Volume III: Structures for Science

Foundations for Planning: Spaces That Work

Facilities that support research and teaching in the sciences are among the most complicated building types. The complexity of planning useful spaces for doing science reflects the many different kinds of spaces involved as well as the increasing need for future flexibility. Designers must attempt to build facilities that provide spaces for labs, offices, stockrooms, equipment rooms, animal rooms, greenhouses and tissue culture room. In addition they need to create spaces which will adequately provide for future changes in science and the teaching of science. Facilities must reflect those same ideals on which the scientific community rests-honesty, impartiality, openness- to provide safe and flexible spaces to do science as scientists do science. By carefully considering how individual offices, classrooms, laboratories, community spaces, and pieces of equipment will serve their assigned purpose, planners can create spaces for science that work.

Spaces That Work

Technical Issues

Modern facilities have become very different from what they once were. Emerging technologies and concerns about safety, accessability, and environmental issues are now significant factors in determining the character and infrastructure of buildings for undergraduate programs in math and science. Buildings must now accomodate sophisticated communications networks, in addition to services for air-conditioning, power distribution, and water piping systems. They must be safe for students, faculty, and the environment. Finally, they must have an infrastructure that is efficient in terms of initial and long-term cost and fexible enough to accomodate changes in program use in the years ahead. Planners should aim for a building in which the individual systems work together to provide an environment for students and faculty that is functional, cost-effective, comfortable, engaging-and safe.

HVAC Systems

Heating/ventilation/air-conditioning (HVAC) systems circulate and exhaust conditioned air at a prescribed rate of exchange and are crucial to the safety and comfort of a facility. HVAC systems depend on a network of equipment and rooms to function properly:

  • air handling units
  • cooling and heating equipment
  • emergency generators
  • plumbing equipment rooms
  • electrical and telecomunications distribution rooms

All of these must be carefully planned and integrated in an effective HVAC system. In designing a system that works, the first consideration always should be the safety, health, and comfort of all students and faculty. The second concern should be a high standard of efficiency.

In building a new HVAC system, much can be learned from whatever system is already in place. Planners should think about what works and what doesn't work in the old HVAC system. Adaptability is also crucial, as whatever system is implemented may have to function safely for thirty years or more. Decision makers should evaluate each individual piece of equipment for a new facility in terms of value and cost, always keeping in mind how all the pieces will work together.

From Experience: Bucknell University

A well designed science facility, and even a well designed HVAC system, can and should be reflective of the institution it serves. At Bucknell University's Science Center, the guiding principle was clear-keep it simple. The design strategy went back to basics: balancing low initial costs and efficient use with designing systems that were easy to maintain. The goals were compatible with and not at the expense of the academic program. What it took at Bucknell was to analyze the individual components of the HVAC system and assign the most appropriate technology to each. This approach resulted in a hybrid system tailored specifically to meet the needs identified by the Bucknell community-one which provided simple, cost-effective, and maintainable heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning.

Asking the Right HVAC Questions

What works in our old HVAC system?

What doesn't work?

What is the value of each piece of equipment?

How will they fit together in the system?

Lighting Systems

Lighting systems require particular attention both because of their energy consumption and their effect on the spaces for work and life of the community. The cost of lighting, representing about a third of the total energy used in the structure, can be kept under control by combining efficient lamps and fixtures, automatic lighting controls and dimming systems. Daylighting, controlled to avoid glare and excessive heat gains, should be encorporated as much as possible, as it provides free energy and links the interior environment to the outside in a way that contributes to the spirit of the building. The colors surrounding the work spaces should also be considered a part of the lighting system, as they can affect the ability of students and faculties to focus.

Energy Conservation

Closely linked to the effective use of lighting is the need for overall energy conservation. Though science buildings tend to be high users of energy, capital budgets often do not allow for the purchase of appropriate and necessary energy saving devices. Planners should develop a budget for energy use that takes into account building design, equipment cost, and energy use over the life of the building. The local climate must be considered in order to select the design that utilizes energy most effectively. Use of energy-efficient equipment and a digital control system may also pay dividends in the long run. The users of the building should be brought into all conservation decisions early, as they will often be the ones responsible for certain conservation measures.

Computer Networking

Modern computer technology is having an immense impact on how teaching, learning, and research are done. With this in mind, facility planners must accomodate sophisticated technologies with a carefully designed communications network that is fully integrated into the fabric of the building. In order to bring about such a system, designers must incorporate computer rooms, equipment closets, and a cabling system sufficient to the task of providing for future computing needs. Planners should also be aware that future developments, especially in high-speed, wireless communication, will change the way computers are used and allow network access without physical connections. These changes are of great importance to those attempting to construct spaces that will remain useful in the years ahead.

"Virtual physics. For physics students. . . .a virtual laboratory has been developed where experiments in motion and gravity may be undertaken. . . . The lab provides a first look at how VR may be used in teaching basic physics concepts. A student can learn about gravity and Newton's Laws-not just be reading, or watching a demonstration-but viscerally, through experimentation and trial and error. Time can be stopped or slowed to observe what happens in a fast-moving experiment. The simple and intuitive interface does not impede learning, and to a large extent, the teacher's attention is not required while the student is in the lab. (There's nothing to break or blow up!). . .typically in a networked system. ..the teacher would enter the lab when needed then move on to another student, all without leaving his or her desk."
- Ben Delany. Virtual Reality.
Quoted in Lab Design for the Future, Anshen and Alllen.

From Experience: Columbia University

Columbia University has made the use of hypermedia technologies a centerpiece of their ambitious plan to make sweeping changes in what we teach and how we teach undergraduates and to design the chemistry curriculum for the 21st century. The plan, called the Edison Project, calls for the construction of multimedia classrooms and labs (smart classrooms) that will be equipped with the full range of communications technologies available today. The goal is to use the powerful computer graphics programs to offer students the opportunity of visualizing chemistry on the computer screen. Project Edison incorporates new classrooms, projection systems, and workstations to transform the way chemistry is taught at Columbia. Students in the near future will be able to view three dimensional molecular structures on a computer or projection screen and visually simulate the dynamics of molecular motions. By taking bold steps in improving their computer technology, Columbia hopes it is moving towards a paperless learning environment better suited for the doing of science.

Asking the Right Questions

Computer/Networking Questions To Ask:

What are the current technologies that we want to utilize in our teaching of science?

Does our building plan take them into account?

What future technologies might we want to use in our teaching of science?

Does our building plan provide the flexibility to utilize them?


Laboratories for teaching and research are highly specialized facilities, and as such present unique challenges to designers who wish to make them accessible to all users.Federal standards mandating accessibility for Americans with disabilities make necessary the integration of Universal Design into design attitudes.

There are four basic areas of concern for designers of accessible and usable labs:

  • Casework, benches and shelving
  • Floor-standing equipment such as fume hoods
  • Movable or benchtop equipment
  • Controls and alarms

In using Universal Design to remodel old facilities or build new ones, planners should remember that the process of making a place or item accessible for a certain portion of the population should not make the use of a facility or item more difficult for able-bodied persons. Many examples of sensitive design benefit everyone, and may also not involve any additional expense.

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Spaces That Work

The planner's challenge in designing spaces that work for science teaching and learning is to create structures that encourage and enhance a vibrant natural science community. A well-planned facility should provide a rich environment where students and faculty can engage in research and classwork that demonstrates the wonder of doing science. The spaces in which students learn to think like scientists should be a part of the process; upon entering, everyone should experience what the building is about, what the community of science is about. To attract students to disciplines with the reputation of being difficult, forbidding, and impersonal, spaces for science should provide a humane environment, one where students feel welcome to take an active role in a true intellectual community.

"A learning space has three major characteristics, three essential dimensions: openness, boundaries, and an air of hospitality. When we understand what each of these means we can find specific methods to create the space for learning."

From Experience: Kentucky University

When Kentucky University wanted to create a community to foster a sense of closeness in a group of students who had been alienated by the standard approach to teaching Calculus, they decided not just to change how the subject was taught, but where it was taught. The math department located, repaired, and prepared an old university-owned house on campus (professors did renovation work themselves) and gave each student the access code to enter anytime she or he wished. The house is used for studying, conversing, and socializing with others in the program and teaching assistants. The Math House, as a structure, serves as a kind of teacher itself, its informality enabling the students to grow in their community. In this case, design of an appropriate structure for a particular educational goal didn't have to be brand-new or state-of-the-art: an old house turned out to be a far more appropriate solution.

Asking the Right Questions

Compatibility Questions To Ask:

Does the building plan reinforce the academic plan?

Are spaces welcoming to students, especially non-majors?

Spaces for Community

For such a community to work, spaces where individuals can contemplate, study, and do investigative work without distraction should be provided. Such spaces need to be programmed from the very beginning. Interaction between individuals and groups involved in the teaching or learning of science can be encouraged and shaped by such seemingly mundane factors as the placement of benches, doors, faculty offices, restrooms. Community can be extended beyond math and science departments by including a lecture hall or computer lab that will be open to departments from all parts of campus. In order to make the right choices in planning spaces that will contribute to a desired community, campus traffic patterns and possible renovations of existing structures need to be examined.

"To help the intellectual sparks fly, Dartmouth now requites professors from different chemical disciplines to cluster their offices together. " I'm talking to more people than ever before, " says an inorganic biochemist who finds herself housed close by an organic chemist and two physical chemists, one expirimental, the other theoretical.

To encourage hall encounters, offices are separated from labs... by a lounge with a kitchen, and a three-story open staircase wide and grand enough to create another meeting space.

But Burke's real innovation in togetherness is the " write-up rooms" next to its laboratories. Dartmouth researchers used to write up their experiments and meet visitors int the tense, toxic environments of their labs. Now they can remove their safety goggles, write, meet people, or even eat a sandwich at desks separated from their experiments only by safety glass.

...the Dartmouth building is part of a broader movement toward academic buildings designed to promote interaction. These are not frill spaces...Their function is to get people together, and their symbolism is the university as a place where information is shared"
- Wall Street Journal.

From Experience: Susquehanna University

Fisher Science Hall at Susquehanna University offers an example of the massive impact that a structures can have on both science communities and curriculums. Though the unorthodox principles encorporated in the buildings design drew early criticism from some, the unusual features were soon changing the way science was done and taught at Susquehanna. Conversations were taking place between faculty on the atrium balconies, and strong interdisciplinary programs and classes were being formed. Upperclassmen, underclassmen and faculty were mixing in departmental conversation zones. Students who might have been intimidated by traditionaly styled programs in traditional buildings were being attracted to natural science by labs with windows facing Fisher's hallways. All of these design elements were the product of careful pre-construction planning and thoughtful discussion about goals, needs, concerns, and dreams.


Classrooms are some of the most critical spaces in a science facility. Classrooms that work happen as a result of thinking first about how subjects will be taught. Just as there are multiple teaching and learning styles in undergraduate education, so there ought to be multiple styles of classrooms. Possibilities include lecture rooms, demonstration classrooms, media classrooms, and electronic classrooms.

Asking the Right Questions

Classroom/Lab Questions To Ask:

How might the design of a facility assist the faculty in their teaching and research?

What can be done in the planning stages to create a teaching laboratory that will be help us to teach science now, with the current technology at hand?

How can we ensure that the lab will remain useful in the future as new technologies become available?

Is a discipline specific lab required/desired?


There are many options to consider when deciding on designs for laboratories. Traditional labs built from the 1950s and 1960s don't do a good job of accommodating the new, hands-on, open-ended work being done by undergraduates today. Modern teaching labs should incorporate appropriate numbers and styles of student workstations, shared benches, and storage spaces in an organizational model that corresponds to the preferred teaching style. Design choices in a teaching lab can either impede or enable effective teaching, so considerations of noise and sight lines must also be made with the desired method of teaching in mind. In labs more dedicated to research than teaching, equipment purchases and classroom arrangement can be adjusted to better accommodate the research purposes of a particular discipline. It must be noted that the spaces surrounding a lab can be as important to teaching and research as the labs themselves. With this in mind, planners should take care that adjacencies are well-designed and integrated into the overall educational goals of construction or remodeling.

Office Spaces

Faculty offices have an effect on how well faculty can instruct their students and interact with each other, and so care should be taken with them as well. Planners should determine how an office will be used before they determine what it will look like. Since faculty are both scholars and teachers, their office spaces need to accommodate both roles. Computer space needs to be provided as well as access to the internal and external teleconferencing and electronic networks which may be available in the future. The arrangement of offices should be informed by issues relating to faculty interaction, student access, and energy conservation.

From Experience: Harvey Mudd College

The Olin Science Hall at Harvey Mudd College, completed to house two new departments, biology and computer science, and to provide new quarters for the mathematics department. With bold and careful planning, Olin's designers were able to create a facility with need-specific labs and adjacencies. Students at Harvey Mudd are expected to involve themselves heavily in independent research, and research labs were constructed specifically for this purpose. The teaching labs vary depending on subject. The neurobiology lab incorporates six neuroworkstations with digital imaging capability. Developmental genetics, population biology, molecular microbiology, physiological ecology, and plant physiology also have spaces designed with their particular research effort in mind. Because very little of the workspace in the labs is built in, Harvey Mudd's new center remains adaptable to future changes in curriculum and teaching methods.

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Technical Issues