Top five tips for designing an effective laboratory


When it comes to creating a safe, functional and effective space for scientists to carry out their research, there is a lot to consider. Lab design and planning requires a lot of forethought, and a thorough understanding of the type of equipment and work to be done in the lab. Even the smallest oversight in the design stage could have disastrous effects on the ability of researchers to work efficiently and safely. Here are a few tips to get your lab design process off to a good start.

1 – Location, location, location

The location of your laboratory is of primary importance. Consider both your physical and financial boundaries when choosing where to build or buy. Think about where the building/site is located and what surrounds it. Is it in an industrial area or are there houses nearby? If possible, choose a more remote or industrial location that is still easily accessible.

Consider the available routes into and out of the site. Can staff and suppliers readily access the building? Is it on a public transport line, so staff will find it easy to commute? Is there accessible and affordable parking nearby for those who drive? 

Then consider your building design. Bear in mind that multi-story buildings, while offering more space with a smaller footprint, have implications for the transportation and installation of goods and equipment, and the disposal of chemicals. 

It is important to also consider interior design requirements such as the availability of natural light, airflow, and high ceilings to help with effective ventilation. If your laboratory is located above the ground floor, ensure that there is access to a lift for people and bulky equipment, and also to stairs for use in emergencies. 

This modern science building has labs and offices. The incinerator chimney and extraction system are on the roof.

2 – Building materials

An important part of laboratory design is the selection of appropriate building materials to ensure the safety of those working in the building. The materials used to construct the walls, floors, benchtops and other surfaces, and storage areas should be planned in accordance with the tasks to be performed within the building, government regulations, and the laboratory’s physical and financial capabilities. 

Materials used should be chosen with a focus on maintaining high levels of cleanliness within the lab space. For example, absorbent, high-maintenance materials such as wood should be avoided as these are hard to clean and will degrade and become damaged by chemicals and detergents over time. Ideally, floors and benchtop surfaces should be made from polished concrete or PVC. If floor or benchtop coatings are required, choose hard-wearing enamel paint or tiles, which are easy to clean and disinfect. An important sidenote is that the grout between tiles can be a breeding ground for microorganisms, so be sure to disinfect them regularly. In addition, there should be no gaps or raw edges between the floors and the walls as these harbour microorganisms and germs and hamper effective cleaning.

A laboratory with a PVC floor and a ceiling with pipes for ventilation.

3 – Adaptability

Laboratory design should allow for flexibility to ensure the lab can easily be converted according to requirements of the current and future users of the space. A growing number of scientists use laboratory spaces to carry out projects from start to finish. This may include computer-based research, writing notes (with paper and pen), completing the necessary experiments, and also storage and disposal of chemicals, which means the modern lab space should cater for all these activities. Your lab design will therefore need to include almost everything—but not the kitchen sink (because no food is allowed in the lab). The lab should be structured so that it can easily be adapted to suit different research projects with a range of requirements. One simple way to achieve this is to place benches and storage facilities on lockable wheels for maximum portability and adaptability. 

An example of a portable storage container with lockable wheels for safety.

4 – Accessibility and layout

It is vital to consider whether the laboratory is accessible to people of all abilities. For example, are the shelves, cupboards and other storage facilities located at a reasonable height for someone who is seated? Are there locks on the doors and can they be opened by a staff member who is physically disabled? All areas should also be accessible to someone who is physically disabled.

When designing the lab layout, ensure that the locations of restrooms, waste disposal units, emergency exits, first aid supplies, and fire extinguisher/blankets are clearly marked, and that they are accessible via multiple routes, in case a path becomes blocked during an emergency. 

The layout of the laboratory should also ensure that the pre-examination, testing, and post-examination stages of the project are kept separate, to minimise cross-contamination. Consider placing areas for related processes in close proximity to one another, so chemicals (and scientists) don’t have to travel too far. 

Low benchtops and locks ensure accessibility for a wider range of people.

5 – Clear signage

It is imperative to include all the required information and safety signs in your laboratory design. Signs should be clear, simple to understand and written words should be in English (or the most widely spoken language in your particular laboratory). Writing should in a clear, readable font and an appropriate colour scheme should be used so that it is easy to read. 

Most laboratory signs follow specific colour coding regulations according to their content. For example, emergency exit signs and first aid boxes always consist of white fonts or pictures on a green background. 

All signs, particularly those for emergency procedures such as the automated external defibrillator (AED), should be checked regularly and repaired immediately if broken or cracked. In addition to safety signs, include clear signs for the restrooms and exits. Make sure that all emergency instruction signs are clear and accessible. 

Importantly, note the location of SDS in the laboratory design. It is a legislative requirement for all labs to have accurate and up-to-date SDS for the chemicals that they use, and these need to be accessible to all lab users. Take note that chemicals currently in use in the lab should be clearly labelled with the contents, the expected period of use, the user’s name and contact number, and an emergency contact number (e.g. the poison control centre). 

Warning signs that might be seen in a laboratory.

While these five tips are crucial for the design of an effective laboratory, there is much more to consider. It is vital that lab designers do thorough research and consult with experts as well as with all stakeholders in order to achieve the optimal design for each unique laboratory.

If you have questions about chemical and laboratory safety and would like advice on how to best prepare your lab to maximise safety and efficiency, please contact the Chemwatch team today. Our friendly and experienced staff draws on years of experience to offer the latest industry advice on how to stay safe and comply with health and safety regulations while working with chemicals.


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