Designer Notes - Laboratories
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Basic Information

General Design Features for Laboratories:

  • As a rule of thumb a working lab will need an area with roughly the same floor area (generally on the floor above) to hold its service plant (vacuum/steam/cryo supply, heating/cooling/aircon, water purification etc.) - some of the cleaner species of lab may be able to get away with half as much1.
  • This does not include the space that is required for equipment storage, chemical stores, technician's prep areas and the like - this should be roughly the same floorspace again as the labs and, if used for storing hazardous chemicals, in a different building wherever possible.
  • Sane people do not store large volumes of hazardous material in their labs - and these days everything in a lab should be clearly labelled. This has not always been the case, but is likely to remain so, even in dystopiae.
  • Modern labs tend to have two entrances - "clean" one going to the offices and what have you and a "dirty" one that goes to the chemical stores. The clean entrance, at least, will have some form of decontamination facility - even if it's just a handwash sink and a glove bin. It might be an air lock or even a series of showers and changing rooms. There may also be decontamination facilities on the "dirty" entrance, but they will not work to the same standard as those entering a clean area.
  • Most scientists will do the majority of their writing up outside the lab in an office or reading room (although there are exceptions), although raw notes are often made in the lab. Typically a reading room will be as close to the lab as possible. This is normally a clean area and scientists will not - despite Hollywood's ideas to the contrary - normally wear labcoats, scrubs or similar things in this area.
  • Labs and reading rooms will often be in a different part of the building to non-lab areas, frequently with a layer of access control between them and the outside - partly for IP protection, partly for general security. In the same vein, corridors and other forms of general access will almost never run through lab areas.
  • Really secure labs will only have one or two entrances to the building, often above ground floor level and only accessible once you have passed through lower security areas of the facility.

Useful Trappings for Laboratories:

  • Microscope
  • Fume cupboard
  • Automatic pippettes (typically on a spinner rack of different sizes)
  • Glove box (or other high containment system)
  • Waste containers (chemical, biohazard, sharps, etc.)
  • Boxes of disposable gloves
  • Eye wash/emergency shower
  • Fire extinguisher/fire blanket
  • Wash bottles (may contain organic solvents, biocide, detergents, sterilising solutions or purer water) - used for cleaning, not for process work2.
  • Bench top centrifuge.
  • Analytical instruments3 (Gas or liquid chromatographs, mass spectrometers etc. - larger instruments or things like NMR machines tend to get their own rooms4). Sometimes you can get whole labs full of these.
  • Glassware
  • Glassware drying oven
  • Balances
  • Incubator or chemistry oven.
  • Freezer.
  • Autoclave.
  • Tube or flask shaker.
  • Rotary evaporator (some of which take flasks up to 50L)
  • Minature chemical reactors/fermenters (probably a subset of glassware - if they're bigger than about 20L they tend to have their own facilities rather than living in a lab).
  • Robots5 - especially in laboratories that perform nearly identical actions in a repetitive manner.
  • Purified water dispenser
  • Ice machine

Supplies of piped gas are also quite common - these days it probably won't be mains gas for a bunsen burner, but may well be nitrogen (sometimes also supplied as a liquid), argon, hydrogen or compressed air (or any other gas the lab uses a lot of). Any gas not piped in will instead be fed from a cylinder as required.

See Also:

For labs focusing on genetic engineering, virology, etc, see Designer Notes Biological Security.
For labs used in alchemy, the brewing of potions, etc, see Alchemy.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • Note that a materials science or hard physics lab is more likely to resemble a engineering workshop whilst theoretical physics is mostly done by computer simulation. Neither will normally need the sort of containment and decontamination measures noted above unless they're working with very interesting materials indeed.
    • Likewise, social-science labs may be completely lacking in all of these and more closely resemble a meeting area or reading room.
    • Specialist labs might have other equipment, such as cages or pots for live specimens, shielded areas and armor for working with explosives, or vacuum chambers for things that cannot mix with air.
  • Eating and drinking in a biology or chemistry lab is generally forbidden except in the most egregious cowboy operations - this has not always been the case however, and may also not apply when the substances being worked on are non-hazardous, but generally sane people keep their food out of the work and the work out of their food. The reading room, however, is where the empty coffee mugs and take-away food containers pile up.
  • As hinted at above, quite a lot of the stuff in a lab may be very hard to identify to those without the appropriate skills - even simple hazard warning signs can be beyond some people (although most cultures can make fairly understandable symbols for "poison" "corrosive" and "flammable", more esoteric concepts such as "causes cancer" "contagious biological material" and the like are much harder to communicate). Characters who are careless, clumsy or compulsive fiddlers can be at substantial risk.
    • Thus, if PCs search a lab space, the GM should be ready to inflict consequences to botches and possibly assign additional penalties for appropriate disadvantages and lack of appropriate skills (and conversely, make things easier for people who actually know their way around a lab - basic safety markings for your culture should be learned around high school level science, but other things will take longer to learn and many people don't even get that far).
  • Note that a lot of the precautionary stuff flies out of the window (possibly literally) when dealing with labs operated by the reckless and incompetent, whether meth kitchens or the "hell labs" of speculative fictions black science business.
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