Open vs Closed Laboratory Design


Open-plan is used to describe any floor plan which uses large, open spaces with few walls and minimal use of small, enclosed rooms.  Modern office space design follows this trend, where there are few walls with movable, modular furnishings resulting in an open, interactive workspace.  Since the mid-90s, laboratory design has embraced the open-plan concept.

Open-plan design has become popular in many research institutions where the push is to create laboratory spaces to support collaborative, multi-disciplinary team-based work. This design concept differs significantly from that of the “closed” lab, which was based on providing a laboratory work space for each individual principle investigator. In an open concept laboratory, researchers share bench space and equipment. Since the 1990s, a wide variety of laboratories including wet labs, engineering labs and dry computer science facilities have been designed as “open” labs.

In a “truly” flexible open-concept laboratory design, the utilities are distributed from the ceiling, and connected to the bench or workstation.   Interchangeable, modular laboratory workstations on wheels allow the workstations to be moved and rearranged easily promoting flexibility and encouraging different research groups to collaborate.  As research progresses or as new projects or teams emerge, the laboratory can be adapted without major structural modifications.


Advantages of Open-plan Laboratories


The growth of collaborative, multidisciplinary, and interdisciplinary approaches in research has promoted the idea behind open-plan laboratories.   In the last decade research has become more interdisciplinary requiring the cohabitation of wet and dry labs together.   Now, it is common for research teams to require computer simulation experts and bioinformaticians to work directly alongside wet lab researchers to analyse and interpret data.  Institutions and research facilities are looking for ways to increase scientific collaboration and bring together the various multi-disciplinary expertise in a cost-effective manner. The open-plan laboratory fits this design brief.

Simultaneously, research is constantly changing, and researchers expect their workspace to be more customizable with the ability for the laboratory bench setup and support areas to be adaptable as it needs change. The increased need of collaboration and the physical adaptability of laboratories are now seen as a necessary requirement for scientific breakthroughs.  Appealing to the bean-counters is the fact that in an open-concept laboratory, equipment and bench space can be shared, thereby reducing the overall cost of research infrastructure.


Disadvantages of Open-plan Laboratories

Many new laboratory designs are planned with large open areas although there are some negative aspects with this type of design. Certain researchers find working in an open-plan laboratory noisy, distracting and they cite the lack of privacy as major concerns.  As with any workplace, dealing with different personalities can be difficult.  This is a main researcher complaint in an open-plan laboratory – especially with colleagues that are not “great lab citizens” who leave shared resources unclean, borrowing items without permission, and not returning shared equipment or supplies.

For an open-plan laboratory to work successfully for all researchers, there needs to be a concerted effort in managing resources, booking systems and cleaning/maintenance of the shared resources.

Another concern is the issue of chemical safety.  In an open-plan laboratory, which is effectively one big room, there is a lack of containment for hazardous agents.  A single spill in an open-plan laboratory could mean that the entire space is shut down.  Many health and safety officers also are suspicious with open-plan laboratories due to the lack of accountability and security.  However, these concerns can be overcome with effective laboratory management practices.


When is a Closed lab necessary?


Although open-plan laboratories have many positive attributes there are still certain situations where a traditional closed laboratory is necessary.  Closed labs are required for specific kinds of research or for certain specialized equipment such as: Nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) equipment, electron microscopes, tissue culture labs and darkrooms- which need to be housed in separate, dedicated spaces.


A happy fusion? 

There are many different design fusions that incorporate the advantages of both open and closed-plan laboratories.  A successful and common design involves the open laboratory space with separate offices and lab support areas -but with direct access to the open laboratory space.  This allows for dedicated write-up and storage areas adjacent to the laboratory.  This concept could be expanded to include quiet corners and niches which can be zoned off with the use of furniture or partitions thereby providing individual spaces for researchers when required.  In some cases, the design could include individual closed labs which directly accesses the larger, shared open laboratory. When a researcher requires a separate space, an individual closed laboratory could be used; when it is beneficial to work as a team, the main open laboratory is used.



Administrators and laboratory managers of research facilities must analyse the research requirements and the researcher’s preferences, such as privacy and physical security, against the future requirements of space reassignment. The solution tends point to building or renovating to create modifiable laboratory workspaces that promote collaboration—in an economical, energy efficient and environmentally friendly manner.    This solution, no matter whether the laboratory design is for research, education, hospital and healthcare facilities, chemical or pharmaceutical companies, would involve a combination of both open and closed plan laboratory.


Where to get help?

Modulab Systems, a division of Westlab, specializes in the design, consultancy and supply of modular laboratory workspaces for education, university research and industrial laboratory and testing facilities.  The team can assist with all aspects of laboratory design from consultancy, design and manufacturing to installation.

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