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Utilizing three-dimensional technology helps owners better understand their space during the design phase of each project.

Those who have designed or worked in research environments before know that these complex spaces have their own unique requirements and characteristics. The project team strives to meet those special requirements when designing laboratory areas while accomplishing maximum usage and minimizing waste within that space.

As it is becoming more standard for design teams to both design and coordinate in a three-dimensional setting, different stakeholders within the project team are discovering new innovative ways to leverage these intelligent models being produced as design progresses. The models are shared to help the team understand, visualize, analyze, coordinate, schedule scopes of work, and mitigate change management, amongst other uses, at a more efficient and accurate level than performing the traditional two- dimensional design process.

Designers of laboratory and research environments are continually thinking of how they can utilize building information models to encourage more interaction with the client and users and engage them at a deeper level. Some of the technologies we have found to be successful in doing so, especially in laboratories, are through the use of technologies like virtual reality and mixed reality.

Review Laboratory Design through a Different Lens – Virtual Reality (VR) and Mixed Reality (MR)
Rendering of a DNA Lab in Virtual Reality Model of the Unified Metropolitan Forensic Crime Laboratory building - Douglas County, Colorado Often the first time owners experience part of their new lab space is through two-dimensional floor plans. Then later a physical mock-up is built but does not encompass the entire room and not constructed out of all the approved materials, furniture, and equipment. Virtual reality by definition is taking the designer’s BIM and through the use of special VR software, an apparatus and controls, completely immerses the participant in the virtual three-dimensional building to simulate interaction in the real space. Researchers and other users of the lab space can virtually walk through their proposed laboratory and give feedback on the current design back to the design team, which in turn the user’s comments can be incorporated into the project design before final documents are issued.

The design phase of a project is coming to closure and construction of the building or lab building space begins. Validation that the proposed project design coincides with what is being constructed on the job site is always a challenge. Again, the BIM plays an important role in confirming the constructability of the design itself. Lab equipment and lab casework vendors can provide fabrication models during the construction phase to the construction team for coordination purposes. Bringing all of this three-dimensional informa- tion together and being able to prove it works within the real world is a quality control measure non-existent before. This is what we define as mixed reality technology where, again through a viewing apparatus, different than what is used for virtual reality, the virtual merges with the real world to produce an environment where the physical and digital objects co-exist and interact in real-time. Ideally, the timing for use of this MR technology in the field is as stud framing is going up. Mechanical and electrical, as well as some finalized lab furniture and equipment can be viewed and reviewed through an MR apparatus within its actual physical space to validate placement and coordination of the various building scopes before they are constructed.

United Metropolitan Forensic Crime Laboratory
The Unified Metropolitan Forensic Crime Laboratory is a perfect example of a progressive client  willing to try virtual reality technology to intimately engage and get buy-in from his different building users. This project, located in Douglas County, Colorado, completed in September 2018. It is a $13.9 million, one-story, 27,000-square-foot building with specialty laboratory spaces for DNA and biology, latent prints, firearms, and chemistry. During the first meeting when we utilized virtual reality with the project team, the 

head lieutenant for the new crime lab tried the VR goggles on, not knowing what to expect. He loved being immersed in the virtual environment and walked everyone in the room through each space of the building. The design was at 90 percent completion at the time, and the architects were in the same room as the owner virtually walked around and gave feedback, as well as some of the other building users in the room, back to the architects on revisions. It was a great collaboration session and led to other user group virtual reality meetings, driven by the head lieutenant, to get final buy-in on the overall building design.

Colorado Department of Agriculture Lab Facility
The Colorado Department of Agriculture Lab  Facility was a perfect combination of project team members— owner, designer, and general contractor—that were excited about implementing new technology to help the owner understand their space better and physically build what the owner ultimately wanted to accomplish with their new building. This lab facility, located in Broomfield, Colorado, recently completed in February. It is a $16 million, one-story, 26,000-square-foot building with specialty laboratory spaces for animal health, biochemistry, and metrology. The construction team met with the owner and their individual user groups on a regular basis so they could view the building virtually and even walk through their own space themselves using virtual reality technology and the VR apparatus. Once construction was underway and framing was almost complete, the internal construction quality team used mixed reality to superimpose the laboratory equipment and casework within its physical space in the building to check for alignment and verification of multi-trade coordination. The owner was able to take the MR apparatus out to the building site periodically and look at the virtual model superimposed in its physical space to understand what scopes would be installed next within the building and better visualize what the final product would look like.

Labs and Emerging Support Technology for Design – What Does the Future Hold?
The simple answer is no one knows! But what is known is these are exciting times when new technologies are quickly emerging and evolving. As the new technologies become more wide-spread in use, creative and innovative ways to apply them will naturally transpire and be applied to complex and specialty spaces like laboratory and research environments.


Article originally ran in Laboratory Equipment on June 26, 2019.