Private Sector Laboratory  

by Daniel Watch and Deepa Tolat
Perkins & Will



Because of the current competitive marketplace, many private sector companies are investing more money in creating high-quality spaces outside the labs. Companies feel the strong need to attract new employees to their campuses and to keep the employees they have. In addition to constructing gracious public areas (such as atriums, well-lit and finished corridors, and break rooms) and providing the latest computer technology in conference areas, private research companies are supplying such amenities as a central cafeterias, child care centers, fitness centers, walking trails, dry cleaners, and on-site banking. These amenities support employees and allow them to do their work more efficiently each day. The competition to keep top researchers and the need to develop more discoveries each year are the main differences between private sector companies and government and academic facilities.

Photo of the exterior of Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, St. Louis, MO
2 scientists working in the laboratory inside the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, St. Louis, MO

Donald Danforth Plant Science Center is one of the world's largest and most advanced research facilities devoted to basic plant science research. The challenge for designers was to create a facility that would attract the world's leading scientists while placing the St. Louis area at the cutting edge of plant biology research. St. Louis, MO.
Photo Credits: Donald Danforth Plant Science Center and HOK

Building Attributes

A. Types of Spaces

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

B. Team-Based Research and Other Characteristics

Many private sector companies are involved in the discovery-to-market phases of research. For example, in the pharmaceuticals industry, getting drugs to market requires that a company's marketing people work closely with its scientists. Marketing experts are now part of many research teams, with offices located nearby.

Teams are created to focus on specific discoveries each year. Because of the competitive market and the utilization of computers and robots in research, more discoveries are necessary each year to meet a company's goals and satisfy its shareholders. In the past, teams were almost always organized around a principal investigator and composed of a more or less permanent set of individuals. Today, principal investigators are collaborating more, individuals are moving from one team to another to provide their specific expertise, and the boundaries are becoming less defined within the research environment.

Other key attributes of private-sector labs include centralization of services such as glassware storage, engineering systems, and vivarium facilities. Private-sector companies are more likely than others to invest in technical support for the scientists' work. Most private corporations tend to implement extensive facility management to address churn and to maintain the facilities. Facility management is important to minimize any downtime for a specific researcher and to keep all researchers happy. Initial cost is always a consideration, but long-term operational costs and returns on investments are also key to the design and operation of a laboratory facility.

C. Space Guidelines

In most cases, private-sector research labs are slightly more expensive and larger than government or academic labs because competitive markets require more discoveries each year and because private-sector companies must spend more on facilities to retain their employees.

Benchmarking is used to estimate the cost of a laboratory or research building as well as the amount of space and casework to be provided to each researcher. See also WBDG Functional—Account for Functional Needs. Benchmarking is a risky process and a very difficult one, in part because it is hard to acquire solid, relevant benchmarking data. It is sometimes necessary to make broad assumptions of scope and cost well before any pre-design investigations begin. The following examples are presented for use in such a situation. They are not intended as a substitute for programming and should always be superseded by more accurate information, as it becomes available.

Abbott Laboratories estimates $250,000 per scientist for a facility built on its campus. It typically includes shell space for new and remodeled construction projects so that it can affordably address growth in the organization. At its recently completed laboratory facility, Chiron Corporation spent $158,200 per scientist.

2 scientists working in the lab
Floorplan of Building 4, Chiron Corporation Emeryville Campus Expansion Project-Emeryville, CA

Building 4 was developed as a portion of Phase I of the Chiron Corporation Emeryville Campus Expansion Project, resulting from a Master Plan. The five story building provides new research laboratories, specialty laboratory/process development areas, and office and support space. A central atrium and enclosed courtyard provide areas for social interaction and supply internal daylight to laboratory wings/clusters situated on east and west building zones. Emeryville, CA.
Photo Credit: John Sutton Architectural Photography
View enlarged plan

Benchmarking labs can be done by calculating the ELF (equivalent linear footage of bench) factor. Typically, the ELF is based on anything that occupies floor area in the lab, such as casework, equipment, and storage. Today's concern for safety and environmental protection dictates the basic minimum allocation for an organic chemist's benchtop as being no less than 20 ELF. The space consists of 8 feet of fume hood, 8 feet of bench, 2 feet of sink and 2 feet of refrigerator/freezer. A biologist, on the other hand, needs far less fume hood space but has a significantly greater need for ancillary equipment such as refrigerators, incubators, centrifuges, and environmental rooms. Therefore, an individual biologist's bench needs can easily exceed 30 ELF.

The following values and square footages are drawn from the May 2000 issue of Earl Wall Associates' quarterly Laboratory. The numbers are typical for the kind of research being conducted but may vary considerably depending on individual research efforts.

ELF Values Per Person Per Discipline
(Without Animal, Greenhouse, and Pilot Areas)
Laboratory Type ELF Value
Organic chemistry 24–28
Physical chemistry 24–33
Instrumental analytical chemistry 33–41
Microbiological and immunological 20–31
Net Lab Square Footage Per Person According to the Preceding ELF Values
(Based on a 10'–6" Wide Module)
Laboratory Type Net Lab Square Footage per Person
Organic chemistry 126–147
Physical chemistry 126–173
Instrumental analytical chemistry 173–215
Microbiological and immunological 103–163

D. International Marketplace

The United States accounts for roughly 44% of the industrial world's total research and development (R&D) investment and continues to outdistance—by more than 2 to 1—the total research investments made by Japan, the second-largest performer. Many countries, however, have put fiscal incentives in place to increase the overall level of R&D spending and to stimulate industrial innovation.

The Central Research Institute-Taejon, Korea, with an artifical lake along the entry side

The Central Research Institute is a new technical-administrative center for a large Korean manufacturer, Dongbu Corporation, in Taejon, Korea. The facility contains research laboratories, administrative offices, and a pilot plant for product testing. An artificial lake at the entry side creates dramatic reflections, doubling the building's scale and creating a bold image for the company, which is proudly clad in a metal panel system that Dongbu manufactures.

Architects and engineers (A/Es) in the United States have a good chance of getting commissions for major projects, especially in Europe, because of their expertise and sometimes lower fees (based on the exchange rate). On such projects it is typically necessary to affiliate with a local firm, which manages the agency approvals, contract documents, and construction administration. (A laboratory project in France may require the approval of more than 2 dozens agencies.)

In Asia, U.S. firm's rates are usually much higher than those of local architects and engineers. Nevertheless, the government may hire a western firm to design and construct a building with a western image. A U.S. firm may receive a commission in any of the following ways:

  • It can win a design competition, which usually requires an invitation. Competitions are widely used on most major projects in China and other countries.

  • It can team with a local firm that is responsible for the construction documentation and construction administration. This approach saves the host government money, lets them employ their own people, and incorporates the U.S. expertise at the U.S. billing rates.

  • If a project is too large and complex for the local A/Es to complete the contract documents and construction administration, then an American firm may be commissioned to do the entire project based on U.S. billing rates.

A key difference in designing and building outside the U.S. is that all calculations are done in the metric system. The designer must have a clear understanding of the typical room construction methods, materials, and details of the country in which he or she will be working. It is also extremely important to understand the capabilities of the local construction industry. For example, for a large research project in England, pre-cast concrete panels were fabricated by a company in the United States. No concrete company in all of Europe could produce the concrete panels for less than it cost to make and ship the product from the United States. In China, it is common to see granite flooring and interior walls because it is difficult to obtain good gypsum wallboard construction, carpeting, or ceiling tiles. At the beginning of the design phase it is important to understand what can be built locally, at what quality, and at what cost.


Representative Example

Shanghai-Jahwa Research Laboratory, Shanghai, China

Architect: Perkins & Will       Size: 97,000 gsf

Model of the Shanghai-Jahwa Research Laboratory-Shanghai, China (View 1)
Model of the Shanghai-Jahwa Research Laboratory-Shanghai, China (View 1)

Shanghai-Jahwa Research Laboratory—Shanghai, China

The Jahwa Research Facility, in Shanghai, China, demonstrates the Chinese government's new desire to provide researchers with safe, world-class labs to enhance China's position in the international R&D market.

The new Shanghai-Jahwa research facility is part of a master plan at the firm's manufacturing campus in Shanghai. This facility contains pharmaceutical, cosmetic, fine chemistry, and basic research laboratories, combined with an administrative and creative development and exhibition component. The building is intended to provide closure and definition to the campus front lawn, creating a sense of place by reinforcing the southern edge of the site. The architectural expression of the building reinforces the programmatic dichotomy of the creative and the scientific. Public and administrative functions make up the southern bar of the project, the most striking feature being the three-story-high glass exhibition space, or "creative idea salon." The south bar acts as a screen or filter, making a transition from the more open and public functions to the highly technological lab and research spaces in the northern block.

The laboratories are based on the latest ideas and technology developed in the United States: open labs, equipment zones, modular design of architectural and engineering systems, zoning of the building between lab and non-lab spaces, and team-based research and computer applications. The fume hoods, other key types of lab equipment, and the main mechanical systems serving the building will be built in the United States or Europe, then installed in the facility in China.

Emerging Issues

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.

Mergers and Consolidations

Mergers and consolidations have been a main part of the corporate research industry in the past seven years, and this trend is likely to continue. Mergers, most evident in the large pharmaceutical companies, are intended to reduce cost and competition and to allow the merged firms to be more competitive with the remaining larger research companies. On completion of mergers, companies must address concerns such as evaluating existing buildings for their highest and best use, consolidation of facilities, and leasing or selling of real estate.

Startup Companies and Developer-owned Buildings

Among the results of the recent mega-mergers of pharmaceutical companies has been the emergence of many startup companies. A startup, regardless of its research mission, has a different outlook on facilities. The way in which a startup company obtains services to design and construct its facilities is in most cases different from the traditional design, bid, and build process.

Generally, startup companies do not want to spend their own money on facilities. The money they do have must be used to fund and obtain their research and business goals, and they are not interested in building a corporate headquarters per se. Companies that are in the first and second rounds of venture capital do not construct research buildings but lease existing space and up-fit to meet their minimum requirements. Companies that are in the third round of funding are now creditworthy and have the business and science credibility to attract investors. Still, in many cases these companies do not want to use their own capital to build facilities but often seek a developer to fund the project with a leaseback option. Most projects at this level come into being through some form of the design-build process, bringing together a developer, a designer, and a builder.

Because of the participation of the developer, planning and design of startup facilities are unlike planning and design for established companies' research facilities. In a few cases, the facility may be programmed and designed to meet the individual requirements of the user group, but in most cases the laboratories will have to be made as generic as possible in case the initial company is not successful and leaves the space. Another consideration-a challenge for the designer-is that in the future the building may have to accommodate multiple tenants.

Where the developer owns the building, the developer also typically owns much of the equipment: fixed casework, fume hoods, autoclaves, and glass washers. The developer wants to have a leasable, functional laboratory building if the original users leave.

In general, the concept of developer-driven projects works well in the realm of life sciences and general sciences research. If extensive clean rooms, sterility suites, nuclear magnetic resonance rooms, or pilot plant applications are required, however, the "fit" will not be as attractive to a developer, as the building and its central utilities become too specialized. As in the design of any laboratory facility, good laboratory planning principles and sound life-safety practices—including the provision of clear circulation paths, clear and concise laboratory zones, and laboratory support and office zones—should be followed. See also WBDG Security and Safety in Laboratories.

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:

Additional Resources



  • 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.
Building Types: