I certainly enjoyed this review of a new book, Laboratory Lifestyles, in Nature. This is a look at research buildings and the behavior of scientists in them, and will for many reopen a lot of arguments. Open offices? Open-plan lab space? Where do the break areas go, and the conference rooms? What do they look like? And more broadly, are some of these designs just better than others, both from a practical standpoint (cost, construction, durability) and from a theoretical one (making people more productive and creative)? And if you have opinions on those last topics, and we all do, do you actually have any evidence other than your personal preferences?
I have my own take on those issues, of course. But rather than reiterate those, I’ll put forward some other beliefs of mine, about which I invite comment. Here we go:
- Architecture does matter, up to a point. But I think that it’s much more likely that bad design and physical surroundings can be a noticeable influence than good ones can be. Once past certain thresholds, I think that most layouts and designs may be within error bars of each other.
- This means that the brave talk of architects about how their research buildings will increase creativity are very likely nonsense. In many cases, said architects have no idea of what the day-to-day work is like, or will be like, in the very buildings they are designing. At the very least, there is little or no empirical evidence for their assertions, and given the number of variables involved, nor is there likely to ever be any.
- These variables – chief among them the mixture of researchers, their own personalities, and the problems that they’re working on – are so influential that they will utterly swamp any architectural effects. That is, with lab equipment and budgets being equal, a good mixture of people in a nondescript older building will outperform a bad mixture housed in the latest version of splendor. What you’d want is to take the same mixtures and see how they would have done in both sets of surroundings, but that’s an impossible experiment (see above).
- Furthermore, the variance in those researchers and in their personalities (not to mention their actual jobs) is also so high that there is likely no such thing as a single building design which will make them all happy or more productive. When you read these articles about R&D design, they invariably treat the occupants of the building as if they all worked in the same style, and nothing could be further from the truth.
So put me down as a skeptic. Counterarguments are welcome in the comments!