A New Lease on Life: How Renewing Academic Labs Enhances Value and Amplifies Discovery
Some of the world’s greatest scientific achievements originate in academic settings. However, many universities are short on lab space, with existing campus buildings unable to meet the needs of modern science. In this post, we explore three ways academic science renewals and repositionings can drive experiences that inspire the next breakthrough. Key strategies include creating a destination for collaborative and interdisciplinary learning, cultivating a cutting-edge makers culture and rethinking resilience, performance and standards.
As major academic research institutions are mission-driven to conduct advanced scientific research, physical infrastructure is more essential than ever to teaching, learning and exploration. This is especially critical as the first STEM building boom on many college campuses occurred between the 1940s – 1960s, which has flooded college campuses with aging buildings that are unable to meet the requirements of contemporary, 21st century research.
But building new is not always the best option, especially from an environmental standpoint. Instead, renewal of aging building stock can have a lower carbon footprint (particularly with re-use of all the embodied energy in the original building), alleviate lab shortages sooner than new construction and features more energy-efficient building systems, windows, and materials. Projects such as an addition at Cornell University’s Thurston Hall that is under construction and the completed renovation of Goessmann Hall at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, point the way forward, harnessing creative design strategies that attract academic science researchers without undercutting urgent carbon neutrality initiatives.
Below, we explore three strategies to reposition aging academic science buildings.
Create a Collaborative Destination for Interdisciplinary Learning
Collaboration is essential for innovation, which is why spaces for faculty, researchers, students, and staff to connect beyond the lab bench are so critical. Yet the ability to innovate as a team and conduct cross-departmental research is often hindered by the aging layouts of older academic lab buildings. For example, teaching labs built between the 1940s and 1960s typically feature long hallways and a warren of small rooms with limited flexibility for researchers and principal investigators.
University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Goessmann Hall, originally built in 1959, necessitated an update to accommodate the university’s growing environmental health and sciences department and its rapidly expanding grant-funded, wet lab-based research. The original layout also had no breakout spaces, hindering student and faculty’s ability to connect outside of research pursuits. The renovation gutted the entire second floor to incorporate creative planning around an existing vertical framework, developing a more efficient, flexible layout to accommodate future changes in scientific research. While the project’s efficient design saved the client $600,000, the real value to the university is likely in the open plan design’s ability to support future growth. In addition, the new light-filled space is safe and welcoming for students and staff which allows the program to compete for talent.
To maximize daylight, air and future flexibility, the team reorganized spaces into an open plan to not only provide additional room for researchers, but also improve connections between lab and non-lab spaces. To create a more team-centered environment, the renovation added a series of collaborative social spaces between the lab and office wings. For instance, a breakout zone features alcoves with built-in seating and tables. Rather than just a pass-through hallway, this area serves as the main corridor connection, providing a dynamic destination for researchers to brainstorm ideas, troubleshoot research issues, host group teamwork and hold informal meetings.
While Goessmann Hall’s renovation at UMass Amherst refreshed its labs and connective spaces for collaboration, Cornell University took a different approach. An airy, light-filled addition to Thurston Hall will feature not only new labs, learning spaces and meeting rooms for the university’s biomedical engineering and material sciences departments, but a grand, centrally-located connective space. This expansive zone encourages social interaction between graduate and undergraduate students with spaces to host presentations and events. Furthermore, this unique space bridges the gap between the existing building and the addition, with a connecting stair running the entire four floors of the project, from the lobby to the roof.
Cultivate a Cutting-Edge Maker Culture
Research is increasingly partnership driven, with more instructional initiatives conducted in specialized lab spaces. Cornell University's Thurston Hall showcases a unique teaching environment with a maker space "fab lab" adjacent to a design studio and design lab, where students collaborate on projects within their department, other schools, and industry partners. This teaching space gives students the opportunity to actively problem-solve in a hands on collaborative format, where they can host brainstorming sessions at tables while building and experimenting at adjacent benches or in the fabrication space.
In addition, the project is designed to foster unique collaborations between graduate and undergraduate students. For instance, the Master of Engineering teaching lab is located right above the fab labs below, enhancing access. Furthermore, since the lab did not have a set program and unknown sponsors at the project’s outset, the space is designed to be as flexible as possible, which hosts adaptable infrastructure, casework, an open layout and an accompanying lab support room with fume hoods for chemical usage. Finally, the main collaboration area on the second floor features windows to maximize views inside and out, while still offering a sense of privacy.
Even with prioritizing adaptable social spaces, Thurston Hall features a higher percentage of usable square footage available for students, faculty and staff—61% compared to the typical average of approximately 55% of other academic buildings.
Rethink Resilience, Performance and Code Standards
Lab buildings are some of the most energy intensive on the planet, typically due to complex mechanical requirements and extensive energy needs. Compounding this issue, many older academic labs feature aging structural systems that are unable to support the load and vibration requirements of contemporary research. At the same time, colleges and universities globally are developing institution-wide carbon neutrality plans. At UMass Amherst's Goessmann Hall, the design team aligned with the project’s mechanical renovations, allowing them to synchronize interior design updates along the building’s structural spine—first prioritizing lab improvements while integrating vital moments for both informal and formal collaboration.
In addition to interior repositionings, exterior updates can improve building performance. Thurston Hall at Cornell University established a modern presence on campus while meeting Ithaca’s aggressive stretch code and a 20% maximum window-to-wall ratio to minimize excess heat and energy loss through windows. Although this limits the amount of glass across the façade, the team utilized daylight simulation studies to maximize natural light and views. On a larger scale, the Thurston team also evaluated multiple building systems to best integrate with Cornell’s existing Lake Cayuga-sourced chilled water system and future ground-sourced warm water systems.
Furthermore, the team emphasized healthier materials, keeping specifications open-ended to be mindful of the content and source of materials. For example, the team worked with the structural engineer to use a performance specification that targeted the lowest embodied carbon concrete. Even simple updates like carbon-neutral specified rugs and cradle-to-cradle carpeting (using bio-based backers versus vinyl or PVC), counter materials (phenolic rather than epoxy) and fabric ductwork, are more sustainable options. The project team specified carbon-neutral flooring products and was mindful of selecting materials within close proximity to the project site.
Complementing sustainable materials and building strategies, lab building renewals need to accommodate changes in a creative way to meet new building code and safety requirements. This includes planning for a maximum allowable quantity of chemicals to bring a project up to code while providing a flexible and adaptable layout and infrastructure. The Cornell Thurston project had the added challenge of working with limited fire separations in the existing building complex, which necessitated the hybrid "lab suite" and "control area.” Thurston Hall features an innovative hybrid approach of lab suites and control areas, allowing the existing building control area to bleed into the addition and provide separate lab suites in the new addition. The hybrid approach resulted in a complex MEP building system approach in the addition, weaving the new and old buildings. This is a unique yet repeatable solution to solve a typical problem many campuses experience today.
From the addition at Cornell’s Thurston Hall to the renovation of Goessmann Hall at UMass Amherst, innovative renewals create a new, dynamic home for the next generation of scientific discoveries.