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How to Determine If Your Lab is the Correct Size

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For you front-line workers in healthcare, research and manufacturing facilities, you likely have forcefully realized by this point in the current COVID-19 pandemic how you can “get by” with your current workspace while keeping a mental, if not physical, wish list of things you’d like to change about your environment.

In my previous article, I identified some of the potential challenges you could be encountering during this pandemic. Let’s dive a little deeper into the first issue on my list and see how we can address it for the future.

Do you have adequate laboratory space for yourself and your equipment?

In order to determine if your current space is an acceptable size, you need to know where you’re starting from and do what scientists do best – gather data. For years we have used a couple of different metrics to identify proper assignable space for laboratories. Many companies embrace the metric of square feet of laboratory per person. Early in the conceptual planning stages of your space this method can be a good way start, but it’s more important to justify the efficiency or quality of an individual’s workspace. Prior to this ongoing pandemic, a common bench lab module may be 30’-33’ long by 10’-11’ wide so using a net square foot of 330’ is a good starting point for a benchmark of space for 2 researchers which equates to 165 square feet of space per person. Of course, this can vary based on many different factors, but this is an accurate average that I’ve seen in my years of experience lab planning. Perhaps we’re currently experiencing an event that could change the longstanding metrics of what is adequate personal space in a working laboratory. In my opinion, the previous benchmarks are sufficient with some modified standard operating procedures in place. For example, we’re seeing that grocery stores aren’t making aisles wider, rather they are urging people to traverse through the store in a single direction. If you make people spaces larger in existing buildings, it will be at the sacrifice of valuable furniture, bench and product space. Furthermore, personal protection equipment (PPE) – such as face masks, lab coats and goggles – is proving to allow even the general public feel more at ease in relatively crowded spaces.

Another common way to calculate or further validate laboratory space requirements is to develop an additional, more detailed metric based on “ELF,” or Equivalent Linear Feet. This includes open bench space for procedures, write-ups, or dedicated equipment space. Calculating your current ELF should be fairly straight forward. By using a tape measure, you would simply add up the lengths of these different components. Our planning exercises normally assume a 36” deep dimension for equipment and a minimum of 30” for bench and tabletop space so the length is the important planning dimension.

A minimum assignment of 12 ELF could be reasonable where researchers are conducting experiments, while they spend a majority of their day in the office. Typically, a quality control or biology lab could have 20 to 28 ELF per researcher, and a chemistry lab in the range of 28 to 30 ELF.

You may be utilizing chemical fume hoods, biosafety cabinets, sinks, benchtop and floor-mounted equipment that all require plumbed, hard-wired or exhausted utility services that I consider “anchors” when planning. This lab equipment and sinks may be assigned to an individual staff member, or it can reside in a core or shared area of the lab suite. Staff could also require an office space separate from the lab. These are all calculations that play into overall space planning exercises as it pertains to the lab staff during the schematic design process.

As you are thinking about how your space is working under these unexpected conditions, seek to understand what kinds of space need improvement – get specific! Are your researchers finding themselves overlapping bench space? Are core spaces being utilized more or less? Are you finding yourself running out of general storage space or is it being under-utilized? Are you finding yourself wishing you had more hand-washing sinks or PPE storage racking in your lab?

Your current experiences and ideas of how to make your working environment safer may forever change lab space design and arrangement. Our workplace clients are already doing, or seriously considering, remodels of their office spaces. Although this pandemic is proving that many people do well working from home, that’s not the case for most laboratories so other options must be considered.

I would love to know what you are learning about your lab facilities during this time and any questions you may have. Comment here or reach out to me directly for a more in-depth conversation about how your specific lab work environment can be improved to give you the best use efficiency possible.


S+T Lab Expert Contributor