Selected Highlights of the Labs21 2007 Annual Conference


Reinventing Teaching Laboratories at Community College

Bill Zaske and Rich Corona, DSA Architects (a member of the SHW Group)


In the era of tuition increases and government funding decreasing, the demand on the community college to augment their science, technology, engineering, and mathematics curriculums has never been higher. The competition to attract students and faculty has moved from competing with other community colleges to competing with universities. Coupled with the pressure to increase the number of graduates in health sciences, general science, engineering technology, and mathematics, these colleges are looking for any advantage that capitalizes on flexibility, research, collaboration, and cost efficiency.

Community colleges generally have smaller budgets and operating expenditures so they look for any advantage they can to reduce the cost of construction, such as efficient laboratory design and balancing initial costs with life cycle costing. This is particularly important in the areas of laboratory equipment exhausting (consent volume versus variable volume) and daylighting, which when designed for individual laboratories, causes a significant drop in operating expenses. Another way these colleges are setting themselves apart is by integrating “natural laboratories” into their curriculum. The Schoolcraft Community College Bio-medical Technology Center, in Livonia Michigan, has three rain gardens designed into the building's exterior landscaping. These rain gardens use water that is collected from the roof of the building which is funneled down to the garden, thus eliminating the need for irrigation. The biology department will use these “natural laboratories” to augment their curriculum, providing students the ability to study a working microclimate. Utilizing sustainable design ideology allows for these colleges to not only reduce overall life cycle costs, but also increase their ability to compete with the larger universities by offering classes that focus on sustainability.

Photo of an instructional laboratory at a community college

Photo of an instructional laboratory at a community college

Renovating existing facilities is the most common form of construction at community colleges. As the need to update technology often exceeds the budgets to build new, renovating existing facilities becomes a necessity. One of the many challenges in renovating existing laboratories is deciding what to keep and what to change or modify. This decision is a delicate balancing act that the college's personnel, the designers, and the engineers have to perform. The first step is deciding what the major objectives of the laboratory are. Is this a project where the laboratory is being updated with new technology or is the laboratory changing curriculum (physics laboratory to a chemistry laboratory)? Once the scope is decided, the design professionals can start to lay out the most efficient use of the existing space. By studying the way the laboratory was used before, items such as where fume hoods can be placed and where plumbing lines can be routed start to take form. By reusing cases and shafts, a large amount of the construction and renovation budget can be spared. Analyzing the existing mechanical, electrical, and plumping systems and determining what can be reused and what has to be replaced also can reduce the construction cost that the college will have to bear. By being flexible with the design of the renovated laboratories, the colleges can upgrade their facilities in a cost effective manner.

An advantage these community colleges have over their larger university competitors is the ability for the students to focus on a particular area of expertise. Built space in community colleges is viewed as a premium; therefore, the design of flexible spaces into the architecture of the building is crucial. Areas designed to integrate the laboratory, classroom, and collaborative spaces start to enhance the learning environment. As a result, these colleges can focus on displaying the use of technology and emphasizing learning. By creating ways to showcase the laboratories in their buildings the colleges can attract potential students and staff to their facilities.

View this entire presentation in PDF format (1.3 MB, 20 pp)


Rich Corona has nearly 20 years experience in mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems design for higher education facilities. His experience includes all phases, from conceptual design through commissioning and post occupancy evaluation, to ensure all facilities systems are functioning as intended. Mr. Corona's current projects include work at Central Michigan University, Michigan State University, University of Michigan, Wayne State University, Cranbrook Educational Community, and North Central Michigan College.