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Instrumentation and measurement

Designing space for scientific innovation

08 Aug 2018 Sponsored by Wilson Architects

World class equipment can be useless if the surrounding lab architecture is not conducive to optimum performance. Physics World talks to Wilson Architects, specialists in lab design, about some of the considerations unique to these highly technical spaces and how requirements are changing.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology MIT.nano, location: Boston MA, architect: Wilson Architects
Massachusetts Institute of Technology MIT.nano, location: Boston MA, architect: Wilson Architects

When a trailblazing scientist currently rewriting their field joins a department, they can bring international kudos, improved funding prospects, renewed vigour, and cross-fertilization of ideas for the rest of the department. They can also bring a unique set of challenges to house their equipment.

“It’s at this point in time when an architect becomes a key contributor to providing an environment for the PI [principal investigator] to successfully conduct the experiments for which they were hired,” says Joseph Gibbons, associate principal at Wilson Architects, where his work involves lab design and project management with a particular focus on physics labs. The firm is in some ways unique for the range in scale of their projects, which varies from overall campus and department planning to individual labs. Around half the labs they work on are new builds, while the other half are renovations – which as Gibbons emphasizes can bring many more complications than ground-up designs.

Location, location, location

One of the key challenges in renovations is location. Gibbons uses nanotechnology as an example, where Wilson Architects has building projects including the Laboratory for Integrated Science and Engineering (LISE) at Harvard University, the Nanoscience Cooperative Research Center at CIC nanoGUNE, the Naughton Institute at Trinity College Dublin, and MIT.nano, a recently completed shared core facility at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“For nanotechnology labs, the ideal location is always the quietest,” says Gibbons, who highlights how environmental characteristics can change from one location to another, even for adjacent labs or neighbouring campus buildings. “Quiet” means a relatively stable slab comfortably distanced from building equipment and elevators which, besides the people traffic they attract, are major sources of quasistatic flux. When it comes to nanotechnology labs, noise is not always defined as a matter of sound waves but can also take the form of electromagnetic interference, stray fields, and anything else that might affect equipment performance. Temperature and humidity need careful control too.

While it is best to choose a new building location based on the ideal “sweet spot”, renovation projects don’t typically provide this luxury. “We can tell clients it will cost “X” to renovate a lab in the existing location, but if you reallocate space and relocate existing labs it may cost less to achieve better results. This approach doesn’t always work with ongoing research or a department’s vision, but it’s always a nice place to start the conversation,” says Gibbons.

Conflicting interests

If Wilson Architects is dealing directly with a PI in preliminary planning, conversations will focus on their specific equipment needs and process flow. However, when discussions occur with department chairs, for example, the conversations may instead focus on long-term goals, the likelihood of turnovers, and requirements for built-in flexibility. So, do the needs of PIs and department chairs conflict?

“Constantly,” says Gibbons. “And furthermore, we need to resolve conflicting interests between neighbouring PIs.” He gives an example of one PI installing a ramping magnet where a neighbouring PI is conducting a long-term characterization experiment that cannot handle the field flux. Fortunately, commercially available shielding and field-mitigation equipment can often ease these tensions – even if it’s not always clear who needs to bear the cost.

University of Pittsburgh, Levy Lab

Regulated progress

Advances in equipment can lead to higher performance requirements in lab design. In the past it would have been necessary to perform baseline durational measurements over a day to characterize a lab, but now projections can be based on assumed equipment performance within given parameters. A current trend is the shift of lab performance requirements based on equipment-specific performance. With respect to vibration, some kind of passive or active isolation on each piece of equipment is needed either way. “You just can’t build slabs quiet enough to handle today’s technology,” explains Gibbons.

On the other hand, some trends have eased design constraints. For example, there is now a tendency to create highly controlled microenvironments around equipment, removing the necessity for controlling the temperature and relative humidity of the entire lab. An increase in self-contained equipment where samples are loaded under high vacuum and never exposed to the atmosphere also allows wider parameters for the lab conditions.

“When a grant recipient has a relationship with an equipment vendor and the recipient’s current lab equipment is out-of-date,” explains Gibbons, “you might see the vendor update their equipment to be compatible for the laboratory versus the lab being updated to support equipment.”

At the same time, technological progress spurs regulatory changes to ensure safety and controlled energy usage – which can introduce further challenges in lab design. A particular issue can arise materials labs, where deposition tools may require quantities of chemicals and gases that exceed regulatory limits.

A design for life

With PI requirements, technological capabilities and regulations constantly evolving, how does any lab avoid becoming habitually condemned or redundant? “This is where the fun part of design comes in,” says Gibbons. He explains how by situating all the support equipment – pumps and compressors, sometimes control work stations too – outside the lab, architects can design service feed-throughs for interconnection between support space and the lab. “We err on the side of great conservatism by adding a higher number of empty pipes than anticipated,” he adds. “It is always easier to add these pipes on Day One and avoid cutting a hole in the lab wall later on.”

Equipment becomes more “plug and play” when collaboration exists among tool vendors, producing vibration isolation equipment that is incorporated directly into the tool. This also helps toward versatility in lab designs, particularly helpful since, as Gibbons points out, “technology is moving faster than the labs are being renovated”.

A harder hurdle to tackle is dealing with unknown or unpredictable heat loads, which makes it difficult to rely on passive water or radiant panels for temperature control, since these are designed for a specific heat range. Current lab designs still generally rely on mechanical air handling units, but some simple changes can help ease temperature control requirements  – such as moving solid-state computing devices, which generate a lot of heating, outside the lab.

Gibbons acknowledges that architects are trained to focus on aesthetics, and visually striking lab space does play an important role in obtaining grants and recruiting new hires as they tour through the experimental facilities. But Gibbons stresses that he equally enjoys “addressing the challenge of providing a tailored design solution based on the PI and the research being conducted”.

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