The Leatherman multi-tool contains a diversity of helpful devices within a single compact object. Much like architects, its designers had to work through a complex set of priorities, preferences and limitations to create a product that met user demands. For me, the Leatherman provides the perfect analogy for the design challenges of an engineering research laboratory.
To support a multifaceted approach to problem solving, engineering research laboratories require a unique typology that leverages a wide range of tools and spaces. These tools have distinctive physical space and environmental requirements that often dislocate the tool from the typical research laboratory. However, similar to the wonderful elegance of the Leatherman, these tools can be designed and arranged in a way that both meets their respective needs, and also creates a simple ecosystem that supports the array of research endeavors.
Engineering schools are creating institutes to encourage interdisciplinary/cross-departmental collaborations. Each is designed to bring diverse research groups together to collectively focus on a common problem or set of problems. Universities are hopeful that these institutes bring with them new opportunities for cross-pollination of ideas and the discovery of new insights.
Columbia University’s Data Science Institute (DSI) is one such group. Its mission is to leverage Big Data to solve society’s biggest challenges. Currently, DSI is focused issues varying from cybersecurity and smart cities to health and financial analytics. As one may expect, one of the “tools” DSI required was dedicated computational laboratory space used for data analysis. However, DSI also required tools to aid in the development of innovative ways to acquire data. This meant that wet laboratory, optics laboratory and prototyping space for sensor and hardware development were also necessary.
The ability to display and share information was also central to the Institute’s mission. So, DSI’s 3,000 SF collaboration space was designed to foster interactions between the 26 research groups. This space will contain two large media walls to display the latest data visualizations and work of the Institute, as well as house visiting professors and scholars. The collaboration zone, media walls and prototyping support were collocated with the computational laboratories.
Ideally all of the tools and spaces required to support DSI would have been co-located, but the physical space constraints of existing building prevented this. Shell space in an adjacent building with infrastructure to support wet and optics laboratories had to be leveraged. This is one of the challenges of working on an existing urban campus, but what if we could design from scratch?
DSI’s collaboration space brings multiple research groups together with media wall and prototyping support space.
In collaboration with Herzog & de Meuron (HdM) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Payette prioritized a complex group of tools and spaces to support the needs of a new university in Skolkovo, Russia. The Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology is organized around a series of Centers for Research, Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CREIs). The wide variety of CREIs include; Advanced Structures, Processes and Engineered Materials (ASPEM), ); Biomedical; Hydrocarbon Recovery; Data Science; Energy Systems and Storage; Quantum Materials; Space; and Stem Cell; to name a few.
A complex group of tools (or core facilities) supports the assortment of engineering types and scales. A central cleanroom was used to support CREIs such as Quantum Materials and Energy Systems. A vivarium, glass wash and media prep facilities support all wet bench research. High-bay space support larger scale work of ASPEM, Space, CHR and Energy Systems. Machine shops, fabrications area and advanced imaging support multiple CREIs.
Much of this ecosystem of support is located in the complex’s basement. The research bars plug into the tool hub with vertical circulation and basement corridor system. An additional core for data visualization was located in a prominent public area on the upper floor. This space will be used for research and will display to visitors the innovative work of multiple CREIs.
Skoltech University’s core facility ecosystem supports the flexible laboratory bars above.
As architects and planners, we must address the trend toward more multidisciplinary, problem-based engineering research. We must acknowledge that engineering research requires a wide range of support tools and spaces. However, just as the Leatherman come in all shapes and sizes—because they are each designed to meet a specific set of priorities and demands—so should our laboratories. Each institution comes with its own set of priorities and goals. It is critical for architects and planners engaged in engineering research design to understand an institution’s culture and mission. This information is essential to prioritize the desires of a client and achieve the right set of tools that will best address their needs. If we do this right, we may end up with a building that is as elegantly tailored as the tools housed within.