An Open-Concept Lab Building Design: Ten Years Later

In 1998, in response to their desire to incorporate a new paradigm for discovery and teaching by breaking down the barriers between the science disciplines, a Stanford University (CA) faculty group launched the campus-wide Bio-X initiative. Intended to facilitate interdisciplinary research and teaching, the Bio-X initiative brought together engineering, chemistry, physics, information sciences, biology, and medicine to enhance collaboration and promote research innovation. The Clark Center, a multidisciplinary research facility completed in 2003, was built to be the campus hub of Bio-X and knit the program together by giving it a central home. The building brought together in a single location faculty from the Schools of Humanities and Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Careful thought was given to the design of the Clark Center to ensure it supported the specific needs of the interdisciplinary and collaborative research the building would house. The signature principles of its design are flexibility, adaptable floor plates, adjacent scientific and social spaces, and visual openness across and between floors.

Improving scientific collaboration

The last decade has witnessed a logarithmic growth of collaborative, multidisciplinary, and interdisciplinary approaches in research among biology, physics, chemistry, and the material sciences. This confluence of disciplines and the interrelated nature of the problems to be solved have convinced most scientists, including those who initiated the Bio-X initiative, of the importance of increased interaction between basic science and engineering, and the intertwining of research. The brilliant individual thinker is still an important ingredient to scientific progress, but collaborations among multiple talented people are considered to be even more essential to future discovery and innovation. Corporations and institutions are looking for ways to increase scientific collaboration within their organizations. It is clear that carefully considered lab architecture can help foster and increase this desired collaboration among its occupants.

Open, flexible labs

Unlike traditional lab buildings, which are broken up into many enclosed labs, Stanford’s Clark Center was one of the first to have large, shared, open labs with few walls (Figure 1). A building with open labs was needed to support the varied requirements of the research cultures that would be working together side by side. To enhance the openness and flexibility, all utilities are distributed from the ceiling, with a suspended framework carrying them to the bench or workstation and terminating with quick-disconnect connections. To address the casework and workstation requirements of the different types of sciences working together, the facility uses interchangeable, modular, and flexible “kit of parts” elements on wheels. The wheels and quick-disconnect ability allow the casework to be moved and rearranged fairly easily, promoting the mixing of different research groups and encouraging the blurring of boundaries between individual labs. As an investigator’s research changes or as new projects begin, the laboratory can be adapted without major modifications, and is flexible enough to allow new ways of working together.

Figure 1 - Stanford’s Clark Center open lab.

Lab building design: A window onto science

The desire of the Bio-X founders was to have the Clark science labs open for people to view, to engage both the building residents and the entire Stanford campus. Rather than having internal corridors, the primary circulation consists of open balconies ringing the exterior walls of the building. Inside the labs, researchers can look through the fully glazed walls into the inner courtyard, viewing other laboratories and the connections and bridges to adjacent wings (Figure 2). It was predicted that the views into the lab would engage students, researchers, and visitors as they passed by on the balconies. The large, open labs allowed multiple lab groups to co-locate together, encouraging researchers to see what their neighbors are doing. Additionally, a major campus circulation path goes through the courtyard, encouraging the greater Stanford community to interact with the Clark Center residents and see science in action.

Co-location: Key to scientific collaboration

To increase the potential for new intellectual directions, the Clark Center has blended the scientific disciplines that have traditionally been housed in separate buildings. The success of the Bio-X collaborations depends on a community of varied scientists and scholars working side by side, each with an active interest in collaboration across traditional boundaries. It is the remarkable flexibility of the building infrastructure that accommodates the diverse laboratory needs required to put together scientists whose work ranges from “dry science” to “wet science.”

Figure 2 - View of the Clark Center’s inner courtyard.

Encouraging interaction

It is acknowledged that significant interaction among scientists happens outside the laboratory. A short walk away from the lab to get coffee or lunch increases the possibility of chance encounters that might lead to breakthrough collaborations. The design of the Clark Center has two places to gather for food and drink: a full-service restaurant located off of the courtyard seating 240 people, and a more intimate branch of a local coffee shop on the third floor. The restaurant was purposely designed with long tables in the “beer hall” style to encourage people to mix together when eating rather than sitting in small groups. The coffee shop was purposely located on the third floor to draw people up through the building and along the balconies, past the windows into the labs.

Shared lab resources

Starting from the project’s initial days, a culture of sharing was encouraged, not only to save space but also to provide opportunities for researchers from different groups to come together. It was hoped that the dialogue and negotiations that come with sharing resources and equipment would lead to researchers joining together for collaborations. A wide range of core facilities and shared equipment were purposely located throughout the building to create opportunities for interaction among the different lab groups and act as a magnet for Bio-X scientists campus-wide.

The Bio-X program 10 years later

Almost 10 years after the opening, the lab planners of the Clark Center returned to ask its residents if the Bio-X aim of collaboration among the different scientific disciplines had been successful. Users of the building said that having a flexible facility that allows the mixing of different types of science has proven to work. The Clark Center has attracted a very wide range of scientists who are interested in interdisciplinary bioscience research, and who are eager to collaborate with each other.

Matthew Scott, Professor of Developmental Biology, Genetics, and Bioengineering, said that shared facilities and resources help keep scientists more in touch with each other, and that familiarity helps fuel their collaborations. Scientific resources at the Clark faculty’s disposal include a lengthy list of shared equipment located in individual labs as well as in core facilities such as the Imaging Center, Biofilm Laboratory, and Supercomputer. The Clark core facilities are available to the entire Stanford research community and have proven to act as magnets, drawing other scientists to the building. Heideh Fattaey, Bio-X Programs, said the need to use equipment either in other labs or in a core facility gave researchers a good excuse to leave their own labs and mix with others. She also said the success of equipment sharing at the facility should be based on extensive planning and thought on how the equipment would be used and maintained. She commented on how well the core facilities were managed, which greatly contributed to their popularity.

A sense of community

In the late 1990s, when the Clark Center was being designed, open, shared laboratories were a somewhat radical idea at Stanford. Now, the open lab planning concept is accepted, and for the right scientific group, has proven to work very well. Tom Wandless, Associate Professor of Chemical and Systems Biology, said his open lab and shared lab have turned out to feel much better than his former enclosed labs, and indicated that it would be difficult for his lab group to go back to them. He said they like how the lack of walls lets them see and learn what their neighbors are doing. This familiarity gives them a sense of community and lets them bond with the people in other lab groups around them. In a sense, they are all working together.

Central gathering spaces

The central gathering spaces were put into the building program to encourage interaction and informal meetings among the scientists. When visiting the building, it is obvious how well used they are. At lunchtime, the restaurant is packed to capacity, with diners spilling out to the courtyard and lawn on fine days. It is not only the restaurant’s design that contributed to its success, but also the high-quality, well-priced menu. The reasonable cost ensures that students can eat there often, and the quality of the food ensures that most people don’t leave the facility for meals. It is at the central gathering places that the chance encounters outside the lab can happen and that can lead to collaborations. The designers were told that from a three-minute conversation at the coffee shop, a new path to a potential cure for a disease can be conceived.

Importance of long sight lines

From its early inception, a major goal of the Clark Center had been to be a “window onto science,” permitting passersby to see into the labs and watch people at work. The open laboratories’ exterior walls were designed with large expanses of glass, and the lab support room doors were given large windows. The expansive view allows people to see and connect with their colleagues passing by, and even to spot them a considerable distance away. The ability to see people has proven to generate excitement, not only for people sitting by the windows but also for the people working deeper in the lab.


The architecture of a lab building can support collaboration insofar as it can support a sense of community among the people working in it. Clark Center scientists indicated that the feeling of being part of the “Clark community” was a major factor in fostering their collaborations. Although the building’s design elements proved to be highly successful, it was the management of both the Bio-X program and the building itself that truly facilitated success. With the proper stewardship, along with a well-designed building, collaborative science can flourish.

Tully Shelley, FAIA, LEED AP, is Principal and Senior Lab Planner, and Seth Meisler, LEED AP, is Senior Associate and Lab Planner, Perkins+Will, 185 Berry St., Lobby One, Ste. 5100, San Francisco, CA 94107, U.S.A.; tel.: 415-856-3019; fax: 415-856-3001; e-mail: