Facilities (Campus Spaces)

Science on Display

The idea of putting science on display in research labs is not a new one. There are a multitude of benefits of adding glass to increase views into labs: more daylight deeper into a building; tour groups and visitors can watch the research happening in real time; lifting the veil of secrecy increases excitement about the research; and bright, open labs are a great recruiting tool.

science lab

PHOTO © DROR BALDINGER

For all the benefits, there are also unique challenges associated with opening up these labs. Maintaining an appropriate level of security for both the physical assets within the lab as well as the proprietary data being generated is an ongoing challenge. And few enjoy working in a “fishbowl” with people watching your every move.

Thoughtful design techniques can allow for the best of both worlds and provide a balance between these disparate goals. Borrowing ideas and practices from surprising sources outside of higher education can yield a beautifully designed, visible lab that upholds the security needs of any research environment.

Connecting to Cheesemaking

science lab

PHOTO © DROR BALDINGER

Grande Cheese in Fond du Lac, WI, had a vision for connecting the community to its cheesemaking process and allowing visitors to witness the scientific studies behind what they do. Similar to many higher education research projects, one of the primary drivers for the new 87,000-square-foot, 40-acre Home Office and Research Center was to provide visitors an experience as a way to showcase this science.

A dramatic stone wall gallery corridor with wood-trimmed windows providing views into the corporate research labs was the design solution to make their goal a reality, while still allowing for safety, security, and privacy. Graphic signage along the angled walls directs attention away from the researchers themselves and doubles as an educational tool explaining the cheesemaking process. The slightly angled glass gives the illusion of having unobstructed views into the lab, but in reality it obscures the views to provide researchers a bit of relief from tours and passersby.

science lab

PHOTO © YVONNE RIZZO

I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE. The Robotarium at Georgia Tech, a $2.5 million lab funded by the National Science Foundation and the Office of Naval Research, was intentionally designed as a space where anyone, at any time of the day or night, can walk past the lab and see robots in action. The 725-square-foot facility houses nearly 100 rolling and flying swarm robots that are accessible to anyone.

Perhaps surprisingly, this design technique was inspired from methods used at theme parks, zoos, and aquariums knows as the “zig-zag” concept. Amusement park designers understand how and why people move through exhibits is based largely on window placement. Strategically adding a 15.7-degree angle on attraction windows actually draws more attention. The angled glass is nearly imperceptible as visitors are strolling by and can only be seen if the guests are either directly in front of the attraction or window. Applied in lab design, full-size windows strategically placed on a path allows the researchers some privacy and helps reduce the “fishbowl” effect.

Inside the research lab a green umbilical located along the perimeter of the lab cleverly doubles as a writeup space. The white (well, green) board allows researchers and scientists to move, collaborate, and document data efficiently without any obstruction or without having to leave the lab, but the data remains hidden from anyone peering inside.

Watching Robots

The Robotarium Robotics Laboratory at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta provides a home for worldwide robotics and drone research, either in person or remotely. With a goal to engage the entire Georgia Tech campus, this research laboratory (www.news.gatech.edu/features/robotariumrobotics-lab-accessible-all) affords a theater-like viewing environment. To meet that goal, a large window opening from the corridor in front of the arena encourages passersby to stop and watch the robotic activities occurring on the specially designed 12-foot-by-14-foot white arena. Banquette seating inside the lab provides a front-row view.

science lab

PHOTO © YVONNE RIZZO

Computer workstations strategically placed at the perimeter of the room allow for much less scrutiny from the window. In addition, a wire screen can be pulled around the arena table to both help contain drones and to obscure the view beyond the screen. Task lights are also employed to focus attention on the activity within the arena and away from the researchers in the lab.

Balancing Transparency and Privacy

Non-academic projects can provide a successful template to creative problemsolving within higher-education research labs. For example, forensic facilities have similar conflicting project goals of desiring open, air-filled spaces but needing to maintain some amount privacy.

science lab

PHOTO © KEN MOHR, HERA LABORATORY PLANNERS

The Maricopa County Forensic Science Center in Phoenix, AZ, included an art budget to allow artists to create appropriate pieces to be incorporated into the building and appreciated by staff and visitors of the facility. Designers devised an art solution to obscure the visual movement of staff and evidence across an open second-story corridor that looked down into the main entry/lobby of the facility. As visitors enter the two-story barrel-vaulted lobby, they look up at an “art glass” window with a translucent view rather than the inner workings of the facility that, because of privacy and security issues, should not be on display.

In an autopsy suite, visual sight lines must be managed and scheduled. Maricopa’s solution to balancing openness with privacy was to partially screen the glass along a tour corridor with an artist’s rendition of the Phoenix landscape. The distinctive silhouette of regional mountains, the city skyline, and the baseball park serves as part clever hiding device, part art piece. This window into forensic medicine allows for a controlled observation into the medical examiner suite to view an actual autopsy, which is occasionally required by attendees of a tour, first responders, or medical and nursing school students.

science lab

PHOTO © KEN MOHR, HERA LABORATORY PLANNERS

At Lehigh University’s Science, Technology, Environment and Policy & Society (STEPS) Building in Bethlehem, PA, designers created a visual opening from a main corridor into a classroom. What could have been a major distraction instead displays a geological collection sandwiched between two pieces of glass. The display allowed natural light to penetrate deeper into an interior corridor and gives passing students a glimpse of the research happening within the building to help build excitement and interest.

One technology that is becoming increasingly viable because of decreased first costs is the installation of smart glass, which allows researchers to manage visibility into their labs. With a push of a button the glass will turn opaque within seconds, effectively safeguarding information. Smart glass eliminates the use of miniblinds or other such devices that can get dirty and contaminate the environment.

science lab

PHOTO © HALKIN MASON PHOTOGRAPHY

Another option to safeguard data within lab environments is RFI shielding glass, which is a highly transparent mesh foil built into glass to stop transmission of all radio waves from 10kHz to 40GHz. The foil inhibits the transmission of electronic data such as listening devices, signal interception, and even photography, which may be a necessary precaution in some research environments.

Using design techniques and best practices from sectors outside of higher education and even outside of laboratory design altogether can give fresh insights into universal problems. The resulting projects are a perfect balance of disparate project goals, allowing science to shine while maintaining needed security and privacy.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 issue of College Planning & Management.

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