The Covid-19 pandemic put labs under the microscope. Not only have labs been in high demand for research and testing, but safety procedures and post-pandemic protocols are under scrutiny as well. While much of the country shut down in the spring, the science industry could not. From studying the virus itself to treatments and vaccine development, laboratories adjusted quickly to maintain operations.
During COVID, laboratories had to operate below occupancy to help maintain a six-foot separation between researchers. At Emory University, where double-sided research benches would allow for six researchers, they had to restrict these areas to three researchers with staggered seating. This then created a need to find additional research space on campus. Emory also uses signage for one-way directional people/material flow and hand sanitizer stations while maintaining mandatory use of face masks. Adding additional filter units to reduce particle flow also became important to maintain safety.
Lab space for new construction has normally been designed for flexibility, so that as research changes, labs can be modified at a minimal cost. Benches and workstations are modular, therefore making it easier to move and rearrange. Overhead utilities using ceiling service panels or ceiling service chases can be easily modified for new utilities. A good thing about laboratory design and mechanical systems are that most laboratories are designed using 100% outside air, have air change exchange rates of between four and eight air changes per hour and are negatively pressurized for safety, so they are already ahead of the game when it comes to clean air.
Covid spurred some creativity as well to keep projects moving in a rapidly changing environment. Starting in March of 2020 when Georgia instituted a shut down for non-essential services, the construction team at Emory University Health Sciences Research Building II starting using virtual inspections for rebar in footings, rebar in columns, waterproofing details, and underground plumbing. Using a combination of a Go Pro camera with Twitch live streaming for high-end video quality worked well for the limited scope of inspections. To get the highest quality of inspections for larger scopes, however, there is no substitution for conducting in-person reviews, so we had to modify our procedures and be masked, socially distanced, and following all CDC recommendations for health and safety of our team members.
If there is a silver lining to COVID 19, it is the ability to think creatively and keep construction on track in the face of extreme challenges. Meetings were efficiently managed using video conferencing and file sharing, and inspections were carried out by merging video technologies. By being forced to communicate and collaborate remotely, it pushed the team to find innovative, virtual solutions to eliminate any impact to the schedule the virus may have caused. While a vaccine is on the way and things may get back to normal, what will not change is the teamwork and dedication to safety as well as the life sciences industry as lab spaces are more critical than ever.