Drivers and Insights—Designing Science Facilities in Higher Education

This article by Mark Dailey of Integrus Architecture appeared in Laboratory Equipment magazine, 10.10.18. To see the article go to: https://bit.ly/2VyuzyD

On higher education campuses, multiple building types support a wide array of programs and users. Many science facilities are hybrid buildings serving multiple user groups and disciplines. 

As programs grow and move, space is reallocated and repurposed. With increasing budget cuts, the motivation to combine labs, science classrooms and engineering/technical spaces is growing. Administration and program directors seek to address growing needs in this era of decreasing funding. 

At the same time, science buildings are not only academic spaces, but also recruitment tools for both students and faculty. Science facilities are particularly emblematic of a university’s brand, serving as living/learning tools for students.


When space and funds are limited, more people are vying for the same resources. Balancing these inter-related and competing objectives presents especially arduous challenges. It is essential to start conversations about collaborative decision making early with predesign and programming efforts, setting scope in alignment with budget. 

Gathering key players together—in person—to ensure everyone learns and understands each program’s individual needs is also vital. Direct faculty input is key as the people who are using lab spaces can provide valuable insight on program, design and layout.

Ultimately, internal prioritization and allocation of space requires leaders to balance the academic needs of each program area with the dispersion of net square footage, creating a cohesive academic science environment.

Additionally, technology is constantly evolving, and there are challenges to designing flexible spaces that can accommodate different technologies and programs as practices change. With space at a premium, flexibility means enabling users to ultimately do more with less. 

With good communication and participation from all stakeholders, space can be allotted in a way that meets everyone’s needs through more efficient use.


Efficiency asserts itself in different ways—reallocating unprogrammed spaces for broader use, sharing resources wherever possible  and efficient operations through sustainability—are all opportunities to do more with less space.

Prioritize important non-programmed space. Breakout spaces can be really hard to plan and program, but are absolutely essential and need attention from the project outset. Administrators in the past have viewed these spaces as excessive and expensive, but there is a greater appreciation for them today. Designers have taken strategic approaches, such as incorporating a glass panel wall that showcases a lab the school is proud of. As technology has become mobile, breakout spaces have been emphasized. These spaces can also be great opportunities to create flow and hierarchy for wayfinding, originating in facility lobbies, continuing through circulation and optimized with adjacencies.

When done right, breakout spaces provide opportunities for student and faculty interaction outside of instruction spaces. When square footage is intentionally programmed to include breakout areas, they are used for student collaboration, faculty prep, and impromptu discussions. Such informal spaces are well used and their popularity in academia is growing. They could include white boards or writeable glass, encouraging students to stay in the building and continue learning after classes. 

Part of the appealing dynamic of a multi-program building is the opportunity to comingle students and faculty from different areas, creating a cohesive collaborative culture. It is ideal to have a vertical and horizontal mix of programs to enhance and stimulate programmatic cross-pollination. 

Maximize joint use and shared space while scrutinizing the efficiency of dedicated space. Generally, there are three types of spaces: joint-use, shared-use and dedicated. Minimizing dedicated space allows programs to optimize uses, sharing square footage. Designers seek to find ways different programs can use—with minor modification—some of the same spaces by providing a teaching console, more storage or moveable equipment. Mixed classrooms with flexible furniture are key. In science buildings, there will always be space dedicated to a specialized function, but project leaders aim for such spaces to be the exception. 

Interestingly, many labs can be multi-functional. Although teaching labs have a front of the room orientation with projection screens and white boards for instruction, they can be designed to also incorporate research lab needs. Equipment, even highly specialized, can be shared, depending on the programs. To ensure a lab/classroom is equipped for the unique pedagogies of multiple programs, it is critical to understand their needs. Finding opportunities to synthesize spaces and equipment wherever possible saves significant costs. 

Integrate sustainability with integrity. Sustainability remains at the forefront of today’s buildings, even in the science and technology realm. In a hybrid building, it can be difficult to integrate sustainable elements while preserving the integrity of highly specialized spaces. In one example, there was a challenge in providing operable windows to offices, which changed the pressurization of the building. The solution was to use air lock vestibules in the adjacent corridor. Project leaders can identify ways to integrate sustainability while maintaining the specialized integrity of the spaces. 

Creativity in design and planning allows design teams to find new ways to share space, incorporate sustainability and enhance the aesthetics and functionality of the space.


In addition to operating efficiently, occupants want spaces that perform in the usability realm, with natural light, comfortable layouts and smooth integration to the surrounding landscape.

Daylighting. Daylighting is one way to enhance the space while also emphasizing sustainability. Natural daylight can decrease energy costs and makes the space more inviting. Daylight can be used to illuminate corridors, classrooms and even labs, with considerations to avoiding glare that may interfere with scientific work or reading digital readouts. Daylight is appreciated, but needs to be used strategically. 

Welcoming spaces. Welcoming spaces increase occupant satisfaction and foster interaction, which is especially encouraged in a multi-program facility. To enhance a culture of collaboration, the building itself can be used as a passive tool, encouraging groups to work together and share space. A strategically placed breakout space or faculty prep area creates natural moments of engagement interaction. How spaces are located and programmed directs how individuals move through and interact with the building and others within.

Main street—inside and out. Layouts such as a “main street”—a central corridor with elevators, restrooms and breakout areas along the edge—intentionally creates a primary natural flow of movement through the space, with strategically placed locations for pauses to interact. Outdoor spaces are another design feature that has special effect in a science building. Geology students may collect rock specimens, or biology programs may include gardens. Spaces such as these are a byproduct of a process called mini-master planning.

Building-specific master planning. Each building has a role to play in the overall campus context, but the immediate area around the building, including walkways and outdoor learning environments, is especially important for seamless integration. 

Building-specific master planning identifies opportunities for unique uses of space. Depending on the context around the building, these can include outdoor learning spaces, campus circulation patterns or entry plazas. Site and context of the building based on pedestrian movement, and where people enter the building are key considerations, decisively studying campus pedestrian movement so that the building becomes part of the natural circulation patterns on campus. Such planning leads to activating the space from the moment people enter and attracts them to the key areas of interest. 

Buildings with multiple user groups can present programming challenges but they also provide opportunities to create collaboration where it wouldn’t naturally occur. Multiple-use buildings have more traffic flow, allowing universities to highlight some of the keystones of scientific innovation on campus, while creating inviting places for students to learn and study together, and faculty to instruct. 

With so many possibilities for design, it is important to consult the users of the building to ascertain their use patterns and create spaces that encourage productive cohabitation of multiple disciplines. Gathering input and balancing competing interests and priorities, while remaining mindful of budgets and schedules, results in buildings that perform for users, programs and the campus as a whole.