Looking Beyond the “Future-Proofed” Future

by Brian Kowalchuk, AIA, LEED AP, Global Director of Design, HDR | But in the near future, I think we’ll move away from the idea of labs as a collection of enclosed spaces containing specific, although somewhat changeable, functions. Instead, I think labs will be the places where people connect with one another—to gather, retrieve, analyze and discuss data and also engage in new technologies. (image, Future Labs Explores the Near Future for AR and VR at Tech 2025)

Architects, planners and scientists often raise the issue of “future-proofing” research buildings, and planning for the “lab of the future,” assuming we can look out 20 to 50 years and understand what will drive new ideas and scientific advancement.

I don’t think we can.

Just look at the digital marketplace and recent applications of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Look at the ways our children gather information—we are living in a time of rapid change.

When we think of a lab today, most of us think of a rectangular building with modular, flexible wet and dry laboratories zoned with more or less robust infrastructure with offices nearby—all neatly stacked on upper floors. Glass walls offer glimpses from corridors into labs, what we popularly call “science on display.”

Often, the labs are arranged around a light-filled atrium, with connecting bridges and stairs, designated collaboration spaces (although often devoid of collaborators) and a spectacular and grand public ground floor—all intended to enhance trans-disciplinary interaction and foster new connections.

But in the near future, I think we’ll move away from the idea of labs as a collection of enclosed spaces containing specific, although somewhat changeable, functions. Instead, I think labs will be the places where people connect with one another—to gather, retrieve, analyze and discuss data and also engage in new technologies. Labs will be hubs for an exchange of knowledge, connecting experts from around the world in both physical and virtual space, and they will be available and accessible to anyone, anywhere, anytime.

I believe that much of the physical experimentation traditionally at the heart of laboratories will look very different than it does now, perhaps even moving out of the lab into science “garages,” remotely located from those analyzing results.

With the advent of AI and automation, and the sheer quantity of data already accessible, scientists will focus on assuring the quality of the data, and figuring out how best to use it to generate new ideas and products. Data analysis, the ability to explore and develop new ideas with others, and especially the applications that result from these exchanges, is what will drive science.

Labs will become tools for this interchange and developing new applications. They will become idea factories and look nothing like the ones we are designing today.

In my upcoming columns, I will explore new ways to approach the design of labs—and how we, as lab designers, can enhance people’s experiences as they pursue science, use technology, and most importantly, engage one another.

Brian Kowalchuk, AIA, LEED APBrian Kowalchuk, AIA, LEED AP, is Global Director of Design, HDR. Throughout his career, Brian has transformed complex programs into highly functioning and striking facilities that advance the missions of leading science and technology organizations. He embraces the inherent challenges of high-performing technically advanced buildings to develop architecture that creates connections among people, place and technology. In recognition of these efforts, he has received numerous AIA Awards, as well as seven prestigious Lab of the Year Awards from Laboratory Design and R&D Magazine. A frequent guest speaker at industry conferences, including the Lab Design Conference, his work has been featured in a wide range of professional journals including Architecture MagazineInterior Design Magazine, Contract, BioExecutive and Fast Company.