Designing an Agile Lab Environment for UF Basic Science

UF Basic Science Lab

One building to nurture a diverse group of scientific minds.

After eight years at the University of Florida, it’s fair to say that Dr. Duane Mitchell’s Brain Tumor Immunotherapy Program had outgrown the four walls of its campus facility. In that period, the team has increased fivefold and the research center has become widely known within the scientific community for developing new treatments for people with brain cancer. 

As more scientists flocked to join the cause over the years, the infrastructure endured even more strain. Desk space, meeting rooms, lab equipment and vital resources all became sought-after commodities. In most buildings, lack of space would be an inconvenience. But in a scientific research center, it’s a logistical bottleneck that risks slowing down the pace of innovation and breakthroughs.

While better use of space was the number one issue, the team leading the project ideally wanted a building that could “do it all” — from conducting discovery and pre-clinical research to managing FDA applications and running clinical trials. Access to all of these functions under one roof instead of across disconnected facilities is a feature that few laboratories can claim. Nevertheless, it’s the challenge Walker picked up and ran with.

We started with the question, “What if a lab environment was about conversations instead of test tubes and Bunsen burners?”

These days, cancer treatments are heading in the direction of collaboration to accelerate research. For instance, rather than operating in a silo, the Brain Tumor Immunotherapy Program has expanded its footprint into other areas of cancer — sharing findings with specialists in colon cancer, leukaemia, throat cancer and other fields. Along with sharing insights, this also means occasionally sharing everything from the board room to bench space and coffee-making facilities with visiting scientists.

In addition, there’s a split between “wet” and “dry” work. The lab team spends hours peering through microscopes and studying brain samples in a controlled environment — the wet lab. But today’s researchers are also swamped with data that needs to be managed and analyzed in a separate area. This second “dry” stage often involves gathering in groups to discuss the data and connect the dots, which requires yet another kind of space.

James W. Norman Hall has been known for decades as the nexus of the University of Florida's College of Education. It was designed and built in 1934 as a K-12 school, named for civic leader P.K. Yonge. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989, the building held the potential to be a gem of historic architecture on UF's campus. 

But building modifications over time buried distinctive architectural elements and the accumulation of critical repairs and maintenance seriously strained college resources. By the turn of the 21st century, Norman Hall no longer met the myriad needs of the students, faculty, and administrative staff who are learning, teaching and working throughout the building. 

The Past Informs Present-Day Design

Our design team was charged with rehabilitating historic Norman Hall to support 21st-century learning technologies while preserving the Hall's "collegiate Gothic" character. To give the facility a new life, we took cues from photographs of building interiors from the 1950s. We discovered that the main West entrance had been intended as a gathering place, but offices and storage rooms had encroached upon space and obstructed traffic flow. We began by prioritizing changes that would alter or remove interior structures to let in natural light, facilitate movement and create gathering spaces.

Project Owner

University of Florida


Gainesville, FL

Completion Date

June 2021

Project Size

13,000 SF








Designing a world-class facility for a world-class team

So, how could we squeeze the most out of a limited footprint on a steeply accelerated design schedule? From the beginning, we set our sights on the ambitious task of designing an agile lab environment that could serve as a blueprint for future research facilities. 

To help foster a culture of collaboration, our design included ample laboratory space right next to private meeting rooms, which surround a main conference room with a glass garage-style door that could just as easily be at home in a tech startup. This partition separates a tech-enabled conference area from the rest of the workspace, retracting up or down to switch from meeting mode to open-plan depending on the demands of the day.

Making the most of every inch of space, we then placed faculty offices around the perimeter, creating a layout that offers a much more immediate connection between faculty and students. It’s a different approach to student support and the only one of its kind on the University of Florida campus. 

Toward the end of the design phase, we reached a turning point. We invited the team to take a virtual tour of the new facilities using a virtual reality application. At that moment, everyone “got it” and understood the full potential of the space.

The real win: better equipment, and a bigger research budget.

Typical facilities may have researchers separated from one another, necessitating the purchase of the same equipment, multiple times. By unifying the space, we created an environment where they can share not only ideas, but big ticket items like microscopes as well. 

In other words, instead of having dozens of mediocre microscopes, they can now invest in a handful of exceptional ones that all live in one dedicated microscope room. This solution not only allows them to scale the team up and down, it also frees up the budget for research. After all, it’s lab hours and human ingenuity, not basic equipment, that will ultimately impact those who suffer from cancer and other ailments.

Thinking of the building as a living organism

Just like the contents of a petri dish, we envisioned a building that was very much alive and constantly evolving. To achieve this goal, we took a modular approach to furnishing the space. We avoided fixing lab benches or furniture to the walls and ceilings, or hardwiring equipment into place. This gives the team an extraordinary degree of flexibility, allowing them to reconfigure the space around their daily and future needs and resulting in a truly agile environment.


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