Lab planning and design often prioritizes the same two complementary goals: collaboration and functional efficiency. Under this approach, teams are clustered together along shared benches and workstations, allowing them to quickly share their findings. When the research pivots, the lab’s open environment and flexible workstations allow teams to easily reconfigure the space and move on.
This formula encourages results-oriented productivity, but can overlook health and well-being considerations for lab workers. This matters for two reasons:
- The demand for researchers is outpacing the number of people entering the field.
- Traditional lab environments can be an impediment for recruiting and retaining researchers. This is especially true with people who are neurodivergent, i.e., people who possess many of the skills that make for great researchers—such as problem solving and attention to detail—but also have hypo- and hyper-sensitivities to environmental factors such as noise and light.
The question is, how can labs become more accommodating for not just the neurotypical but the neurodiverse as well? The answer: We need to design labs with as much focus on the users as we are to the science.
Humanizing the lab
Labs are notoriously challenging spaces to humanize as research requires highly structured environments to control testing and ensure safety. Still, there are ways designers can make the lab more human-centric and comfortable for the people performing the research.
Here are five ways our Science + Technology designers, create labs to be more inclusive, welcoming and comfortable for researchers and staff.
1. Natural Light, Views and Circadian Rhythm
Lighting is one of the chief complaints we hear about in labs—and for good reason. Many labs are walled off from outside views and awash in artificial light that lacks controllability.
Introducing natural light into labs can make them healthier and more welcoming. Studies have shown natural light helps balance our circadian rhythm, lifts our moods and helps us focus.
Light shelves and interior glass windows are two tools designers can use to draw natural light deep into lab spaces. Lab planning also plays a role. By placing more sensitive research spaces (such as microscopy and imaging) in the center of buildings, planners can allow window light to reach deeper into the floorplate.
When natural light is not an option, circadian lighting and adjustable LED lighting that allows for multiple color temperatures can mimic the health and wellness aspects of natural light.
Adjustable task lighting at work benches is another way to improve optical comfort, reduce stress and give lab workers more control over their immediate work area.
Some research requires specific lighting levels and temperatures, which limit how designers illuminate the lab. In this case, we suggest focusing on how to incorporate daylight and/or adjustable lighting in spaces beyond the lab, such as writeup areas and meeting rooms.
2. Flooring and Ergonomics
Lab work can be physically demanding, with researchers often on their feet for prolonged periods of times. When they do have the opportunity to sit, the choice is often a rigid and unforgiving lab stool. It does not have to be this way.
Rubber flooring (below images) is a great way to reduce joint and leg pain commonly associated with lab work. This seamless flooring alternative can be used for most any lab that does not require the use of open flames. Rubber flooring also mitigates reverberation and noise that can make labs a challenging place to work for people easily distracted by sounds.
Elsewhere in the lab, poor ergonomics can lead to discomfort that reduces performance. Providing adjustable work settings that can accommodate various body sizes and different activities levels not only increases comfort and enables movement, it also can improve productivity, health and well-being. Many vendors now offer SEFA-certified ergonomic stools and benches and flexible shelving and cabinets that allow lab workers to adjust their workspaces to meet their personal needs and comfort.
3. Wayfinding, Color and Biophilia
Labs can be disorienting spaces with row after row of benches and no clear delineation from one research space to another. Wayfinding in the form of signage, colors and marked pathways takes the confusion out of lab space and make them more intuitive and easy to navigate.
Color and patterns can serve another important role in lab design by breaking up what can be very monotonous environments. Designers need to be sensitive, however, to people who can feel overwhelmed or distracted by too much color and pattern. By placing color and patterns in select spaces, such as corridors and entryways, designers can balance out people’s different responses to visual stimuli.
Biophilic design that connects building occupants to nature also has been shown to reduce stress and improve focus. Although introducing plants and other organic material into labs is rarely an option, there are other ways to introduce nature. In addition to daylight and outdoor views discussed earlier, designers can use nature-inspired wall graphics, organic- and wood-looking veneers and even sounds—such as the low trickle of water—to incorporate biophilia into the lab.
4. Assistive Technology
While controlling noise and reverberation in labs is challenging given the many non-porous surfaces within the research environments, assistive technology, such as noise-canceling headphones, can minimize distractions and make lab workers feel more comfortable.
Other assistive technology, such as talk-to-text software, can make the lab more inclusive by providing people additional ways to communicate and process information. IoT technology and sensors also can be used to improve environmental conditions by providing real-time data on space, lighting and energy usage within different sectors of the lab.
5. Amenity and Writeup Spaces
Writeup and amenity spaces are free from many of the rigid material and sterilization requirements found in labs. It is in these spaces that designers and planners can best incorporate inclusive design and offer research staff choice and autonomy.
In these spaces, our lab and science teams often draw from the best practices of our workplace colleagues (see Designing a Neurodiverse Workplace) to create multiple work settings and sensory zones that allow people to find places that suit their personal preferences and individual tasks.
The bottom line
While scientific standards make it difficult to apply human-centric design to labs, it is possible to make these spaces more welcoming and comfortable. Designers should begin by considering how the lab’s physical environment affects workers differently across the neurodiversity spectrum. Through this empathetic lens, we can design spaces that give all users the options and settings that allow them to do their best work and be their best selves.