Published August 11, 2016 on labdesignnews.com
In a recent column for Lab Design News, we take a look at levels of flexibility offered with different casework solutions.
Flexibility has become an established priority in lab design. As Herman Miller advertises their products: “Why should built-in lab casework dictate how your equipment and work areas are arranged? Modular, movable lab furnishings from Herman Miller Healthcare put you in control. Without compromise. Design your lab to support your staff and processes.” 84% of respondents to R&D Magazine’s 2011 Reader Survey agree, saying that they want “flexible design” in their laboratories. While there are many reasons why flexibility is desirable, at the top of the list is time and cost savings. The promise of flexible labs provides the hope of avoiding expensive changes in the future. Casework manufacturers have quickly adapted to provide movable casework that is also adjustable. In spite of these advances in casework design, however, laboratories remain constrained by the fixed nature of their infrastructure. Certain ventilation, utilities and lighting systems can accommodate some degree of flexible casework layouts; nonetheless they are difficult and expensive to move. Accordingly, lab infrastructure must be thoughtfully selected and designed to maximize the value of flexible casework for the users and client.
Figure 1: Lab configuration examples
Many typical infrastructural layouts do not allow users to take advantage of movable casework. Example 1 (Figure 1) uses a traditional forced air system to ventilate the labs. The supply ducts are centered above the aisle to clear the space above the bench for utilities. Utilities are accessed from point-of-use panels, which constrain each bench to a fixed location determined by the point-of-use panels. Instrument placement, in turn, is constrained within the length of the bench. In this design, even if the casework is movable, the infrastructural system selection and layout constrain the lab’s flexibility. Additionally, this layout places light fixtures between the ducts and the utilities such that there are two rows of lights per bench. Energy codes and desire for efficiency make this lighting approach difficult.
Figure 2a: Utility spine can be accessed anywhere along the bench
Example 2 (Figure 1) also uses forced air, though in this case the ducts are centered above the bench. In order to distribute air effectively, side diffusers are used. The utilities are also centered along the bench, supported by the same unistrut system that supports the ducts. This simple, layered approach to ventilation and utilities allows lighting to be centered in the aisle, creating a more efficient lighting layout with only one row of lights per bench, assuming proper reflection. The utilities form a spine that can be accessed from anywhere along the bench through the use of a simple knock-out panel (see Figure 2A). This frees the bench to be located at any place along the line of utilities. It also allows for benches to be removed and replaced with floor-mounted instruments in the same location. While this infrastructure supports more flexibility than Example 1, the location of the lighting necessitates task lighting at the bench. If a bench is removed and replaced with a floor-mounted instrument, the lighting on the instrument might not be sufficient.
Figure 3a: Clear zone above the bench free of utility whips
Examples 3 and 4 (Figure 1) incorporate a more sustainable approach to ventilation through the use of chilled beams. Their placement is dictated by the buoyancy flow of the chilled air, and can be centered over the aisle or over the bench. In the first chilled beam example (Example 3 (Figure 1)), utilities are placed in a spine along the top of the bench (fed from the sidewall). Aesthetically, this creates a clear zone above the bench free from the clutter of utility whips (see Figure 3A). An uncluttered view can be particularly desirable within an open lab concept. However, because the bench is supporting the utilities, none of the benches can be removed to create an open instrumentation zone. Even though this layout achieves a cleaner aesthetic at the ceiling plane, it is less flexible than the example of forced air ducts centered above the bench.
Looking more closely at Example 4 (Figure 1), we see an unconventional element: a raised access floor. While raised access floors are rarely used in today’s labs, it is possible to encounter them in a renovation project. Taking advantage of this feature, utilities are run in the access floor and service the table frames from below. Running utilities in the floor allows for the flexibility to create instrumentation zones at certain bench locations since the utilities are independent of the bench. Similar to Example 3, a clear zone is also created from the ceiling plane to the top of the bench. From a utilities-connection perspective, Example 4 is very flexible by allowing tie-in to the utilities at any point along the floor. However, because of the fixed locations of the chilled beams and lighting, benches are still confined to a linear layout (same lighting constraint as Example 2).
Figure 5a: Overhead grid supports maximum layout flexibility
The infrastructure design in Example 5 allows users to take advantage of movable casework and maximize flexibility by using an overhead grid system comprised of a customizable kit of parts (Figure 5A). The grid, which is hung from the slab above, is sized to support the weight of all the infrastructural elements – free of any connection to the floor. Shelving and upper cabinets are hung from the grid. In this sense, the grid creates a heavy datum; however it allows for tables to be moved with complete ease, which is useful if benches need to be removed to clear space for instrumentation. This layout creates a clear zone from the bottom of the upper cabinets to the top of the counter. Overhead cabinets and shelving can be disconnected and removed from the grid. Alternatively they can be rearranged on the grid. Lighting and utility columns also hang from the grid to bring air, gas, and power, to the bench. As these utility columns and lights can be moved anywhere along the grid, users are unconstrained by a linear layout. The two-dimensional plane of utilities allows for maximum flexibility. A recent project using this grid was priced at approximately a 15% premium over a traditional fit-out. While such cost may not be feasible for certain projects, it can successfully reduce future fit-out costs.
These five examples show the wide-ranging effects infrastructural layout can have on lab flexibility. Given flexibility’s importance in today’s labs and the fact that lab infrastructure is typically not very flexible, designers must carefully address this tension. Providing utility sources at specific point locations, along a linear spine, or within a grid greatly impacts the usability of movable casework. As ventilation and lighting must be delivered from overhead, the ceiling plane must be properly coordinated with the bench configuration. A skillful design team will allow the client to understand the nuanced consequences of different infrastructural placements, and highlight the advantages and disadvantages of each as the institution determines what choices will best meet their future needs.