Government Laboratory  

by Daniel Watch and Deepa Tolat
Perkins + Will



Government research facilities are similar to those of the private sector in that they focus solely on research; they usually have few or no teaching labs. Government labs usually follow the private sector in developing new and innovative facilities. Several government labs test the research findings of many private-sector companies. For example, the primary focus of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is to review and approve the findings presented by private corporations before products can be marketed.

In a 1996 research and development symposium, NIH representatives explained what they believe some of the future trends will be in government laboratory design:

  • More human(e) environments
  • Continued team concept
  • Continued focus on safety
  • Reduction in fume hood requirements
  • Increase in support labs
  • Modular basic labs
  • Decrease in the size of instrumentation, but more of it
  • Increase in repetitive tasks

This Building Type page will further elaborate on the attributes and characteristics of Government Laboratories.

Clients are pushing project design teams to create research laboratories that are responsive to current and future needs; that encourage interaction among scientists from various disciplines; that help recruit and retain qualified scientists; and that facilitates partnerships and development. As such, a separate WBDG Resource Page on Trends in Lab Design has been developed to elaborate on this emerging model of laboratory design.

NREL's Solar Energy Research Facility (SERF), Golden, CO

NREL's Solar Energy Research Facility (SERF) is a state-of-the-art research facility for developing technologies that convert sunlight into electricity. Completed in October 1993, SERF houses 42 laboratories where about 170 employees pursue research in photovoltaics (PV), superconductivity, and related material. NREL's Solar Energy Research Facility (SERF) is a state-of-the-art research facility for developing technologies that convert sunlight into electricity. Completed in October 1993, SERF houses 42 laboratories where about 170 employees pursue research in photovoltaics (PV), superconductivity, and related material. National Renewable Energy Laboratory—Golden, CO.
Photo Credit: NREL

Building Attributes

A. Types of Spaces

A government laboratory incorporates a number of space types to meet the needs of the researchers, staff, and visitors. These may include:

B. Image

In the past few years the federal government has developed programs for major new laboratories that, like those in the private sector, focus on team-based labs. The typical government laboratory building (including state-funded as well as federal facilities) has a clearly defined entry and, usually, a gracious lobby. Most lobbies have information boards, computer kiosks, and display areas that show examples of the research that has been conducted there in the past (some such display areas are aimed at the general public). The lobby security typically consists of security personnel, cameras, and a card access system. It is very difficult for a visitor to get beyond the entry lobby unescorted.

NIH john Edward Porter Neuroscience Research Center

The John Edward Porter Neuroscience Research Center brings together multiple disciplines and institutes to improve the pace of neuroscience discovery. The 600,000 gross square foot facility houses over 85 groups, encompassing more than 800 scientists. A prominent feature of the building is a five-story atrium with numerous meeting and seminar rooms. NIH—Bethesda, MD.
Photo Credit: NIH

The following list of program objectives for the National Institutes of Health's John Edward Porter Neuroscience Research Center is representative of many government laboratory facilities:

  • Create a complex that promotes world-class biomedical research through communication and collaboration as a means to facilitate innovation and creativity.
  • Serve the government's needs for functional research and support space that is efficient, reliable, flexible, adaptable, safe, secure, readily maintained, cost-effective, energy efficient, and supported by state-of-the-art infrastructure systems.
  • Provide biomedical research laboratories, vivarium facilities, and shared support spaces that foster interaction among scientists and promote a collaborative work environment.
  • Enhance security and access control.
  • Develop a functional and conducive research environment to ensure a high quality of life for staff that will help attract and retain world-class researchers. See also WBDG Productive Branch.
  • Complete the project at the most reasonable cost to the government.
  • Complete the project on schedule in the most efficient and expeditious manner.
  • Minimize disruption to ongoing NIH functions/building programs.
  • Provide a visual testimony to scientific integrity and public accountability in the conduct of science.
  • Facilitate NIH's neuroscience research mission with a structure that serves as a worldwide research icon and an asset to both the NIH campus and the neighboring community.

C. Strategic and Master Planning

Many government laboratory facilities have been in use since the late 1940s or early 1950s. Over five or six decades, they have been renovated, repaired, and adapted. Some federal and state government funding is available to build new laboratory facilities. However, it is important to conduct strategic and master planning evaluations before new buildings are constructed. The strategic plan should contain clear phasing or smart, cost-effective, programmatic uses for renovated facilities.

Strategic planning is also beneficial in identifying the level of quality for the facilities and in creating basic design standards. Some government research buildings have been constructed with labs and offices that are smaller than desired because of budget considerations or because of the number of people they will house. An alternative strategy is to design optimal-sized labs and offices, and then move only as many staff into the new building as it will comfortably accommodate. When the next funding package for an addition or new building becomes available, the remaining researchers can move into that facility. This prevents the necessity to constantly adapt, renovate, and retrofit the smaller research facilities to accommodate demands and needs.

D. Project Process

Because of the Congressional or state funding process, a government laboratory can take two to three times longer to plan, design, and construct than a private-sector laboratory facility. While funding is appropriated each year, if Congress or a state legislature does not include the project in a particular year's budget, then the work would have to stop.

Generally, funds are appropriated for programming, which is often contracted to an architectural firm that has an indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity (IDIQ) contract with the ruling agency. Once programming is completed and funding for the project has been made available, the government publicly announces a request for proposal (RFP). The architect/engineer (A/E) interview and selection process usually lasts three to four months. See also WBDG Aesthetics—Select Appropriate Design Professionals. Once the A/E is selected and work begins, each submittal is reviewed by various federal agencies to ensure the design addresses the programmed goals and expectations.

On some recent projects, the federal government has hired a construction manager to accelerate the construction process. Fast-tracked simply means that the contractor starts to clear the site and begin construction of the foundation while the contract documents (drawings and specifications) are being completed on other areas of the project.

For more information on federal project processes and procedures, see WBDG Project Management.

E. Example Design and Construction Criteria

For GSA, the unit costs for this building type are based on the construction quality and design features in the following table . This information is based on GSA's benchmark interpretation and could be different for other owners.


Representative Example

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Building 110, Atlanta, GA

Architect: Perkins + Will       Size: 140,000 sq. ft.

Photo of the exterior of Building 110, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-Atlanta, GA

Building 110, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—Atlanta, GA
Photo Credit: Perkins+Will

Building 110 will be a combination of laboratory, lab support, and scientific personnel office to support the programs of the Division of Laboratory Sciences (DLS). The building will include specialized spaces such as large analytical equipment labs, radioisotope labs, and an ultra-toxin lab.

It will consist of five stories plus mechanical penthouse, providing 140,000 gross square feet for 22 permanent scientific personnel, plus 40 visiting personnel. This includes a connector between buildings 103, 102, and the new lab building 110.

The labs are separate from the offices and located in the central and northern part of the building. The offices are located in one large suite at the southern part of the building. The building is zoned this way to allow for several levels of security, with the labs being in the most secure zone. The office/lab zone will also be more affordable to construct and operate because the office portion of the building can be designed like an office building. The biggest difference is in the mechanical systems. 100% outside air will be needed for all lab spaces while the offices will be re-circulated air. Office construction will typically be one-third the cost of lab space. Having a separate mechanical system for the office space will allow for operable windows in the office spaces.

Each laboratory branch pursues functionally distinct scientific agendas and requires relatively separate laboratory areas with services specific to the branch's equipment and working protocols. Nonetheless, the concept for Building 110 is one of maximum flexibility and adaptability to accommodate changing equipment needs or shifts in program emphasis over the life of the building. Requirements for environmental control, security, chain-of-custody, and safety create unique situations that the building must accommodate upon initial occupancy, but it must also be able to fulfill new demands in the future as conditions and laboratory agenda evolve. Although space will be grouped largely by branch with unique arrangements of lab and lab support based on the particular needs of the branch, many of the individual spaces will have criteria common across all branches, differing mainly in amount and type of equipment to be supported.

Building 110 requires several types of laboratory support space, such as a radioisotope lab, tissue culture lab, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) suite, clean rooms, ultra-toxin containment lab, chemical storage, radioactive and chemical waste area, and an autoclave room.

The image of the building is modern with the facades designed to screen direct sunlight, only allowing indirect glare-free light into the building. The building design focuses on opportunities for sustainable design. The project team is striving for a "silver" or higher rating based on the LEED® rating system.

Relevant Codes and Standards

The following agencies and organizations have developed codes and standards affecting the design of research laboratories. Note that the codes and standards are minimum requirements. Architects, engineers, and consultants should consider exceeding the applicable requirements whenever possible.

Major Resources

Building Types

Research Facilities, Animal Research Facility, Research Laboratory, Academic Laboratory, Private Sector Laboratory, Office Building

Space Types

Laboratory: Dry, Laboratory: Wet

Design Objectives

Accessible, Aesthetics, Cost-Effective, Functional / Operational, Productive, Secure / Safe, Sustainable

Building Commissioning

Building Commissioning



  • Laboratories for the 21st Century (Labs21)—Sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy, Labs21 is a voluntary program dedicated to improving the environmental performance of U.S. laboratories.