When people think of a lab, they most likely picture rows of repetitive benches and fume hoods, where scientists hurry about their research in crisp white lab coats. While many of today’s lab environments may resemble this image, that picture is changing, and the research lab of tomorrow is evolving in different ways. However, in order to understand what the future of research labs will look like, we must first look back to understand the global scientific drivers that contributed to the popular notion of what a lab looks like. From the vastness of the space to the minuteness of our DNA, the lab design has continually responded to global shifts in research programs.
For the purposes of this discussion, let’s begin in 1957, when Elementary Satellite 1—better known as Sputnik—was launched into low earth orbit by the Soviet Union, setting the space race in motion. To propel America forward, the first post-war generation of lab designs evolved to support research in chemistry, material science and engineering. Single investigator research models and prevalent, hazardous chemical use resulted in labs that were cellular, inward-looking spaces that placed safety as highest priority. These labs certainly were safe and shielded the public from hazardous research materials, but these “bunkers” were dismal places to work. But this compartmentalized design aesthetic pervaded the research landscape well into the 1970s, with a principal investigator assigned to an entire and insulated laboratory unit for her or his research.