Do architects get what we do in the lab?

This post is what I wrote in February of 2009 on the old blog. I was prompted to dig this post up by Virginia Postrel tweeting about this article in Slate. I pulled the text from a database dump of the old blog. The images are old too, but were not in the original post (found them in my iPhoto library).


Derek Lowe discusses the new biochemistry building at Oxford (see Nature and their VR tour). Derek:

… I kept wondering, where have I heard descriptions like this before? Oh yeah, the last time I moved into a new building. Actually, every single time I’ve moved into one, come to think of it. I was part of a gigantic corporate move in 1992 into what was billed as a “high-interaction facility”, which was nothing of the sort. And then at the Wonder Drug Factory, one of the new lab buildings had the whole research area behind a large glass wall; it was the first thing you saw when you came into the place. Unfortunately, since it was full of snazzy equipment, it became part of the standard tour for visitors (the combichem labs were largely abandoned by then), and the people working there sometimes felt like zoo animals. And my current building has the labs all around the outside walls, and a huge atrium in the middle of the building (to what purpose, no one is sure; it’s completely empty).

Microbial Sciences Building at Wisconsin. The “high-interaction” propaganda reminds me of the junket I was on a few years ago where we visited Stanford, UCSF, and Chiron. The Clark Center at Stanford was an extreme case of the open floor plan concept to promote interaction, and as far as I could tell, that was a failure. As Derek’s commenter Kako notes about (perhaps) a different building, a big problem with open floor plans for labs is that they are really noisy. What we saw was lots of people with iPod headsets, small equipment rooms being taken over to be used as offices, and the portable furniture being rearranged so people could get a small amount of privacy. We heard that the original plan was to have the PI offices in the midst of the open plan… until someone pointed out that this was not going to work when the tearful undergrads needed to see the profs about their grades. Also, Kako points out:

Atrium of the Microbial Sciences building at Wisconsin

Security – every door is open. Bye laptop! Bye purse! Gradually getting better, if only cos people learn *never* to leave things unattended.

The Clark Center did have something that was a successful high-interaction space: a Peets Coffee shop on the top floor. I spent many afternoon breaks there when I was on sabbatical.

The Genentech building at UCSF suffers from overblown scale, but the arrangement of the labs and offices struck me as smart. The faculty officesThe comment about the atrium reminds me of what some of my friends said about the clustered around common spaces, so the PIs and members of different labs would interact in each “pod” of groups. People interact in those spaces, but can retreat to a more private space to focus in smaller groups, or alone.

A lab in the Clark Center. Note the equipment room taken over as an office to get some privacy

Looking at the virtual tour views of the Oxford labs, it looks nice, but I’m wondering about the way the desks open onto the shared space. I suspect there will be a lot of iPod headsets used there too.

When I first got to TAMU, I had more interactions with people because my office was close to the rest rooms on my floor. Debby has argued that interactions can be promoted by putting restrooms and the mail room on opposite ends of the building. Not sure if that still works anymore since so much correspondence is by email. In BioBio, having lots of common use equipment promotes interaction. Having more whiteboards in the halls would promote interaction – I’m not seeing those in the Oxford pics.