Outdoor space and landscaped walking trails highlight wellness-focused elements at the 225 Wyman St. office-lab complex under construction in Waltham. Image courtesy of Gensler

The COVID-19 pandemic has further fueled accelerated growth in the life sciences industry, with construction of lab and office buildings in the Boston area booming. Lab spaces need to be efficient and functional, but their design often neglects to think beyond the typical rectangular grid, resulting in spaces that are siloed and ignore user comfort and experience.  

A deeper understanding of how scientists use and experience their lab environment is fundamental. Drawing from within our own professional networks, we interviewed four scientists with varied fields of research about their workplace experiences to learn how designers can create environments that meet their expectations and needs, as well as support their new ways of working. 

Planning for a Typical Day in the Lab 

Biochemistry scientists spend six to 12 hours in the lab three to six days a week, the majority of their time on lab benches conducting experiments and the remaining time at individual workstations or in meetings. Proximity between desk space and lab bench have a huge impact on efficiency. 

Steffi Sunny, a research scientist for a large medical device company, said, “There is this dance that happens with the meetings and the lab work that’s actually quite challenging, and it’s made even harder by the fact that our meeting rooms are not anywhere close. I waste a lot of time going up and down the stairs.”  

Additionally, post-pandemic “hot desking” protocols and capacity limits have presented scheduling challenges.  

“We are always juggling between meetings and experiments,” Sunny said. “I need my own desk where I can store my belongings and shouldn’t need to compete to sign up for a desk to do my job effectively.” 

With scientists spending extended hours on the benches, adequate daylight, glare and enhanced temperature controls near windows become crucial. David Sherman, a postdoctoral fellow with experience working at large research universities and biopharmaceutical companies, said outside views matter too.  

“My window looks at a green landscaped area and it helps refresh my eyes after constantly looking at the petri dish under artificial light,” he said. “Natural daylight is very important for mental health when you are spending long stretches of time in the lab.” 

Dayita Kurvey

Angie Holmberg, an R&D scientist working in the Greater Boston area, said time management is affected by the absence of outdoor light.   

“I don’t have access to windows, so keeping time becomes difficult, and I have the tendency to accidentally work too late.”  

However, Sunny pointed out that autonomy of daylight control is needed: “Some of the work we do is light sensitive, so we need to be able to have darkness.”  

Scientists also value easily accessible outdoor areas. 

“Not all our days are spent in labs. Sometimes you need time to just process data, read papers or send emails and the best place to do that is just where there’s WiFi, including outside,” Holmberg said. 

Importance of Collaborative Spaces 

Virtual tools got us through the pandemic, but face-to-face collaboration is irreplaceable.  

“A lot of people don’t realize it, but science is a very collaborative endeavor and you benefit from casual, in-person interactions.” Sherman said.  

“[The] best way to do good work is to build trust and that trust comes from seeing people and making a connection,” Sunny said. 

Erik Lustgarten

Ylaine Gerardin, a computational biologist at a Boston-area startup, has primarily transitioned to remote work during the pandemic and misses chance encounters with co-workers from other departments:  

“[The] café was a great place to talk to them [colleagues]. I would chat with a bench scientist or somebody who works on the business or regulatory side and learn about what they do,” she said 

Scientists, like corporate office users, gain from environments designed to enhance collaboration, access to daylight and outdoor spaces and flexibility in planning. Labs are inherently utilitarian, but the need to design for the human experience shouldn’t be overlooked. Materials, textures and ergonomics that are traditionally associated with the workplace can also add warmth and comfort to sterile lab environments. As the industry continues to re-invent itself, a bottom-up, user-centric approach will push the limits of lab design while balancing efficiency and improved well-being. 

Dayita Kurvey is a designer with Gensler’s Boston office and Erik Lustgarten is a global leader in Gensler’s sciences practice. 

What Scientists Want from Today’s Lab Buildings

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 3 min