How to Furnish a Lab

This is the third and final article in this series on laboratory design. The first article was "How to Plan a Lab Building" (The Scientist, November 17, 1986, p. 15). The second was "The Cost of Lab Remodellng" (The Scientist,January 12, 1987). Having decided to build a new laboratory or remodel an existing one, you still must think about how to furnish your lab space. In a sense, the factors you must consider are similar to those in purchasing furniture for your home. You want furniture that i

Mar 9, 1987
Earl Walls
This is the third and final article in this series on laboratory design. The first article was "How to Plan a Lab Building" (The Scientist, November 17, 1986, p. 15). The second was "The Cost of Lab Remodellng" (The Scientist,January 12, 1987).

Having decided to build a new laboratory or remodel an existing one, you still must think about how to furnish your lab space. In a sense, the factors you must consider are similar to those in purchasing furniture for your home. You want furniture that is sturdy and durable, that is good value, that is attractive, and that meets your needs.

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of furniture systems for labs: "on-the-floor" and "off-the-floor." On-the-floor systems are the more common. Cabinets made of steel, wood or plastic laminate sit on the floor adjacent to each other, with their tops supporting the working surfaces of the benches. The cabinets may be leveled using adjustable height guides or wedges. When properly installed, the cabinets are bolted together and sealed to the floor with a rubber or vinyl cove molding, making them difficult to move.

Off-the-floor systems are of two types. The first (often called the C-frame) is the suspended cantilevered type. A steel frame supports the worktop above and cabinets below. In the second, the cabinets may either be cantilevered from a vertical support beam at the rear of the bench or suspended from brackets that cantilever from the vertical support beam. I prefer the first type because many of the second (I call them "gingerbread systems") are not sturdy enough for university and industrial lab work.

I greatly prefer the off-the-floor system because it is easier to maintain and to adapt to changing needs in the lab. An on-the-floor system, bolted in place and sealed with molding, cannot be moved about easily.

An Adaptable System

In deciding on a system, remember that it is a system. Don't fall into the trap of thinking of it as a collection of individual workbenches. Bear in mind, too, that the furniture is literally the only "hands-on" aspect of the construction project for your employees. However well it might meet all your other criteria, a system will be worthless if it does not meet the needs of the people who will use it every day.

You should consider at least eight factors as you choose a functional and adaptable furniture system.

  • How much bench space does it provide? The system should have enough of the kind of work top surfaces you need in your lab.
  • How much storage space does it have? It should provide as much storage space as simply as possible and allow you to adapt that space to fit your needs.
  • How attractive is it? You don't have to sacrifice looks for utility. There are plenty of good-looking, functional systems available.
  • How simple is it? There should be as few parts as possible. Ideally, the user should be able to modify the system.
  • How long-lasting and economical is the system? A cheap system is one that doesn't cost much; an economical system is one that has a reasonable initial cost and lasts a long time.
  • How easy is it to clean? A good system is designed so cleaning crews can do their work.
  • How sturdy is the system? It should support heavy loads and minimize the transmission of vibration.
  • What else can the system provide? Storage and workspace are not enough. The system must accommodate the necessary electrical and mechanical systems. You may also want it to support special apparatus, ventilation systems, acoustical baffles, or other special equipment, or to define work spaces.

Specifically, the work surfaces should have as few joints as possible and should be at least 32 inches wide to provide enough space for instruments and apparatuses. Narrow work surfaces often lead to crowding, which can cause valuable equipment to hang over the edge and be exposed to damage. Choose work surfaces made of whatever material is appropriate for the job being done. If plastic laminate is best, choose it. If stainless steel is best, choose that. Strive for economy with purpose, not just cheap furniture.

For example, laminates, which are generally made of melamine plastic, are highly chemical resistant and can stand up well except where high heat devices may subject them to damage. Stainless steel is excellent for tissue cultures and radioactive work, but may not be the best choice if compounds with a high chloride level are also present. Your best approach for work top materials is to obtain samples from furniture suppliers and test them for your own application.

Pay attention to little details, like how the cabinet drawers are constructed. Drawers with full extension slides make it possible to lift small objects straight up even at the back of the drawer. Shallow (2-inch deep) drawers mounted inside cupboards are very adaptable. It is easy to adjust them vertically to accommodate short or tall objects. Cabinets with fixed drawers cannot be adjusted.

Allow for at least 8 inches under cabinets—either suspended or cantilevered—to facilitate cleaning. If you leave less than 8 inches, you'll have to remove the cabinets to clean underneath. If you leave much more, you'll reduce your storage space.

The system should be capable of supporting its fully loaded drawers, plus 50 pounds per square foot along the bench top and a 250-pound concentrated load in the center of a 6-foot span without deflecting the surface too much. That will allow an apparatus (or a person) to sit on the bench.

If you choose a system that encompasses the features outlined here, you'll have:

  • Provided a work top without the worry of getting storage units to support the surface. You will also have reduced the potential for damaging the storage units during construction on the lab.
  • Made it easier to service the electrical and plumbing systems under the bench. It may also be possible to use prefabricated mechanical systems under the bench. These systems can be preassembled and then simply installed, saving up to 15 percent in labor costs.
  • Made it easy to provide storage units only where needed and to change them quickly when needed.
  • Made clean-up of serious spills quick and easy.

What Does It Cost?

Laboratory furniture prices normally include the cost of sinks, of fittings for installation of other options, and of chemical fume hoods. The cost of desks, chairs, stools and tables usually is not included. Fume hoods range in price from $1,500 to $8,000 or more apiece, which is much more than other furniture costs.

Assuming one 6-foot hood per 300 square feet of lab space, you can expect to spend $32 to $45 per square foot for your furnishings, including installation. Generally speaking, plastic laminate units will cost slightly less than will wood or steel units, whose costs vary with supply and demand. Suspended cantilevered systems will typically cost about 15 percent more than conventional floor-mounted systems, but they're well worth it.

If you've designed your new lab or your remodeling well, you have a facility that meets your current needs and is flexible enough to meet any expansion or changes in the future. Choosing the wrong furniture, however, can ruin all the planning you've done. A well-furnished lab is a more productive one.

Walls is a laboratory programming and design consultant. His address is
Earl Walls Associates, Suite 200, 5348 Carroll Canyon Rd., San Diego, CA 92121.