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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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February 4, 2009

Fancy Building, Fancy Science?

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Posted by Derek

I see that there’s a new biochemistry building at Oxford, written up here in Nature. It was designed by a London architectural firm, Hawkins\Brown (love that backslash, guys, so very modern of you), and according to the article, the design:

”. . .ensures that the 300 researchers working there communicate as much as possible. The traditional layout is reversed: here, labs are on the outside, divided by clear glass walls from the write-up areas, which are open to a vast, five-storey atrium. Everyone is visible. Open staircases clad in warm wood fly across the atrium at odd angles, and each floor hosts a cluster of inviting squashy leather chairs and coffee tables, giving the impression of an upmarket hotel.”

You can judge for yourself here. But as I was reading that, I kept wondering, where have I heard descriptions like this before? Oh yeah, the last time I moved into a new building. Actually, every single time I’ve moved into one, come to think of it. I was part of a gigantic corporate move in 1992 into what was billed as a “high-interaction facility”, which was nothing of the sort. And then at the Wonder Drug Factory, one of the new lab buildings had the whole research area behind a large glass wall; it was the first thing you saw when you came into the place. Unfortunately, since it was full of snazzy equipment, it became part of the standard tour for visitors (the combichem labs were largely abandoned by then), and the people working there sometimes felt like zoo animals. And my current building has the labs all around the outside walls, and a huge atrium in the middle of the building (to what purpose, no one is sure; it’s completely empty).

Most of the Nature article, though, is taken up with the artworks that were commissioned for the new building. I can’t pronounce on these without seeing them all, although the hanging birds display reminds me of a display I saw hanging in a shopping mall in St. Louis in the late 1980s. I do get a bit worried when I hear some artwork described as “rais(ing) questions about how we organize and view the world around us”, since that’s the worst kind of boilerplate artspeak. (Find a large abstract installation you can’t use it on). Another statement about how “if you have a greater degree of visual literacy, you reflect more on both the way you represent things, and also the way that may limit the way you think about them”, falls into the same vaguely depressing category.

“Time will tell if money spent on art gives a significant return in scientific discovery”, is how the article ends up. But how will we know? Set up a control building with no artwork at all, or one furnished only with the Pre-Raphelites? (Full disclosure – I’d rather work in that last one). My guess is that the people who work there everyday will gradually stop seeing the artworks at all; their biggest effect will be on visitors, for what that’s worth.

And as for laboratory building design in general, my suspicion is that there aren’t that many useful general design schemes. Once you’ve fallen into one of those slots, what will matter most for productivity will be the boring details about the size of the benches and hoods, the ease of using shelves and cabinets, the number and location of electrical outlets and sinks, and so on. As for interaction between the scientists, I agree that it does a lot of good: but how to force it? There seems to me to be a tradeoff between convenience and interaction – the most interactive buildings I’ve worked in were the ones that forced me, though a limited number of doors and stairs, to walk down long corridors past a lot of open (and rather cramped) offices and labs. Spread things out, put in a lot of access points, and people just won’t see each other as much.

So here’s the question: I’m sure that many of them can hurt it, but has anyone worked in a building that seemed to help discovery? Examples welcome, and feel free to link to pictures.

Comments (48) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Life in the Drug Labs


1. petros on February 4, 2009 8:40 AM writes...

Surely the key to interaction is having some readily accessible, and not over large, cofee/discussion areas?

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2. 2mrklr on February 4, 2009 9:12 AM writes...

I like the nice touch of the grand piano in the atrium - how many late nights working in the lab did you catch yourself thinking "If only we had a grand piano to gather around and sing some hymns for inspiration between collecting fractions..."

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3. Tot. Syn. on February 4, 2009 9:13 AM writes...

I've got to be honest and say that the organic chemistry building at Oxford was fantastic. Massive shared write-up areas meant that groups actually shared coffee and ideas far more often than in the other departments that I've worked in. There was also a policy of sharing lab-space with other groups - meaning that you often *saw* the chemistry happening, which is pretty useful. Except that we shared with George Fleet's group - NaCN-tastic...

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4. Hap on February 4, 2009 9:36 AM writes...

If professors don't play well together, then open design can ensure that you get to see fireworks on a semiregular basis. The graduate students might play better with one another in such as design.

At MIT in the early 90's, someone's idea of art funding was to gather hair from many people and hang what was essentially a hairball in the atrium of the student center (housing the main cafeteria); not surprisingly, the idea was not well-received.

I think the quote tag at the end of the initial quote is messed up - maybe not a close quote but an open one?

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5. bearing on February 4, 2009 9:36 AM writes...

I'm just going out on a limb here, but if they want people to interact with each other it seems the best thing would be a single large lounge, with freely available high-quality coffee and a couple of vending machines for snacks, tables and chairs and armchairs, journal subscriptions plus a couple of popular magazines and newspapers, and a couple of chalkboards.

Plus, as was mentioned above, a layout that forces people to walk past other people's offices and labs frequently.

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6. gblittle on February 4, 2009 9:37 AM writes...

Well I got beat to the "Grand Piano" punch by 2mrklr. I have to ask, it is a nice building, but does it really make research/development any better? And to what degree? It kind of reminds of a biotech in Munich, beautiful blue glass, some kind of brushed metal trim and winner of some kind of architectural award in Germany/Europe. All I thought when I entered the building was "cash burn". Ironically the company had to sell off its portfolio of assets/IP's to various pharma/biotech companies which left them only with a nice building, nothing to show for it and now out of business.

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7. John Spevacek on February 4, 2009 9:55 AM writes...

I've never seen any physical setup that made a difference. What does make ALL the difference? The "culture" of the company. The environment. The way that peers interact with each other. The ways that management interacts with employees. Those intangibles that, when done right, feel heavenly and are just so much common sense. Those intagibles that, when done wrong, are impossible to correct.

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8. Kent G. Budge on February 4, 2009 10:36 AM writes...

My experience is that, if scientists want to interact, they'll find a way to do it. If they don't want to interact, they'll find ways to avoid it.

Architecture is largely irrelevant.

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9. rhodium on February 4, 2009 10:50 AM writes...

Back in the grad school days the greatest productivity jolt was hearing the boss's door close. We each had a spring loaded butt that would propel one to the hood to look busy. I suppose putting loudspeakers in every lab and randomly playing the door closing sound would have increased productivity (Pavlovian conditioning would have induced the reaction setup response).

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10. road kill still alive on February 4, 2009 10:54 AM writes...

I'd like some argument or agreement on this one:

There have been some new designs that argue that squeezing researchers together in more confined spaces rather than large open areas makes them work more collaboratively, and I seem to initially agree based on what I've seen in academia vs industry.

In industry, many scientists have their own offices and spend too much time in them alone compared to the time in the lab, whereas in academia you're all in there together typically in a more confined space.

In general I've felt there was more spontaneous and creative collaborations in academia due to this proximity effect than industry, where proximity is usually mandated by project or group meetings.

Additional thoughts anyone?

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11. Aspirin on February 4, 2009 11:01 AM writes...

Am I the only one who feels that the cloistered, rather depressing, dark hallways at MIT actually increase research productivity? I would still rather have a window with a view than be in a jail cell though.

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12. HelicalZz on February 4, 2009 11:26 AM writes...

I've worked in both secluded and 'fishbowl' labs. I prefer the latter and do think that being seen does lead to more opportunity for interaction. But fruitful interaction and communication is cultural and either encouraged or not. Here is where management needs to lead by example and foster communication by participating in it, both within and outside their departments / fiefdoms. People will interact to the extent that it is encouraged and valued.

Lab design can help a bit, but isn't going to do it on its own. If the CEO / president / department head are in another country, state, building, or wing, then the design of the lab isn't too important.


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13. DrSnowboard on February 4, 2009 11:31 AM writes...

doi:10.1016/j.drudis.2008.03.020 Drug Discovery Today was quite an interesting take on this. I took away that if you give people the choice of where and how they interact, you get more. ie privacy is necessary sometimes, but no doors are better than open doors.

That said, we still haven't built a 'creative teepee' at my current company, although a table football setup would be welcome.

One things for sure, once the marble steps are installed in reception, the company is finished.

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14. Masters on February 4, 2009 12:30 PM writes...

"and the people working there sometimes felt like zoo animals"

The way things are heading with the job market, you'll need to visit a special zoo to see the largely extinct Homo-chemista.

The glass boxes are a way to acclimatize the residents so eventually they won't be too scared when prompted to enter into breeding rituals.

Architects are looking out for us!

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15. KC on February 4, 2009 12:59 PM writes...

While I haven't seen buildings improve discovery, I have seen buildings hamper discovery. I think we all have - nightmarish labyrinths designed for research that isn't performed in there (and not designed for research that is). I worked in a building where the stockroom was on a different floor, which lead to frequent spills as people had to go halfway across the building to get anything done (which increases time for dropping stuff). Another building had its animal quarters laid out so that you had to go through a high risk biosecurity area to get to lesser risk areas.

I think the problem is they're assuming some linear response between building quality and discovery, when in fact, it's more logarithmic. Quickly, you hit a saturation point for what your building can do for you.

Things I saw work far better: Department-wide coffee breaks. Regular speakers that the employees pick/invite. Friday after-work beer. All these being cultural things.

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16. milkshake on February 4, 2009 1:27 PM writes...

I have to say that after moving into our new spiffy campus that was apparently designed by Martians, I have a very tiny office without a window (shared with 3 other dudes). But at least we have a door - unlike some other more unfortunate colleagues who have no door but instead a giant fishbowl window into the lab. (The first thing they did when they moved in was to plaster a schoolroom-sized map of World over it). And now I share hood and bench too, with my boss.

The amount of space these architects wasted in hallways and lobbies is staggering, they were very generous there but the space compromises happened mostly in the synthetic labs and office area.

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17. pete on February 4, 2009 1:40 PM writes...

I haven't seen the Oxford biochem building design but when I read, "vast, five-storey atrium", my architectural-trog side kicks in. It blows my mind to see the overuse of expansive atria in building design - I'm thinking of a few biotechs & pharmas that I've known.

My experience is that researcher interactivity and inspired vision doesn't occur 'cos you got a big-ass lobby with a few lonely coffee tables on each level. It occurs for many of the alternative reasons cited above by others.

So to all you BIG Atria-loving Archies: You can give a building a heart without building a catherdral.

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18. RB Woodweird on February 4, 2009 2:52 PM writes...

I have had this experience on a smaller scale. I joined a company way back when that was still organized into small labs. The management structure was very vertical. This meant that chemists in different labs would often be working on similar compounds or reactions without knowing it. Two chemists doing the same thing would have to communicate up two or three bosses before they had one in common. As the years passed, however, the buildings were renovated in an open floor design and labs were slowly consolidated. In the end, we ended up knowing what other people were doing and what they could do. We were able to learn from each other and see when someone needed help or information. It ended up being a much more productive place to work.

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19. Bob Hawkins on February 4, 2009 3:05 PM writes...

In my experience, good physics can only be done in ugly rooms with brick or, preferably, cinder block walls, and exposed mechanicals. Pipes are best, water, LN2 or vacuum; electrical conduit is OK.

I did my graduate work in what used to be the computer room at Ohio State, designed for an IBM tube-and-relay computer. It had three huge air conditioning units the size of compact cars hanging over the instrument. They were dead, of course, but great feng shui.

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20. bbtech on February 4, 2009 3:14 PM writes...

When I moved from a "less prosperous" school to Scripps (La Jolla) for a PDF I did feel better walking into what was avery nice building. Don't know it made work any better, though, and the view of the Pacific made me wish I wasn't mixig chemicals.

On art, I vividly recal working for a dodgey biotech in the early 00s. In the fron tlobby was a huge paingint of an albatross. It was very appropriate.

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21. Chrispy on February 4, 2009 3:14 PM writes...

You want interaction? Serve beer. More scientific interaction happens over frosty pints than almost anywhere else. I suspect that Oxford people got this right, but I have not yet seen a pub in a biotech/pharma.

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22. milkshake on February 4, 2009 3:41 PM writes...

We used to have had beer keg on tap every Friday afternoon at my previous company, the happiness started around 3pm. A lady from administration tried once prevent the scientists from taking home the leftover beer (in beautiful polycarbonate cell culture flasks pilfered from biology labs) this caused a small riot and so from then on it was decided that happiness of the staff folks is more important than protecting the company from lawsuits. We used to have wonderful Chinese New Year celebrations also. (Its interesting how much goodwill can be created for few hundred bucks per week, spent on goodies.)

when we were taken over Pfizer promptly put end to this happiness.

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23. Hap on February 4, 2009 3:54 PM writes...

There must not be enough architects with Xs and Qs in their names to follow biotech nomenclature procedures, and weird punctuation may either get your emails dumped in spam folders or make you look like you're trying to get out of a record contract. Maybe backslashes are the new InterCaps?

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24. HOMO-LUMO on February 4, 2009 4:00 PM writes...

Nicer place I´ve been working in by far. Three single lasses a male ratio (it helps). Laid back attitude, some beers at lunchtime, people propense to generate issues are just ignored.

And the funnier thing is that is a multidisciplinar unusually productive department.

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25. HOMO-LUMO on February 4, 2009 4:03 PM writes...

Forgot to say, that the beer is kept three selves up the n-BuLi on the freezer´s lab. (No accidents in 30 years and emeritus gettin to their 80s, though)

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26. JC on February 4, 2009 4:13 PM writes...

The 3 story pendulum in our lobby is neat.

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27. Anonymous on February 4, 2009 6:19 PM writes...

I like some of the modern design features that are supposed to foster collaboration, etc., but I also like to be able to do my work and not feel like I am on display. I've seen some labs where everything is glass, people are always walking by and looking in, and it seems like that would just be distracting.

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28. Greg Hlatky on February 4, 2009 6:37 PM writes...

You want ideal architecture that enhances productivity and employee satisfaction? Put all managers' offices and conference rooms far, far away.

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29. Libby on February 4, 2009 6:40 PM writes...

My grad school lab at Berkeley moved to a new building. Compared to our old lab space:

Pros: nice coffee and lunch area shared with other labs and, room for equipment, and shared equipment.

Cons: 1.5 feet less bench space per person; no windows to the outside, only windows to the atrium (I couldn't keep plants alive!); PI's office on the other side of the floor behind a secretary (instead of next door to the lab); and many seminars were a 10-15 minute walk each way across campus (in our old building to be exact).

Pro or con? Expensive "art" exhibit in the atrium that was made from used and cast off science supplies.

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30. Anonymous on February 4, 2009 7:08 PM writes...

I question whether the interactions this will promote will be research-related, or if more interaction will mean more time spent chitchatting about sports and gossiping.

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31. Anon on February 4, 2009 7:24 PM writes...

Milkshake, are you an old Agouronian drinking beer across the parking lot from Merck in LJ?

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32. anonymous on February 4, 2009 7:42 PM writes...

How much time in pharma do R&D personnel spend on busywork? One way to get researchers to interact more might be to not burden them with bureaucratic busywork that steals time they might otherwise use to interact.

Art, fancy atria, etc. are just ... window dressing.

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33. McChemist on February 4, 2009 7:47 PM writes...

Back to the piano for a second - if you want your students/workers/whatever to be able to spend a half hour of downtime expressing themselves musically, put a dusty old (in tune!) upright in a back room somewhere. A grand piano in the atrium isn't a piano, its furniture.

People actually used the piano in the grad student lounge at Harvard.

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34. burt on February 4, 2009 8:35 PM writes...


How about a pipe organ that rises hydraulically from the floor--think "Phantom of the Opera"? Add maniacal laughter and full-shield safety goggles.... And a giant Van DerWaals generator rising up in that atrium, with real lightning!

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35. Pfizerite on February 4, 2009 8:59 PM writes...

In industry I think that the grandiose buildings are either a sign of panic over the lack of productivity or a management attempt to be hipper than thou either way it is a waste of money better spent on equipment and beer for the lab rats

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36. CMC Guy on February 4, 2009 11:34 PM writes...

Having been involved in several new labs/building projects in both academia and industry there has always been constant battles between what is most functional verses what presents a proper image (#13 DrSnowboard's final comment is a truism based on many examples). Usually in spite of seeking recommendations from the lab occupants typically more got spent on furnishing offices and conference rooms, particularly for profs/managers than providing quality infrastructure. In more than one case after 6-12 months major problems happened with utilities and ventilation/hoods which took another 6-12 months of constant repair contractors around to "fix". Talk about disruptive and causing negative impact on the research productivity.

Open design is OK concept within limits but different people react differently. There is probably no "one size fits all" as some people work better in dungeons, often alone, while other thrive in visible setting. I hated being in cubicle farms. If lab areas did not have offices I always liked having small conference rooms that could not be reserved so if anyone had an idea or problem could gather together to discuss spontaneously.

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37. BCP on February 5, 2009 12:13 AM writes...

Very funny. I worked for a large pharma company that moved into a new sexy campus in the mid 90's -- familiar themes - open goldfish bowl labs, large areas for scientists to get warm and fuzzy and read journals together, and lots of expensive artwork. Needless to say, it didn't make a shred of difference - each group went and had coffee together not with others, the larger building and multiple corridors separated people even more than they used to be and that artwork....hmm. Plus ca change.

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38. Zach on February 5, 2009 12:35 AM writes...

Bob Hawkins:

Where the heck were you working that they could pipe LN2 to you? Next you'll be telling me about the 3He faucets...

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39. anon the II on February 5, 2009 8:54 AM writes...

We actually had LN2 pumped into a lab at a facility where I used to work. I think it went to a cryogenic storage room. You could see the insulated pipe running in the ceiling down a long corridor. A lot of our corridors didn't have drop ceilings so you could see all the plumbing in the ceiling for gases, liquids, and electrons. It was part of that industrial look back when that was design chic. Big Pharma eventually closed us down and sold the building to a skin care company. I wonder if they use that LN2 pipe.

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40. Hap on February 5, 2009 1:02 PM writes...

#29: I wonder if that had anything to do with the professors - I thought that someone (one of his grad students?) had tried to shoot Schultz, and so maybe there was an attempt at security-based design.

Architects seem to like to design pretty buildings - problem is, functionality seems to take a back seat to neat design. (Boston City Hall?)

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41. Bob Hawkins on February 5, 2009 2:58 PM writes...

"Where the heck were you working that they could pipe LN2 to you? Next you'll be telling me about the 3He faucets"

I'm currently at Air Force Research Lab, west of Boston. There's a 30-foot-tall LN2 dewar next to the building, with insulated pipes running the length of the building on that side. (LHe is still special order.)

The AF will be moving the lab to New Mexico in 2011. The new building there is under construction. It'll have everything the current building has, plus more, so LN2 on tap in every lab is a given.

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42. SRC on February 5, 2009 5:43 PM writes...

The biochem dept at Berkeley split off in rancor from the chemistry dept many years ago, and famously (if apocryphally) moved as far away as it was possible to get - the diagonally opposite end of the campus.

Re Oxford's biochem building, Oxford's facilities in chem and biochem were long overdue for replacement/demolition. I'm glad to hear they finally got around to doing something about them.

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43. Kako on February 5, 2009 7:43 PM writes...

I work in one of these buildings with a huge atrium and glass everywhere (which shall remain nameless!). Supposed to promote interaction and I guess this is achieved every once in a while when somebody supplies free wine. Rest of the time most people still stick to their research groups and talk to who they need to talk to.

Downsides. It's somewhat late so I'll stick to the highlights:
(i) *So* noisy. Throughout the day from the writeup area you can hear every conversion in the building, every phone and timer ringing. Got into the habit of coming in late and staying late specifically so I could concentrate. Some people may be able to deal with ambient noise better but annoys the hell out of me.
(ii) This huge atrium means that there are about 50% of seat/desk space needed for # of people, rationalised by fact that people should be spending most of time in lab and therefore hotdesk (where do we keep spectra/papers etc - carry around in a rucksack?).
(iii) Multiple faculties/schools - ordering/paying for stuff is a minor nightmare.
(iv) Security - every door is open. Bye laptop! Bye purse! Gradually getting better, if only cos people learn *never* to leave things unattended.
(v) Been open a couple of years and still no seminars etc involving whole building, so no one really knows what anyone outside their group is doing anyway.
(vi) Department now appears to be broke to the extent of no more communal glassware/water for water fountains etc/money for repairs...great move on the expensive building!

That said, my outlook is gradually becoming more and more bitter as my thesis deadline draws closer, so it's possible that I may be missing out on the positive aspects of working in an multidisciplinary building...

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44. Bored on February 5, 2009 10:23 PM writes...

As an artist, and a scientist, and someone who has worked with architects on several buildings, this is really about architect ego. They like to say they are trying to help the people who will work in the building. The main thing they are actually trying to do is make "statements" in steel and concrete. They'll deny this, but I've known a lot of ego-maniacal architects.

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45. Jim Hu on February 6, 2009 1:20 AM writes...

Great discussion on this post; I've got a longish response on my blog. Shorter version:
- I'm with Kako on noise and security
- Open plans don't work in academia due to the "tearful student" problem.
- Examples from a junket I went on when our university was checking out building designs (after which they ignored our input)
- If they want interaction, the Oxford design needs whiteboards in the public spaces.

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46. Tyrosine on February 6, 2009 11:39 AM writes...

I just wanted to put in another good for for the Scripps Research Institute (La Jolla) atrium. There were always people hanging out in the atrium, drinking coffee, and either socializing or conducting informal lab/project meetings. This was not typical for the cutthroat culture you would expect. Even the lab rats from the Nicolaou and Boger lab would take the effort to walk down four floors to hang out in the atrium. I also notice a lot of people would also hang around the walkways above the atrium (which also had tables).

Why did this area work so well? The atrium was filled with cushy chairs (couch-style), tables, sunlight, plants, and I think even some water effects before the institute was concerned about saving water and electricity. Oh yah, gourmet coffee cart was available too. There was also a distinct people-watching advantage, especially for inventing new gossip.

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47. Cellbio on February 6, 2009 12:01 PM writes...

I have lived through this many times as well. Most recently, I helped with a plan, now shelved, to build a new building that would put all these other open architecture labs to shame (yes it is ego drive). Most of the design was brilliant. Beautiful labs, great shared spaces for coffee, lunch, spontaneous burst of innovation, but a key element for our productivity was missing.

In our shop, we built very high capacity cell assay capability, complete with liquid handling and automation, such that we spent less personal time in the beautiful labs, and more time at the computer handling the large data sets. The bulk of the work transitioned to QC'ing data, depositing to the data base, and processing the data to forms that effectively communicate the results to the team members ('publishing the data'). The universal opinion of the associates doing this work is that the concentration required did not mix well with sitting in the middle of a large shared space full of people innovating at full voice. You can guess which opinion ruled. The architects could only see the work task of associates as "working in the lab", which is, for some functions, not the right way of thinking any more.

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48. Pez on February 7, 2009 12:38 PM writes...

The most interactive building I've worked in was the NIMR in Mill Hill, London, designed in the 1930s by Maxwell Ayrton, who also did Wembley Stadium. Rumor had it that he based it on the shape of an antibody - well, two antibodies glued together at the Fc (today, an atrium would be obligatory at the join). It's quite imposing, you can see it for miles. OMG, I just found out it was used for the 'Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane' in 'Batman Begins'!

What made it interactive: Most importantly, a bar on the premises where those running long reactions mingled every evening, and an awful cafeteria, which fostered a sort of wartime solidarity. Only the tenured staff had offices, and they had to come out of them for Department coffee at 11 and tea at 4pm. A lecture hall big enough for everyone in the whole building to attend the monthly seminar. Bright labs with great views, not much bench space, a lot of shared resources and 'dancing cheek to cheek' with your bay partner. Country footpaths for brainstorming while strolling, lawns for chatting while sunbathing or playing croquet, sports fields for the interdepartmental soccer and cricket games. Ooh, I think it did have a grand piano - many scientists are very musical, so I don't think that's a stupid feature.

Of course the MRC are shutting NIMR down and moving it all to central London, to be more 'interactive'. Although the new site is TINY, I think we can guarantee the building will have a fancy atrium. And no bar.

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