Week 40 – Intentional misalignment, misaligned intents

We are into week 3 of a very intense focus to develop a design for a new multidisciplinary lab building in 5 weeks. The endpoint is a critical application to the state requesting a commitment of financial support to make the project feasible.

A primary ingredient of the week was therefore the continual testing, calibration and adjustment necessary to assure that the design program and the design are in metrical alignment. That is, the program of space requirements (not the full and robust design brief) will be the defining tool for the evaluation and approval of the developed design in later phases of the project, and the guiding metrics must be set now.

A key struggle for us, and everyone who does these things, is the net-to-gross ratio – the relationship of the area of the building assignable to uses like labs and offices, and the areas of the building that are essential to its functioning but not occupied by the “users” like mechanical rooms, custodial spaces and the like.

The state limits this ratio. Appropriately, it attempts to assure that its money will be used for the direct purposes of, in this case, research and not for other purposes of the institution and nor for what might be considered luxuries. This is where a significant misalignment occurs.

At the forefront of the national agenda Is the reduction in the cost of healthcare and the increase in access to it. A key strategy in this quest is the reduction of time it takes to get an idea developed in the lab to actually benefit the patient. To facilitate the velocity of developments, the National Institute of Health has developed programs and incentives to promote “translational” research – to develop facilities in which research, development, and application come together. These are multidisciplinary and multi-use facilities.

Through research into the processes of innovation and observations of the earlier facilities of this type, we’ve come to understand how all innovation in social. That is, almost al new ideas in science take place outside of the lab, in conversation and collaboration between researcher colleagues and others from other disciplines who may have something to offer to invention and innovation.

These collaborations take place only after there is an atmosphere of trust. This is derived primarily from social interactions in which people get to know each other’s values, come to find mutual interests, and open up to working together. And these social interactions take place where you would expect them to take place – outside of the conventionally dedicated and focused activities of labs and offices, and in places where refreshment, casual contexts and open conversations normally take place.

And there’s the rub. The wider hallways, open atria, coffee bars, casual living rooms, and similarly effective spaces lie in the “gross” side of the net:gross ratio. However, the conventional demands of research buildings like mechanical rooms, shafts for piping and air ducts, and similar spaces are also on the “gross” side of the space ledger and, with a limitation on the net:gross ratio, these essential functions crowd out the potential for the social spaces of innovation.

The state, seeking to incentivize greater economic performance and promote research that will contribute to the health and welfare of its citizens, offers funds to catalyze development yet must use a control on the use of its funds that directly contradicts or limits the development of the types of facilities that will help it achieve its goals.

I’ve frequently said that design is subversive. I mean that so frequently we design in ways that our clients are unaware of or even intolerant of in order to actually deliver the places and spaces that will help them achieve what it is that they are trying to do. Maybe that’s next week.

Jim Meredith

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