Twelve Common Mistakes

I had to write this article. I have been involved in the planning, design, delivery and management of life sciences facilities for the last 15 years. Over that period, I have seen the same mistakes being made again and again. All projects are started with the best of intentions and most involve smart people. We (as laboratory consultants and architects) often get called only after a project crashes and burns.

In such an instance, there have been hundreds if not thousands of hours spent on programming and the owner finally determines the new design is just not going to work. The most tragic scenario is played out when a new facility is fully built-out before the users realize it doesn’t work. By “doesn’t work” I mean there are serious facility based issues with process flows, regulatory compliance, the equipment doesn’t properly fit, or there may be electrical, mechanical, plumbing or floor loading issues. Sometimes the function has outgrown the space by move in day. In all of these situations, sizeable amounts of time, thought and money have been invested and a do-over is required. We use the analogy of having to turn over the Etch-A-Sketch and shake it. Not a good situation for anyone involved.

I have come up with a list of the 12 most common mistakes I have witnessed. Many of these points are applicable to any technical space build-out.

  1. Starting without they right people on board — We have all seen projects started before the (you fill in the blank) are on board. Architects, finance people, vendors, facilities staff, and QA folks — are some of the most frequent omissions here. What typically happens is time and money is expended to go down a road that is a dead end or a road that is entirely in a wrong direction.
  2. Not hiring laboratory architects — Not all architects are created equal. Their academic training is almost entirely generalist in nature. Architects typically specialize only after they get out of school. The architect who did such a wonderful job on your family room expansion two years ago, or designed the beautiful hotel down the street, is probably unqualified to undertake even a minor laboratory renovation project. If you hire an architect that doesn’t intimately understand your business from the get-go, the very best you can hope for is a larger version of exactly what you have now. Plus, a learning curve may likely be factored into the fee. An experienced laboratory architect can offer process improvements, suggestions on equipment, fixtures and suppliers, or maybe suggest an entirely better way, based on their experience. Here the majority of programming time (and your money) should be spent on you conveying your needs and desires for the ultimate facility, rather than wasted on educating your architect.
  3. Not involving front-line staff — There is a common tendency to staff projects entirely with manager and director level personnel. We have found managers and directors often do not understand what the front line staff need to do their jobs. Yes, some managers may have come up through the ranks, but that may have been twenty or thirty years ago. Front line staff and “subject matter experts” need to be involved at key intervals in the programming and design development stages. Their input is needed, their validation of design concepts is needed, and their buy-in to the project is needed. An added benefit is front line staff will bring back interest and excitement to their co-workers.
  4. Not having someone (capable) in charge — When a team of stakeholders is formed and the project is discussed, the project sponsor needs to designate a strong cross-functional leader. Yes the CEO is ultimately in charge, and may attend the kickoff of a large project, however that person is typically not going to have the time or interest in being involved in the minutia of the project. If a team member is falling down on the job, the project manager must have the direct or indirect authority to call them to task. The project manager could be a senior in-house person or outsourced. A successful project must have a good leader.
  5. Working entirely with drawings and assuming everyone understands what is represented on a drawing — Many architects and contractors assume their clients fully understand what is represented on a drawing. That is simply not the case, as there are many different learning styles. Employees will be resident to verbalize their lack of understanding — especially in front of their co-workers or bosses. The bad result is stakeholders end up signing off on schematic designs they do not understand. Such a design will ultimately not meet their needs. To increase understanding of new or critical design elements, we use three dimensional CAD drawings as well as full-scale workstation mock-ups. “My cart doesn’t fit under the counter” and similar important programming discoveries can be made in the mock-up environment.
  6. Letting key operational staff “coast” through the programming and design development phases — I have seen managers and directors who felt they were too busy, or too important, to do more than show up for programming or project meeting. They assume the design professionals will somehow magically execute a design that exceeds all of their needs and expectations. These managers will likely be disappointed when their space does not turn out as they had secretly hoped. Bottom line here is stakeholders must pay close attention and give thoughtful input, throughout every step in the design process. If a senior level manager is unwilling or unable to fully participate their expertise needs to be supplemented, or validated, by a subject matter expert from within their area.
  7. Not involving vendors — It is not uncommon to wait to the last weeks of a project to involve the FF&E (furniture, fixtures and equipment) vendors. Unpleasant surprises include longer than anticipated lead times, product unavailability, unbudgeted cost increases, unanticipated mechanical, electrical or plumbing requirements and the discovery of innovative new products that cannot be accommodated by the current floor plan(or budget). Vendors may sometimes suggest better ways of doing business based on their experience of working with similar clients. Unlike everyone else on the team, a vendor’s time is usually free, until you decide to purchase something. Why not get vendors in early and pick their brains? If selection will be based on an RFP, thoroughly review the project with all of your short listed vendors before making the award. Fostering an intimate understanding of the project will result in more accurate bids.
  8. Try cutting costs before you have arrived at the optimal solution — I have worked with clients who have been running their department on a shoe string for years. It totally blows their mind when we ask them to describe their optimal facility, in an ideal world. No jerry rigging, no penny pinching – just what would be the best. Once you know what is optimal you can always scale back or value engineer to meet a budget. You simply can’t get the best finished product embracing a scarcity mentality from the onset.
  9. Have your laboratory architect employed by the General Contractor Some project delivery methods – such as “Design Build” typically have the design architects employed by the General Contractor rather than the Owner. Not to take anything away from design build delivery, however there can be instances where some reporting relationships are not in the best interest of the owner. Because of the specialized expertise involved in laboratory planning and design, issues such as process flow and regulatory compliance cannot be compromised. The laboratory architect must always have the needs of their client first and foremost. This priority can be squeezed when the laboratory architect’s paycheck is coming from an entity that might be more concerned with cutting costs or driving schedule. A solution under this scenario would be for an owner to retain a laboratory architect directly, as the owner’s consultant and advocate on the project.
  10. Leaving interior design entirely up to staff and ordering furniture from a catalog — I have seen projects where they have done most things correctly, however in an effort to cut costs, or to solicit staff buy-in, decided it would be a great idea to let the laboratory/medical staff select interior finishes. Pretty scary! It is also a failure of the design professionals and facilities staff to let this happen. Assuming detailed institutional design standards are not in place, I recommend having an experienced interior designer create 3 or 4 color and finish boards, templates if you will, for selection by the stakeholders, or the powers to be. Additionally, items such as chairs should never be purchased from a catalog without first being tried out. I request vendors drop off “demonstrators” of any chair (carts or similar items as well) that are under consideration, for staff to use and evaluate in their present work environment.
  11. Not planning for growth/flexibility — Let’s face it your business is going to change. I cannot tell you how many facilities I have toured where they just moved into newly created space and they are nearly out of room from day one. How sad! You need to be able to anticipate growth, or at least change. How easily can you convert office space to lab space or visa versa? When building an entirely new facility, from the ground-up, expansion provisions can include the future ability to add a bay or bays onto the structure(no upfront cost), building out of unconditioned shell space or simply populating the finished space with a lower occupancy density.
  12. Not realizing running a major (or not so major) project is a full-time job A renovation or new construction project of any size can quickly become a full time job. Who has the time to do it? What else do they have to do? Should the management of the project be outsourced? Assigning already overworked, full time staff member to run a major project can ultimately lead to diminished outcomes and possible burn out. In this article I highlighted some of the most common mistakes made. My intent is to instill added vigilance in readers to ensure these mistakes are not repeated on their next project.

I welcome your questions or comments.

Jeffry Frederic, broker, is president of Acorn Development Inc., a full-service laboratory planning and design firm, located in Scottsdale, AZ (

About The Author