Buildings and Places, Design, People Spotlight

Our People Spotlight series gives you an inside look at our technical experts around the world. This week, we are highlighting a member of our lab planning team in Canada to provide an insight into their inspiration and work.

Anaëlle Perez is a science and research sub-sector leader from AECOM’s Buildings + Places business line. She has 25 years of experience in architectural planning, design, and construction supervision. Before joining AECOM in 2021, she worked for McGill University as Senior Lab Planner where she was leading the infrastructure assessment for all projects financed by the Canada Foundation for Innovation. Prior to that, she worked in consulting where her focus was been on highly specialized research spaces and advocating for a variety of clients including universities, hospitals, pharmaceutical and federal agencies.

Tell us about what inspired you to join the industry.

The beginning of my career in architectural lab planning happened by a complete stroke of luck. I immigrated to Canada as a qualified architect in 2001 and a few years later, I reconnected with a former colleague who had moved to a specialized science company that was seeking new architects. That was how I got into the world of lab planning, science, and technology.

I quickly fell in love with the process of creating unique and specialized details for laboratories, particularly Biosafety Level 3 (BSL3) testing — used to study infectious agents or toxins that may be transmitted through the air and cause potentially lethal infections — clean rooms, and in vivo facilities. The level of technicality involved was exciting to me, and the variety of projects presented a continuous learning experience. Since then, I have been continuously honing my skills in this area and am always eager to learn more as the industry continues to develop and evolve.

What is your favorite AECOM project that you’ve worked on and why?

My favorite project to date is the one I am currently working on. We are renovating an existing, outdated research facility spanning over 20,000 square meters for use by several different research groups. Each area of the facility offers a unique glimpse into the world of complex research, with distinct equipment, processes, and purposes.

The projects I get to work on are so diverse and unique that I am constantly stimulated and engaged, exploring underground activities and research that I never would have imagined otherwise. I also get to connect and collaborate with other technical experts across AECOM, further honing my problem-solving skills.

I’m always drawn to the scientists and researchers who will be using the spaces I design. Their work and how they describe it sparks my imagination and fuels my desire for the planning and process to be one of collaboration. What these people do is often beyond anything that could ever be imagined, so I always listen with interest to the purpose of their research and proposals.

My job is to translate their story into lab and equipment-driven spaces that will bring their ideas to life. Being part of the design process for laboratories is incredibly fulfilling, and I feel that a part of me is embedded in every lab that I have helped create or renovate.

To be a lab planner, one must have a diverse set of skills, ranging from emotional intelligence to technical understanding. A successful lab planner must be an excellent listener and able to put themselves in the end-user’s shoes to understand their functional needs. Using their experience and technical knowledge, they must then propose and explain how the built solution will meet those needs.

Tell us how your work positively impacts the clients and communities we serve?

Our clients and the end-users of the spaces sit at the heart of my work. I must be a translator, motivator and midwife! Researchers are experts in their field, but when it comes to designing a new lab or renovating their existing facility, they need someone who can communicate effectively with non-researchers.

My job is to extract the information that professionals need to design and build an efficient infrastructure that can accommodate their research activities. Additionally, safety knowledge and a strong understanding of hazardous product handling and storage allow my teams to provide a safe environment to work in, even in extreme conditions.

Flexibility and adaptability are key to deliver a good design that meets the client’s as well as individual end-user needs. To achieve this requires a thorough understanding of what these concepts mean to each individual client, as they will mean different things to different people and companies. Future needs and changes can be limited by time — for example, a lab may need to be modified quickly to minimize research downtime or budget — where a lab would need to be reconfigured at the lowest possible cost, while still considering how the lab may need to be reconfigured again in the next five years.

All this information is then structured and presented as a decision matrix that leads to a custom-tailored proposal for creating a flexible and adaptable lab that meets the specific needs of the research environment. Our strong portfolio of completed projects allows us to showcase different options to our clients and offer a range of different solutions.

As architects, we naturally broaden our perspective on lab activities, which allows us to think beyond the confines of the lab itself. We incorporate common and informal spaces that support research teams, enhancing their work experience and leading to spontaneous discovery moments that have a significant, immeasurable impact on their everyday lives.

In the design process, we always consider concepts such as comfortable meeting spaces, natural lighting, connectivity and interdisciplinary opportunities of collaboration. We understand that built environments have a significant impact on people’s lives, and our goal is to create a positive impact in every possible way.

Share a piece of career advice.

I believe that every small action or intention is significant, both in personal and professional life. The accumulation of these small actions and intentions shapes who we are as individuals. I often see myself as someone planting seeds for the future, aware that not all of them will grow, but some will blossom beautifully, and that is enough to keep me inspired on my career path.

One thing that I value in my work environment is the ability to be my authentic self without fear of judgment. When I am allowed to work in my natural state of mind, it frees up my energy to focus on developing my career and making a positive impact.

My advice to others would be to find a place where you feel you can be yourself and you’ll be able to use 100 percent of your energy to build the world you want to progress in.

Originally published Jul 5, 2023

Author: Anaëlle Perez