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Lab Safety

Pros And Cons Of Open-Plan Science

Collaboration-boosting open-plan labs and buildings are becoming the norm, but many chemists say they are both a hindrance and potential danger

by Alex Scott
May 19, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 20

Credit: Alex Scott/Carmen Drahl/C&EN
Step inside Shell Technology Centre Amsterdam's open plan building with Alex Scott, and find out how this building style has affected researchers.

Board the ferry from central Amsterdam for Buiksloterweg on a weekday morning, and it’s likely you’ll be sharing it with some of more than 900 scientists from Shell’s open-plan research center on the other side of the river. Until the building was commissioned in 2009, one would watch these scientists, who may study catalysts or detergent formulations for recovering shale oil, quietly splinter off from Buiksloterweg to workspaces in about 40 research buildings in the area.

Nowadays, scientists from different labs recognize each other on the ferry and often chat during the five-minute walk to their shared front door. The new Shell Research & Technology Centre Amsterdam (SRTCA) features large common spaces, multiteam labs, shared office spaces, common meeting zones, and cafés, all linked by a vast, glass atrium. Shell deliberately chose an open-plan design in an attempt to promote collaboration and the exchange of ideas among its scientists and especially between those working in the upstream energy field and in the downstream research areas, says HP Calis, manager of the building.

Calis cites practical architectural advantages that cut the cost of building and operating an open-space facility. Fewer walls means simpler air ducting systems and more flexibility and efficiency in placing and reconfiguring desks and lab surfaces in less space. Thus open-space labs are cheaper to construct and operate.

With SRTCA, Shell is among several large chemical and pharmaceutical companies, such as BASF, Sanofi, and Novartis, that have followed the lead of the information technology sector and Google, whose Mountain View, Calif., headquarters serves as the Rosetta Stone of open research workspace. Many large institutional labs have also adopted open-plan architecture. Calis says that Shell hasn’t evaluated the productivity of scientists relative to its new Amsterdam research building, “but my hunch is that people are happy and more productive in the space,” he says.

There is plenty of evidence, however, that open-space research is much less of a cultural fit in chemistry than it is in information technology. A significant number of chemical and drug researchers, including C&EN readers responding to an online query, say they find working in open-plan labs and buildings to be a noisy and distracting experience. Some feel that sharing labs, equipment, and chemicals with researchers from other teams poses a significant safety risk. Many express a certain dread at the prospect of the open lab becoming the norm in corporate research workspaces.

Of a dozen or so C&EN readers who offered their opinions, most are critical of the open environment. Imke Schröder, research project manager at the University of California Center for Laboratory Safety and adjunct associate professor for microbiology, immunology, and molecular genetics at UCLA, criticizes the trend for open-plan buildings in university campuses across the U.S. In association with colleagues, Schröder undertook a straw poll of views from among several faculty; students; research staff; and environment, health, and safety staff about their perspectives on open-plan buildings.

Photo of the interior of the open-plan Francis Crick Institute.
Credit: Francis Crick Institute
The 1,300 scientists set to move into the Francis Crick Institute in London in 2015 are hoping the open-plan building (shown in illustration) will enhance their ability to collaborate.

“Faculty resoundingly voiced that open lab space did not foster collaboration between researchers,” Schröder says. Students reported that supplies and equipment are more easily shared between groups in open labs. “However, relationships become strained if jointly used equipment is mistreated or access to supplies is exploited,” Schröder says. “Lack of privacy and distractions by members from other research groups was noted as a general problem.”

The Pros And Cons Of Open-Plan Research


Potential Benefits
◾ Promotes collaboration
◾ Flexible space
◾ Low-cost construction and operation
◾ Modern and stylish appearance
◾ Daylight in labs
◾ Supports multiteam research
◾ Configurable to meet needs of occupants
◾ Facilitates chance meetings
◾ Facilitates sharing of lab equipment
◾ Preferred by younger researchers

Potential Problems
◾ Noisy
◾ Increases potential for distraction
◾ Lack of privacy
◾ Challenging for introverts
◾ Lack of daylight in large areas
◾ Complicates management of chemicals and supplies
◾ Requires an increase in workplace rules
◾ Requires sharing lab equipment
◾ Chemical safety concerns
◾ Creates motivational challenges
◾ Limited control of temperature

Derek Lowe, an organic chemist who has worked with several pharmaceutical companies in drug discovery, recently floated the topic of open-space research on his influential blog, In the Pipeline. Responses he received highlight increased disturbance as a fundamental flaw in the design of open-plan buildings. This resonated with Lowe. “When I’m thinking, I shut the door,” he says. “When I’m interrupted, my thoughts take off like the pigeons do when someone rides their Vespa into the market square in an old Italian movie.”

Esteban, a commenter at In the Pipeline, typifies the naysayers, who Lowe says far outnumbered the advocates of open-space research. “Open offices are brutal,” Esteban stated in a comment on Lowe’s blog. “Just blowing my nose made me feel like a spectacle. I truly think the cumulative effects were a type of psychological torture.”

Disturbance is a key issue for many of the 100 or so staffers who work in Sanofi’s open-plan drug discovery building in Tucson, according to an employee who chose to remain anonymous. “Some people like it, but most of them don’t because it is too noisy,” the employee tells C&EN. In certain places in the building, which opened in 2009, there can be a “lot of interruption traffic.” The company’s response, which has solved the issue for some employees, has been to provide earphones to drown out the noise and provide quieter “library” areas.

Enhancing collaborations between biologists and chemists at Sanofi is proving to be a challenge because safety regulations relating to flammable liquids have required chemists to be zoned to a different floor than biologists. This may not be recognized in early stages of designing buildings. “The people who make the decisions on this are the ones who have enclosed offices,” the Sanofi employee quips.

Susan Cain, in her best-selling book “Quiet,” empathizes with individuals who find open-plan buildings problematic. Many scientists are introverts and prefer to work independently, but open-plan buildings support a “groupthink” culture, according to Cain, who estimates that at least one-third of people are introverts. She goes on to state that “open-plan offices have been found to reduce productivity and impair memory. They’re associated with high staff turnover. They make people sick, hostile, unmotivated, and insecure.”

Cain’s findings raise interesting questions about collaborative work in chemical and pharmaceutical research, where scientists who resisted sharing data on electronic notebooks 10 years ago now swear by the tool and research-sharing strategy. The idea of groupthink would also seem essential to collaborative research in the drug industry, where competing companies now share laboratories in search of breakthroughs.

But Lowe makes a distinction. “I like electronic notebooks very much and would never want to go back to paper. My spectra are attached, pdfs of the relevant papers can be attached, other experiments are automatically cross-referenced, the whole thing is searchable by structure and six dozen other fields,” he says. “There are just so many obvious enhancements that most chemists in my experience are eager to make the switch. Open offices, not so much. And the benefits there can be a bit fuzzy and hard to quantify.”

Detractors of open-space research also cite chemical safety as an area of concern in open-plan buildings. “Concern that lack of containment for hazardous agents could lead to exposures resulted in resentment toward their neighbors,” UCLA’s Schröder says.

Deborah Wolfe-Lopez, laboratory and chemical safety manager at Georgia Institute of Technology, agrees. “Open-plan buildings can be a nightmare, safetywise,” she says. “The one-big-room design means that a single spill in the lab can shut down the entire space.”

Safety concerns about the handling of chemicals in open-plan environments also resonate with Russell Vernon, a chemist and director of environmental health and safety at UC Riverside. “Most health and safety people say they don’t like open plan largely due to the lack of security and accountability,” he says.

But asking whether a traditional or open-plan layout is better misses the point, according to Kristine Woolsey, a behavioral strategist for architect firm Carrier Johnson. “It’s much more subtle than that. The right solution for almost every company, no matter what industry, involves combinations of both open and closed plans. The variations depend on who you are trying to attract and what their environment is,” Woolsey says.

One strategy Woolsey suggests is the placement of furniture, coffee machines, and cafés. She also recommends that lab managers design the open workspaces.

Software is available to predict and design traffic flows in a building to ensure that those who need peace and quiet are not positioned along a key artery of a building.

Design also can be used to try to increase the “happy accident” of collaboration between staffers in a range of ways, such as in Google’s open-plan headquarters, where baristas have targets to make customers wait in line for four-and-a-half minutes for coffee. “They want people to have to wait so that they meet other people. Any longer, though, and it could put off staffers from queuing in the first place,” Woolsey says.

Bill Odell is the director of the science and technology group for design and architecture firm HOK and has been creating open-plan science buildings for three decades. He sees evidence that open-space research is better at meeting the needs of scientists as science becomes ever more complex and multidisciplinary.

HOK recently designed an open-plan research building in the U.S. that Odell says has enabled a leading pharma company’s scientists to reduce lab size and increase office space by moving temporary walls just as a drug candidate goes from the lab development phase into administration-heavy clinical trials.

Credit: Shell
His hunch is that scientists at Shell’s Amsterdam R&D center are more productive and happy.
Photo of HP Calis, manager of Shell’s technology center in Amsterdam.
Credit: Shell
His hunch is that scientists at Shell’s Amsterdam R&D center are more productive and happy.

In association with PLP Architecture, HOK also designed the Francis Crick Institute, a futuristic-looking, open-plan, multidisciplinary biomedical research institute in the center of London that will house 1,300 scientists when it opens at the end of 2015.

In HOK’s open-plan design of the institute, the often-disliked, semienclosed desk areas dubbed “cube farms” have been ditched in favor of dedicated write-up and storage areas for the scientists adjacent to their labs, Odell says.

“But if they want to go elsewhere to think and need quiet space and reflective space, we will have that too in the form of quiet corners and niches around the building, which can be zoned off such as with the use of high-backed furniture,” says Andy Smith, construction director for the building.

With nearly 1 million sq ft of space, the Francis Crick Institute will feature 120 glass-walled labs with natural light delivered from a vast common atrium. Each lab will have space for about 10 investigators. It’s a design that has been led by the scientists who will use it. HOK has created about 50 different floor plans for the scientists to choose from.

Strict adherence to management systems, such as wearing lab coats only in labs and having individuals take responsibility for certain chemicals, is another factor that can really benefit open-plan science, Odell says. He concedes, however, that it may be easier to administer strict rules in a corporate environment rather than in a university one.

Shell’s Calis confirms that his company’s culture and a clear code of practice in the lab and outside has enabled the firm to use its Amsterdam building—featuring 860,000 sq ft of labs, test halls, workshops, and offices—to best effect, particularly in cases where teams share labs. Individuals are responsible for the chemicals they use in labs.

Even UCLA’s Schröder concedes that open-plan lab space holds promise for the team-based science of the future if a series of steps, including the introduction of clear rules around the management and responsibilities of chemicals, are incorporated.

Not all senior managers within Shell initially were convinced that open plan was the right way to go when the building opened in 2009. “There are pros and cons to open plan,” says Ben Ramakers, global technology manager for base chemicals at Shell, who moved from an enclosed office to an open floor. His initial skepticism about issues such as noise in the new building has faded, and he now sees benefits in the open-plan nature of the Amsterdam building.

Unplanned encounters between scientists who use the building also are happening, says Bob Scheffer, general manager of Shell’s catalyst research group. He is now working on a joint project with an old college friend he reconnected with after a chance meeting in the atrium.

Any dislike of open-plan science buildings is something that Odell predicts will fade over time because it is the older generation of scientists accustomed to closed environments who oppose open-plan buildings. “That is because people in their 30s and 20s work in a completely different way than anyone older. Putting them in a cell is just anathema,” he says, citing examples of how the younger generation prefer to use headphones and work on mobile electronic devices in open spaces.


Woolsey agrees. “If you are going to recruit 20-year-olds, you are better off having an open-plan building,” she says.

Odell acknowledges that open plan is cheaper than the alternative. He, however, considers the design’s other two key advantages—space flexibility and the opportunity for distinct teams to come together—to be the driving forces for open-plan science buildings of the future. “A giant laboratory for new ideas, processes, and technologies is appropriate—and perhaps essential—for advancing science,” he says.

If Shell were to add to its Amsterdam building—or even rebuild it—the firm would repeat the design it already has, Calis says. The chances are that in 30 years a new generation of Shell scientists will still be walking off the ferry to a single front door.  


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