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Inclusive Design for Complex Buildings

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Science + Technology

Designing the Inclusive Lab
Designing the Inclusive Lab

Lab planning and design often prioritizes the same two complementary goals: discovery and 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 users. 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 more focus on the users.

Humanizing the lab

Labs are notoriously challenging spaces to humanize as research requires highly structured environments to control testing and ensure safety. Yet there are ways designers can make the lab more human-centric and comfortable for the people performing the research.

Here are five methods our Science + Technology designers use to create labs that are more inclusive, welcoming and comfortable for researchers and staff.

1. Natural Light, Views and Circadian Rhythm

University Of Maryland

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 floor plate.

Emory O Wayne Rollings Lighshelves
Memorial University Fume Hood 1900
Francis Crick Lighting 1900

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 users 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 or adjustable lighting in spaces beyond the lab, such as writeup areas and meeting rooms.

USC Michelson Writeup 1900

2. Flooring and Ergonomics

Crick Writeup Space 1900

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 image) 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.

Lab With Rubber Floor 1900

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 activity levels not only increases comfort and enables movement, but it can also improve productivity, health and well-being. Many vendors now offer SEFA-certified ergonomic stools and benches and flexible shelving and cabinets that allow lab users to adjust their workspaces to meet their personal needs and comfort.

3. Wayfinding, Color and Biophilia

Penn State Avbs Color

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 makes 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.

Carleton University Steacie Lab Lead 1900
Emory O Wayne Rollings Wayfinding 1900
Emory O Wayne Rollings Writeup Space 1900
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Penn State Cbeb Building Biophilia Color 1900
AstraZeneca SSF Lab Living Rooms 1900

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 and chemically resistant veneers to incorporate biophilia into the lab.

4. Assistive Technology

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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 users feel more comfortable.

Other assistive technology, such as talk-to-text software, can make labs 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 areas of the lab.

5. Amenity and Writeup Spaces

Writeup and amenity spaces are free from many of the rigid material and containment requirements found in labs. It is in these spaces that designers and planners can best incorporate inclusive design and offer researchers and other lab users choice and autonomy.

Penn State Cbeb Building Amenity Space 1900
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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 more challenging 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 users 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.

Inclusive Lab With Callouts 1900
Inclusive Lab No Callouts 1900

Note: Neurodiversity is a term used to describe a broad range of conditions, some of which likely will be unresponsive to design solutions. HOK’s approach to inclusive design is based on our experience as designers and architects with the objective of providing a wide range of options for users with different needs. Any attempt to address the needs of neurodiverse individuals should also include review of human resources policies, implementation of technology solutions and building operations among other considerations. HOK does not represent that any design solution discussed in this article is capable of achieving any specific outcome for an individual user.

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