A Conversation: Architecture and Design Through the Experiences of Women

The close of Women’s History Month – as with any designated time period to honor a specific community – is bittersweet. On one hand, we’ve just been immersed in myriad, under-told stories highlighting people and causes that more than deserve time in the spotlight.

On the other hand, the close of the designated time means, typically, that things go right back to “normal” – a normal, that is, that continues the imbalance.

We’re committed to continuing to tell stories. And, more than that, we’re committed to continuing to spotlight inequities.

For the most recent episode of our podcast, Side of Design, BWBR principal Stephanie McDaniel sat down with BWBR head of interior design Nan Langevin, principal Terri Ulrick, and retired principal Katherine Leonidas. The mission: discuss the fields of architecture and design through the experiences of women – pioneers, really. What have we accomplished? What’s still missing? And what happens next?

Leaning In?

Katherine Leonidas graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1980. Among the pre-professional architecture graduates, approximately 11% were women. Now the University of Minnesota’s graduating class is closer to 50/50, which is fantastic, but that doesn’t mean everything’s necessarily equal. There are still a disproportionate number of men in leadership positions. Terri Ulrick mentioned that she had worked for and with almost all male leaders before joining BWBR in 2006, and even at BWBR, which has historically had better representation of women than other architecture and design firms, leadership in areas other than design tended to be men until relatively recently.

Now, of course, we have a woman in the CEO role. But it has been a winding road to this point. Case in point: Stephanie McDaniel remembers when the book Lean In came out. There was a lot of buzz around it. “We had a book club and we read it, and thought wow, this is great,” said Stephanie. But then BWBR started equity training and “it hit me like a ton of bricks: the approach to equity [in Lean In] puts the onus on the women to really do the work. The training we received later, and much of the work around equity now, asserts that everyone needs to do the work to create an inclusive environment.”

The Assumptions that Hold Us Back

The equity training that BWBR invested in has been a paradigm shifter. So much so that there are glaring differences between BWBR and other firms who haven’t had the chance to benefit from equity training.

Terri told a story about a time where she was the principal of a project and brought a project manager (who happened to be male) with her to a meeting with another company. The CEO of that company, also a man, entered the meeting room and promptly introduced himself to the project manager and started having a leadership-style conversation with him, clearly assuming that he was the principal on the project – not Terri. Terri interjected and introduced herself, but it was “awkward.” And there are so many more stories like this one.

Katherine had a very similar story, where it was assumed on a project that she was the interior designer and her male colleague was the principal, when the opposite was true. Stephanie has also been on projects where it is assumed that she is the interior designer.

Nan, who is an interior designer, notes that there can be feelings of “shame” projected around actually being an interior designer in our industry simply because it’s considered a “woman’s role” and thus often deemed somehow less worthy. Just as it’s not fair to assume a woman on a project site is a designer, it’s not fair to assume that a designer is an inherently lesser role than an architect.

Clearing Away Barriers

What can firms do to promote and support women and clear away the barriers? Part of it is not conflating equity with equal. Equal means you treat everyone the same. Equity means you treat everyone as individuals with different circumstances and different needs in order to thrive. For example, women still have a disproportionate burden for childcare and parental care. In societies where caregivers receive more support and flexibility, there tend to be more women in leadership roles. Recognizing this, BWBR recently doubled parental leave.

Another strategy is to emphasize the importance of mentorship and role models. Every participant in this conversation highlighted the value each gained from having people who went before them – men and women – who paved the way and were generous with their time and insights. That also means fostering a culture where it’s okay – and even rewarded – to ask for help, to constantly learn and constantly evolve and make mistakes.

This piece barely scratches the surface of the podcast because it was such a rich and fascinating conversation. We encourage you to check out the full podcast here, and join us as we continue to tell these stories – long after women’s history month is over.

Converting an Existing Campus Building into a Modern Science Lab: 5 Design Drivers

Whether you’re a public institution, needing to justify your space and budgets down to the last square foot and dollar, or a private institution, wrestling with competing departmental demands and trying to make the most out of the facilities you have, the prospect of designing and creating new lab space can be fraught. However, one thing that our clients are often surprised to hear is that in many cases it’s possible to renovate an existing facility into an efficient, effective, state-of-the-art lab space without starting from scratch.

But what is really required to adapt an existing space into a lab? Some places certainly are better suited for conversion than others, so let’s look at some of the challenges and opportunities to consider, alongside some real-life examples from past BWBR projects.

5 Key Considerations for Renovation Success

While every project and structure are unique, there are at least five fundamental aspects of an existing building to bear in mind when considering whether renovation is a feasible and cost-effective option: Structure, Vibration, HVAC, Plumbing, and Code.

1. Structure

The basic structure of your existing building, including column spacing and floor-to-floor height, is fundamentally fixed, so understanding how that can limit lab planning (or not!) is an important first step. When considering new construction, we’d typically start with a floor-to-floor-height of at least 16’ to accommodate fume hoods, HVAC, plumbing systems, wiring, lighting, and other utilities. In a renovation, we’ve worked with floor-to-floor heights even lower than 12’-0” but of course more is better.

To consider whether the existing column spacing can be efficiently modified to accommodate the needs of your lab is to view it through the lens of a lab planning module. One module encompasses one work surface, an access aisle, and the next work surface — people working back-to-back (see diagram below.) Most lab planning modules are 10’ to 12’ wide and can be measured from the centerline of interior walls. Overlaying modules on top of existing floor plans can help illuminate the potential within the existing structure and, since modules are flexible by nature, they can accommodate varying arrangements including teaching labs or research labs.

A typical module diagram from above, showing two workstations with two chairs positioned back to back
10′ – 12′ Typical Module

2. Vibration

The floor vibration tolerance present in your existing structure is another key consideration and can vary depending on an overall steel vs concrete system, the thickness of the upper-level decks, thickness of slab on grade, and the spacing of columns. If your existing structure allows too much vibration, that can limit use of vibration-sensitive equipment that must operate within thin margins. It is possible to mitigate structural vibration to a point, so consider the needs of your lab within the context of your building — while installing sophisticated instruments or a cleanroom is not possible, biomedical research labs might be.


The design, capacity, and space requirements of your current and planned HVAC systems are another important factor in a potential renovation. Code requirements around hazardous chemicals also come into play here and will vary based on your location and the type of lab you are creating. This could mean the need for a separate exhaust system with a high plume fan for ventilation. The structure of the roof and space on the roof will be needed in addition to ceiling and shaft space for this new system. If your building already has a lab exhaust system, it could be much easier to renovate an existing space into, say, a wet chemistry lab. Your mechanical needs will depend on your specific scenario, but there are often workarounds even if your setup isn’t ideal–your lab planner can guide you through the process and help you determine your options.

4. Plumbing

Encompassing everything from water supply to compressed air, natural gas, vacuum, and acid waste, your plumbing systems and capacity will be a crucial factor in any potential lab renovation. Depending on your current setup, this can be as simple as tapping into or expanding an existing system or as complex as retrofitting in completely new systems which can vary greatly in complexity based on lab functionality. Some systems like vacuum and pure water do not need a full building-wide system but can be tailored to a specific lab needs and have options to expand that local system to a regional system as you grow. Understanding the needs for these services will be imperative. For example, do researchers need vacuum to a depth of 2 mBar or 100 mBar? Do they need ASTM Type I pure (polished) water or just Type III? Most plumbing systems are scalable based on anticipated use quantities and diversity of the use at any given time.

5. Code

Safety is of the utmost importance in a lab setting, and as such these spaces are subject to various code requirements. Depending on your design intentions, you may have to meet new sprinkler and/or fire partition requirements and/or need to plan for separation of lab suites. Your lab planner can help describe regulations around the code’s maximum allowable quantities (MAQ) of chemicals and related appropriate design options–depending on the existing building’s construction type, the ability to create control areas may be limited on elevated floors. All of these can be accounted for in your design but should be reviewed early in the process, as this can severely impact costs, for example if you need an ”H” occupancy.

Renovations in Action

At the University of Minnesota, an existing underground structurally condemned concrete parking garage was able to be renovated into the University’s core facility for nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy. In this example, the requirements for the magnet instruments were carefully studied to confirm how these sensitive pieces of equipment could successfully function in this renovated space, as well as get in and out of the space.

In the case of Cornell College, both a new build and a renovation together ended up being the perfect solution. At one time the vision for the project was to add on to the existing building, but studies showed the existing structural framework needed some upgrades, which would not be cost effective or able to achieve while keeping the building occupied. After the successful completion of the new Russell Science Center, which houses biology and chemistry, the West Science Hall was renovated to accommodate the physics and engineering departments. A maker/fabrication space and machine shop are connected to other spaces via an interior corridor window, and mechanical and electrical systems updates provide the infrastructure needed to support both project- and team-based work. Building the new spaces first allowed for another critical factor to consider in renovations- swing space. Most of the existing West Science Hall occupants were able to move into the new building, then renovation occurred on the existing building. Completing the new building first also helped spur a successful fundraising campaign and created general excitement on campus.

At Bethel University, a renovation made perfect sense in conjunction with an expansion to provide enhanced programming for lab and teaching spaces along with simple and clear circulation to improve wayfinding. A phased construction plan brought the project online while safeguarding the university’s cash flow and achieving strategic objectives. Phase 1 remodeled existing space for growing engineering programs and Phase 2 incorporated a three-story addition supporting fume hood-intensive teaching and research labs. In this example, it would have been very costly to put the fume hood-intensive chemistry spaces into the renovation due to existing shafts, head clearances, and code implications, so it quickly became clear that those spaces would be best fit into the addition. Utilizing renovation for the less infrastructure-intensive spaces allowed for an efficient use of space and budget.

Thinking Outside the New Build

When considering options for a new lab space, don’t rule out renovation without giving it a fair shake. By considering the realities and possibilities of your existing specs and mechanicals, you may find that the space you already have can work for you in a new way, and our experienced lab planners are here to help you every step along the way.