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April 1, 2022

The lab building of the future is NEXT

  • The traditional method of designing new science buildings needs to evolve from what the building looks like.


    The demand for lab space and science workplaces is skyrocketing in almost every market, increasing competition among science building developers. The traditional method of designing new science buildings needs to evolve from what the building looks like to how it needs to be optimized for a tenant. At their best, buildings are more than just containers for people; they are platforms for great efficiencies and incredible experiences.

    Designing lab buildings comes with unique challenges. Concerns about vibration, ventilation, containment, and specialized equipment go beyond the scope of traditional workplaces. Developers must meet exact specifications to ensure safe and successful working environments.


    Image courtesy of Gensler [enlarge]
    NEXT is a platform that allows tenants and developers to reimagine what a more resilient and inclusive science building can be.

    The warmth and connection to biophilic elements within the interior of a mass timber building are more emotionally appealing compared to traditional steel or concrete products.

    As part of ongoing measurable impact research funded by the Gensler Research Institute, Gensler partnered with Buro Happold and KPFF to develop a conceptual framework for the next evolution of science buildings.

    We located our concept in Seattle’s Uptown Arts District and based our decisions and design interventions around industry-specific research and data. The project had three goals: (1) liberate the space and make it more than just a container for people; (2) increase product differentiation in the market to allow our developer clients to leapfrog past their competition; and (3) offer solutions that prioritize decarbonization as a method of resiliency. We call this idea NEXT, and it redefines what a lab can be.


    The use of mass timber in large building construction has gained a lot of traction in recent years because of its ability to significantly lower the carbon footprint of a project. The feeling of a mass timber space is completely different. The warmth and connection to biophilic elements are more emotionally appealing compared to traditional steel or concrete products.

    We also discovered that timber is particularly suited to off-site modular construction, which would allow us to produce the project in a nearby factory and deliver it to the site as a kit-of-parts. This approach would be 30% faster and 10% cheaper to construct than a conventional concrete building. With 85% fewer deliveries to the site and a 75% reduction in construction waste, NEXT uses 80% less carbon to build than a conventional concrete lab building. This amounts to a savings of approximately 5,200 total metric tons of CO2.

    We extended the sustainable approach to the building’s operations, as well. NEXT uses an all-electric heat pump chiller (EL1) system that is more efficient than a natural gas system in all locations and sectors. All-electric systems result in lower building Energy Use Intensity (EUI) in all markets and achieve zero carbon emissions on a clean grid. In total, NEXT produces 50% less greenhouse gas emissions and uses 30% less energy annually than a conventional lab building.


    Another innovative feature of NEXT is the flexibility of the building grid. Lab building layouts are determined by two things: the lab bench, where equipment is stored, experiments take place, and work is prepped; and vibrations in the floor plate, which must be kept to an absolute minimum to prevent disruptions in science experiments.

    We created the most flexible grid for our tenants at 33-by-33 feet. These are optimal dimensions for standard lab bench layouts with room for tenants to switch things around. However, the size of this grid in mass timber doesn’t work well with vibration, so we consulted with our engineering partner KPFF to make it work. Together we achieved a vibration of 6,000 MIPS, a go-to standard for most lab buildings.

    With a multitude of operable windows and outdoor spaces, the workplace portion of the floor will have abundant access to fresh air.

    We also relocated the building core from the center to the side of the building. Putting a core in the middle of a building is like putting a fireplace in the middle of your living room. It bifurcates and separates tenants. This move allows our tenants more flexibility on their layout.


    Science workplace tenants are increasingly looking for spaces that can promote the health and wellbeing of their employees and of the communities in which they’re located.

    With a multitude of operable windows, the workplace portion of the floor will have abundant access to fresh air. And in Seattle, where the climate is optimal for natural ventilation, the workplace can spend 34% of total occupied hours in natural ventilation mode, which helps yield energy savings of 30% compared to a conventional lab building.

    Each floor also has direct access to outdoor spaces throughout the building. According to the Gensler U.S. Workplace Survey, science workers ranked outdoor space as their No. 1 most desired workplace amenity. We also took the most under-utilized component of the building — a fire stair — and flipped it into a tenant amenity. Shifting the stair to the perimeter flooded it with daylight and appealing views.

    With access control technology, the common stairwell can also serve as an interconnecting stair for specific tenants on multiple levels — eliminating the need to build their own internal stairs, reducing unnecessary construction, and bringing the space to market sooner.


    Flipping the fire stair to the perimeter not only floods it with daylight and appealing views, but also transforms it into a multi-use tenant amenity.

    Lastly, we wanted to show how a science building could connect to its local community. The ground floor is designed to hold a multipurpose arts and entertainment venue, as well as a restaurant incubator to diversify the culinary arts in the city.

    The multipurpose venue was created in partnership with the Uptown Arts and Cultural Coalition to provide flexible spaces for young musicians, art education, theater, and performance space. The restaurant incubator gives minority entrepreneurs the opportunity to launch their businesses, while a shared kitchen space allows for multiple food venues to enhance the neighborhood food scene. These efforts will create more cultural diversity within the Uptown District.

    Ultimately, NEXT is a platform that allows tenants and developers to reimagine what a science building can be. It’s our call to action to shift from the past to a more resilient and inclusive future for lab buildings.

    Chad Yoshinobu is a design principal and global sciences practice area leader for Gensler. He believes in the aggregation of diverse design lenses from life sciences, office buildings, tech workplace, and hospitality to reinvent what we do for our clients.

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