, not hour-by-hour. For these purposes, the advanced equipment needs to be in smaller labs under faculty/researcher control. The students need to be in spaces geared primarily to the pedagogy, which undergoes gradual, careful and communal review, and not to the equipment.

The lab furniture needs to be comfortable, predictable, approachable, resilient, consistent and easy to use. The best driving school does not have a fleet of Maserati sports cars - it has the best teachers driving well-maintained Toyotas with manual transmissions and durable fabric upholstery in very reassuring colors.

Equipping a lab Most lab furniture manufacturers have reliable wood cabinets that, as a bonus, can be relocated when the time comes to adapt new technology. Be aware that casework can be specified in one of two ways.

Millwork, which is specified as division 06000 in the standard ASI specification, is normally used for one-off applications such as plastic or wood laminates. Casework, by contrast, division 12000, is done in longer production runs in a factory setting; it is virtually never assembled until all of the pieces have been milled; the finishes often come from a more limited palette, and manufacturers offer a variety of lines.

Buying a wood casework system often will provide openings to buy accessories and hardware that a manufacturer uses on other lines, such as fume hoods and sink and utility fittings. Benchtops come with a variety of chemical resistances and are installed by local millworkers, who can draw on the expertise of national casework manufacturers.

Other items to consider: Labs should have appropriate audiovisual standards. The standards often are established campuswide and should not necessarily be suspended because of the presence of lab equipment. Look at placing network connections at each bench, with a projector in the ceiling. And it is impossible to overemphasize the importance of acoustic clarity in a teaching lab. In an open lab setting with metal casework and multiple fume hoods, speech won't carry past one or two lab benches unless designers take into account exhaust air speeds.

Exhaust A chemistry lab on a top floor will not have a direct exhaust of each fume hood through the roof as it might have in the past, because of the need to consolidate exhaust ducts. A single, large fan will permit variable-exhaust volumes in each room and control of the exhaust volume at the roof. This permits more precise control of energy loss and dispersal of toxins in the atmosphere.

However, it is still possible to accommodate shorter, more numerous runs of ducts by having the largest banks of fume hoods on the roof near their common exhaust. Fume hoods on lower floors will need to gather in a common uptake, which will take a chase space out of the floors above in its rise to the roof. A service corridor is ideal for this purpose in a commercial environment, but schools generally need space more than flow control.

Toxic fumes cannot be interrupted by fire-rated dampers at each floor level; therefore, the enclosures that lead through adjoining rooms to a vertical chase, and any vertical chases that penetrate more than one floor, will need to be surrounded by fire-rated walls.

Clustering fume hoods, support rooms, pass-through hoods to biology prep rooms, biosafety rooms, and any other rooms on floors that might be vented to the roof will minimize the effect of invasive design or even construction changes. A vent run with tight tolerances or a tortured run often will force a subsequent design change in a classroom or lab.

The conflicting demands for safety and energy conservation require careful exhaust planning. This will be reflected in the construction phase and, if not completely worked out, will show up in change orders, expansions of scope and premature renovations. For example, establishing a floor-to-floor height that permits an interstitial floor is an almost unheard-of luxury in the undergraduate academic world, so the tradeoffs between dedicating horizontal and vertical space are much more complex and demanding.

One preparatory school, in the interests of keeping a ground-floor level very low, found itself building furred enclosures below the level of what was already a very low classroom ceiling. While both a high-ceilinged space and a top-floor location (allowing shorter fume hood exhaust runs) might not have been possible, addressing one or the other as a potential benefit during schematic design might easily have paid for itself in fees for redesign, not to mention the contractors' work tickets.

Biosafety cabinets differ from fume hoods in that they normally protect the sample inside and not the person working on it. Therefore, at the undergraduate level, there can be entire campuses without biosafety hoods vented to the roof, instead using HEPA filters at the top of the hood to recycle room air. As students are gradually exposed to higher-level protein chemistry, however, remember that the organic chemicals used often are toxic and must be dispensed or prepared in chemical fume hoods. In addition, processes such as staining and distillation are still toxic and must be done in a full chemical hood, not a biosafety cabinet.

Visibility The ability to see and hear the lab director, store personal possessions away from apparatus, receive visual environmental cues that will reduce confusion and see the display board and projector screen clearly are all critical in a safety-oriented environment. It is exactly into this visual field - between benchtop height and the ceiling - that the exhaust system is most likely to intrude. The laboratory furniture industry is trying to resolve the conflict between exhaust and visibility.

It is a basic of fume-hood safety that air movement around the face of the sash opening degrades the tested effectiveness of the hood, especially in the case of a variable-volume hood, which is designed to work close to the acceptable limits of safety. A group of students gathered closely around the glass sash face to watch, therefore, is poor lab procedure.

Most hood manufacturers provide three- or four-sided glass hoods, not necessarily at fully certified performance levels, that permit class participation. Two-sided hoods allow setup from a prep room and, after one sash is fully closed, operation from the opposite side. The increasing popularity of combination horizontal-vertical sliding sashes, walk-in hoods and larger hood sizes has made for safer, more flexible operations for individual researchers. Lab designers typically presume that basic safety rules will not be violated: sash stops are overridden only for setups; side panels are reached around; air movement in front of the sash is minimized; equipment is not crowded at the front of the hood. But it is very tempting in a classroom to ignore these rules.

To help students understand correct exhaust procedures and to enhance visibility, additional equipment is available. These include plexiglas benchtop canopies with local fans, exhaust funnels in four-inch and six-inch diameters that snorkel from the ceiling or through scissors-arms from the bench, or high-velocity benchtop exhaust grilles.

The designer must point out that these are for heat, steam and odor, not for toxins or hazardous materials, including container transfers. Those must be carried to a hood. Again, as with decisions about installing and teaching in alternative fume hoods, close communication among the designer, facility manager, lab director, curriculum director and teacher is necessary to clearly assign responsibility for lab safety.

At the higher biohazard levels, and where radioactives or perchloric acids are present, published guidelines can be followed. But in the gray area between smells and toxins, the liability picture is not clear, and the potential cost of abdicating responsibility for safety challenges the imagination.

To have a student's wet experimental work surface, group work top, and study/writing surface all in the same place invariably means a larger, deeper room. The limited viewing angles from the front projection screen, narrowed further by video-projection technology, and limited walking distance from side benches, tend to restrict lab widths to well under 30 feet.

The resulting room depth and distance from the projection screen for the rearmost students require a very tall screen to clearly display spreadsheets and biological specimens. The bottom of the screen must be three feet from the floor - higher than demonstration tables or instructor stations - and, because the floor is not raked, intervening lab tables must be staggered so students do not impede one another's views of the bottom of the screen. The standard projector screen design guidelines for height-to-distance often conflict with ceiling clearances under ducts. If not addressed during the design-development phase, this problem usually is impossible to solve.

Student benches Aligning lab tables is affected by two factors: the position of the teacher and the nature of group study. Historically, group work formation has been dominated by the technological limitations and costs of providing services and drainage to a large experimental setup. This led to, for example, diamond-shaped peninsulas with drainage troughs for distillations for groups of four students. In high schools, such labs would work for both biology and chemistry labs.

The diamond shape allowed knee space for seated notetaking and a central open "runway" for the teacher and central sightlines toward the board. Where the utility runs had to be shortened, it was common (more so in the "wetter" chemistry labs) to "commute" between preparatory classrooms and stand-up lab bench areas behind the desk areas.

Designers now feel much less restricted to tying the student benches as peninsulas to the side of the room. Instead, they leave side benches unimpeded. More often, a class is called together and shown a unique procedure or piece of equipment at the side of the room, making the perimeter more important than the center runway. The lab teacher will float among island benches, helping group or project operations as required and encouraging self-directed problem-solving and out-of-room discovery (such as informal chats, library searches, web searches, prep room help or other labs).

At the high school level, the adapted diamond table, with a diagonal trough, can still work for a convertible biology/chemistry lab, so long as both fume hood and sink and bench space are ample around the perimeter. For upper-level work, it is important that students have the flexibility to work in groups, be supervised both in groups and individually, and be able to see the front of the room (or the most important demonstration space). The lab tables should supply the appropriate utilities.

Choice vs. convertibility Efforts at predicting how a space might be used should concentrate on the island bench. The bench should be customized to its particular level in the curriculum. It should be appropriate to the mission of the institution - four-year, four-year research, or associate - and appropriate to the character of the level of finish of the building. In a secondary school, where it is more likely to be a stock casework item, the faculty should still discuss the number of students at each table and their orientation to the front and sides of the room.

It is important not to forget that casework items, even though they are produced by a "factory" method in an enclosed setting, are almost completely customizable at a given height (usually either 30 or 36 inches). Including the manufacturer on the design team is critical.

Some computer tables allow cranking or electrical adjustment in height, but it's unlikely this will apply soon to a powered lab table. Using microscopes on all surfaces, not just balance tables, is an effect of spontaneous team self-direction; to allow this, schools must make sure that all surfaces are stable and mechanical vibrations are isolated. Heavy wooden casework is preferred over movable, convertible tables. If tables have wheels, they must have effective brakes.

The design team should include an advocate for students with disabilities, who work at a maximum 34-inch seated height. Fume hoods are now available at a lower height that meets ADA accessibility guidelines.

A universal flexible lab, brought about by an administrative fiat, will ultimately disappoint everyone, including administrators. A facility with variety of labs, closely matched to a multiyear curriculum and thoroughly planned with wide-ranging input, is sure to be a success. A school or university that adopts this process of collaboration and planning will establish a track record for subsequent technological adaptations to follow.

Seeking to resolve a long-standing space crunch at a suburban branch campus of the University of Cincinnati, officials formed a task force of teachers, students and administrators from all disciplines.

The result? The Raymond Walters Science and Allied Health Building, an 84,000-square-foot facility for chemistry, biology and clinical allied health teaching.

The involvement of a people with diverse interests - tutors from other fields, computer experts, an English language researcher and a business professor - led to a building design full of informal collaboration spaces, flexible research labs, student lounges, semi-formal reception and presentation spaces and a comfortable, carpeted, data-intensive tutoring and group study room.

The laboratories were carefully targeted to their disciplines, with plenty of side bench space and ample storage. Student storage, ice supply, prep room entrances and emergency showers were grouped in vestibules away from the main lab. Even though the labs' side walls were varied to accommodate flexible layouts, their appearance was unified, Materials and colors were chosen for their comfort and approachability. Above all, the focus on a clear, open view to the front of the room was maintained without detracting from group work. Front-facing lecture attendance is possible, even while group work goes on nearby, without requiring that the tables be moved.

All classroom labs, including a large, sunny dental hygiene clinic, are illuminated with generous amounts of daylight. A three-story lounge/stairway filled with comfortable furniture and interior masonry and wood surfaces enhance the building's ambience.

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