Emerging Issues in Research, Housing and Vivarium Design

Mon, 11/07/2011 - 12:42pm
Helen Kelly and Vera Baumans

ALN World asked research practitioners and vivarium design professionals about the future of vivarium design. Here are their answers.

The vivarium of the future will be designed with an eye toward environments that serve its occupants rather than the other way around. – Steven W. Darr, PE and James Petitto, RA, architects at HLW

Today the bright lights of public scrutiny illuminate dilemmas once discussed privately by biomedical research professionals. This lack of privacy has, on balance, advanced the cause of animal welfare and also forced attention to thorny issues practitioners might have wished to address in their own time. Nevertheless, the case is now made linking animal well-being to the quality of scientific data, and that has changed the game for all players.

To understand the impact of life on the global stage, we asked a number of research practitioners and vivarium design professionals about emerging issues in research, housing, and vivarium design.

Those with whom we spoke—architects, facility managers, animal welfare professionals, and biomedical engineers—reported the following as compelling issues. These issues are in addition to the ongoing issues of animal welfare, security, biosafety, ergonomics, sustainability, lighting, automation, and ventilation. We list them in alphabetical order rather than according to judgment on their importance.

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Although animal care staff have access to daylight during breaks, most of their work is in artificial light. In many places turnover is high and therefore extremely costly. So it isn’t surprising that architects report requests for transom windows and animal rooms with skylights, where the walls are secure and the source of daylight is less accessible. This is very much a matter of concern to professionals directly and indirectly associated with biomedical research.

The animal welfare issues surrounding access to daylight vs. introducing the variables associated with seasonal changes are well known and considered an important unresolved issue. “The trend in Europe is to give primates and dogs access to daylight”, Jann Hau, Professor of Comparative Medicine and Chair, Department of Experimental Medicine, University of Copenhagen in Denmark told us. “If we exposed rodents to natural photo periods, you would introduce a great deal of seasonal variation resulting in larger group sizes, and perhaps a need to repeat, at least certain, experiments at different seasons if you work at high latitudes as we do in our part of the world. The trade-off is to use the best light equipment you can afford, keep numbers small, and make sure the animals are happy”.

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“There is a goodwill attempt to enrich standard cages”, Laura Clary, architect and CEO of iDesign, an architectural consulting firm based in the US state of Michigan, says, “but we still have the vivarium vs. habitat mentality instead of what we need, which is a holistic approach”. Others expressed similar sentiment, acknowledging that considering the big picture while focusing more on the micro-environment is challenging scientists, designers, and vivarium managers. Most agree that decisions based on a high-level look would bring improvements to efficiency in terms of money, energy, and number of experiments, and that it would be cost-effective to engage various professionals in mapping out the inter-relationships and interdependencies in a biomedical facility.

“For example, instead of considering cages only, we need the flexibility to change conditions across species and for holding rooms to accommodate a variety of species”, Ms. Clary points out. Others said that to minimise stress for the animals, it would be desirable to bring procedures and lab work into the animal rooms, though that might require changes to environmental conditions and traffic patterns. On the other hand, when procedures are carried out in the animal room, unpleasant procedures for the animal might be communicated to the other animals in the room, causing stress. “It would be best to have carrés —a space with three or four rooms which serves as a research group’s unit”, Frauke Ohl, Professor, Animal Welfare and Laboratory Animal Science at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, suggested.

Sandra Schenone, Supervising Animal Technologist/ Training Coordinator, Dept. of Animal Care & Technologies at Arizona State University in the US, explains why a holistic approach would benefit everyone including the cost accountants. “We have to look more closely at what actually affects research and the cost of doing it thoroughly”, Sandra says. “There is an expense associated with every decision and every advance. For example, when we accept that cycles of daylight and seasons aren’t possible because of facility limitations, how do we account for that in analysis of the data? When we decide to buy plants cheaply instead of plants using irradiated soil, we introduce earwigs and other bugs that may live in the inexpensive soil and cost us more combating them. When cage size standards change”, Sandra continued speaking about advances and updated standards, “does it affect results of prior studies in smaller or different cages? Possibly it will, but then you have to question the validity of the results obtained in cages which do not meet the needs of the animals. When air flow standards are set, how do we know that flow rates that suit humans will not cause welfare problems for animals”?

There is concern that the current polarised habitat vs. housing debate allows partisans to avoid the serious matter of animal health vs. animal welfare, where advances in one arena, such as ventilation, may cancel benefits in another arena. There are no easy answers, but the consensus is that compartmentalising is too expensive. Better to face the big picture head on and resolve sticky dilemmas.

Desirable vs. practical also turns up in discussions about implementing new housing regulations. It’s expensive and difficult to retrofit equipment given the reality of capital cost vs. operating cost—and secondarily, since the risk always exists that with knowledge about various species advancing rapidly, equipment could quickly become substandard. Blake Harrison, Assistant Director for Operations, University Laboratory Animal Resources at The Ohio State University in the US, offers two examples. “If the new housing regulations go into effect, the way forward would be to retrofit, but few institutions have the financial wherewithal to do that. Still, larger cages would mean losing space. Two responses could be buying new wall mounted units or stacking cages ever higher. The former is out of financial reach for most facilities, and the latter is not realistic in light of worker safety among other issues. When it comes to new runs, we can buy less expensive ones that won’t hold up or try to find $100,000 for stainless steel runs to accommodate thirty animals. It is a time of upheaval in this industry”.

What is the definition of enrichment? Some define it by cage size; others by materials and toys; still others say that social housing is the predominant need. Many people call for hard-nosed evidence on what, exactly, consists of refinement, while others question the value of using scarce resources to prove exactly how many inches a cage should be or whether it is important for a rat to be able to rear up.

This issue affects attitudes toward criteria for standards and the role of judgment in some arenas. This issue crossed into guidelines for controlled environments. There is concern that social housing introduces variables that render the data unreliable, yet research suggests that when animals are expressing species-specific behaviour the data is enhanced and you need fewer experiments. Similar questions arise about animals with access to outdoors. If an animal goes outside and picks up an infection, does this render the data more reliable or less so?

Design lines are merging. At one time architects built to the client’s bidding. Today clients ask architects for guidance and advice, principally about how reduce energy costs and how to accommodate species specific behaviour. US clients want architects to follow European standards of animal welfare yet reduce costs. Architects and biomedical engineers once tasked with process flows and infrastructure decisions are learning about animal science, regulations, protocol design, and the criteria that inform recommendations when it comes to trade-offs.

“For some time people have talked about how to create a more naturalistic environment, and now we’re asked to make it a reality”, Jim Petitto, a senior project architect in the New York City office of the design firm HLW, told us. “Primarily clients ask us to reduce stress and address the need for daylight. Clients want us to design for freedom to move, reduce disruption to animals, bring procedures and scales into the animal rooms, and create local waste stations for emptying cages”.

Equipment manufacturers are also responding to client requests. “One size doesn’t fit all any more”, Franco Atassi, Siemens Industry, Inc.’s Director of Life Science Solutions Business told us. “There’s a wish for flexibility—ability to configure space to meet a variety of needs, to accommodate a variety of species, and to accommodate advances in robotics and other aspects of building automation whilst ensuring a healthy, productive, and energy efficient research environment. Clients ask us to deliver heating, ventilation, and air conditioning control and monitoring systems—highly integrated technology built on sophisticated algorithms that allow for flexibility and responsiveness to the changing needs of the facility, its researchers, and test subjects. They are also asking for innovative solutions. For example, Siemens researchers investigated microsensors technology small enough to fit and operate in individual micro isolators so researchers can understand actual ambient conditions and use the data to make better cost-effective decisions on a variety of operational parameters”.

We are in the era of personalised medicine, and while transgenic breeding allows us to tailor animals, comparative genomics calls into question many of our core assumptions. “Technology exists to sequence the genome”, reports Philip Plottel, CEO of life science consultants Telshire and formerly global head of Design and Engineering for the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research, “which gives us insight into individual makeup. We are starting to know when body parts evolved; we can look at how much of an animal’s genome is correlated to the human genome and anticipate the response of a human”. This raises big questions about the appropriateness of current animal models as human analogs. It also suggests that perhaps we may need far fewer animals for each type of investigation than we needed before, Philip speculates. The implications, he says, are compelling for translational medicine, protocol design, and utilisation metrics, at least.

A number of people with whom we spoke were concerned because, it seems, investigators do not keep up with advances in animal welfare science and as a consequence are increasingly remote from animal handling. “Some investigators don’t know what a healthy animal looks like”, Penny Hawkins, the Deputy Head of Research Animals at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) observes, “so what’s known about behaviour, husbandry, and enrichment isn’t always implemented”. The concern is that more investigators leap to the experimental design without first making an informed hypothesis based on what’s known about the animals, which may retard progress in refinement and reduction. Some propose that investigators should be trained at the outset and required to handle their own animals according to best practice standards. Others propose raising the level of professionalism among technicians, who, they say, genuinely care about the animals and are the best people to handle them.

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“There is a move to re-engineer systems to include the use of passive solar and efficient wash cycles”, reports Edwin Cordes, Science and Technology Market Leader for Perkins+Will, a worldwide architectural firm. “We are working now to minimise/reduce lighting costs by using LEDs rather than incandescent or fluorescent lighting as interior fixtures. At Miami’s Florida International University we installed passive solar equipment and the payback was less than two years”. However, by and large, architects report, the market is slow to accept new systems, probably because in general change takes time, in this case because it isn’t easy to find funds for capital improvements— and speaking practically, because people are held accountable for short term costs.

Jerry Percifield, a principle with Lord Aeck Sargent, notes an issue of which many are aware yet few discuss: the matter of waste management. “Underground, where many research animals are housed, there are water table problems, issues of water storage systems backing up due to pressure in the drains. Too often the storm and sanitary systems are under capacity”.

“Waste is a huge issue”, Blake Harrison from The Ohio State University observes. “For example, current common practice is to put bedding into bags and bring it to the holding dock where they may wait two weeks for shipment to landfill sites. Aside from matters of the smell, dumping into landfills isn’t sustainable, so the trend is toward recycling bedding, especially if it is corncob or shavings and of course if there is no biohazard”. And, there’s a further problem. Since many university animal research facilities are near medical centres, the HVAC air intake vents, which aren’t pretty, are located above the dock area. Even with HEPA filters keeping particulate matter out, you can’t get rid of the smell. “One way facilities are disposing of waste is vacuuming the bedding whilst it is still in the cage wash area and blowing it into a dumpster. There are the obvious problems of odour and more importantly, the inevitable dust settling around the area of a medical centre.

“If we recycle, of course there is more handling but we can probably find ways around that, and the best solution seems to be using land dedicated to leaving the waste for compost. Smaller institutions don’t have the luxury of land for composting, but this seems an excellent solution to aim for, even if most of us can’t implement it yet”.

Overall there have been subtle changes to assumptions, roles and definitions, attention to detail in the micro-environment, and an evolving shifting picture of reality. The pressure is on to work sustainably and cost-effectively while using the fewest number of animals housed in more spacious accommodation with interior design tailored to the species and aiming to ensure the least disruptive handling.

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In the context of cost constraints and climate change, the evolution of attention to animals as the starting point for vivarium design has brought new ways of working, new initiatives, and new products, all designed to address the animal focus and operating constraints. As an example, we offer a case study detailing Novo Nordisk’s decade-long development of state-of-the-art animal facilities.

In 1999, in association with the Danish Animal Welfare Society, Novo Nordisk set out to refurbish animal facilities with species-specific needs as the starting point for design. “Animal experiments and testing are still a necessary part of the discovery and development of new drugs and do not seem likely to be totally replaced in the foreseeable future”, Novo Nordisk’s Animal Unit Head Jan L. Ottesen says, “so, we made a commitment to keep the number of animals used to a minimum and to ensure that the animals we do use are treated well. We decided to suspend considerations of money and technology until we’d identified animals’ needs, and then work systematically to approach the ideal within existing constraints”.

This commitment to raise the bar on bioethics was not a public relations campaign and was neither a training program nor a project with an end date. Rather it was a decision to make the lives of captive animals as meaningful as possible, individually and scientifically, since animals are happier and data improves as animals are free to express natural behaviour. And that meant rethinking not only housing but management of the experimental animals and the quality of working life for the staff.

The first focus was housing, because living conditions are a powerful influence on physiology and behaviour. [The Convention ETS 123, the Council of Europe’s revised guidelines for housing experimental animals, and the EU Directive 2010/63/EU reflect virtually the same focus.] The plan was to identify the specific needs of each species, create a priority list for each group, look for common denominators and patterns across the resident populations, assess the whole, and design housing that meets needs in priority order.

“One common pattern across species was that ‘social housing’ with a few exemptions were on the top of the priority list for the species we looked at (the exemptions being some but not all male mouse strains, boars, and male rabbits)”, Dr Ottesen explained.

“We had to completely rethink the way we housed our rabbits. Now we only use female rabbits and house them in big pens (1.4x2.0 m).

“Another common denominator was the importance of sufficient freedom of movement for the animals. It goes without saying that this is not possible in a “shoe-box”, so e.g. the minimum cage size for our rodents had to be considerably increased.

“Realistically, they knew, it wouldn’t be possible to bring the wild inside and it wouldn’t be possible to move quickly. So the goal was to make year-on-year refinements to the lives of experimental animals, and the people working with them, over the course of a decade or more”.

To get started, Dr Ottesen initially invited a group of internationally recognised experts—animal welfare specialists and species experts—to profile the most important needs of each animal in its natural habitat. Experts profiled mice, rats, guinea-pigs, rabbits, and dogs.

Since all animals need sufficient space to express species-specific behaviour within a complex, enriched environment it was assumed that new housing for every species would be more spacious than it had been. In addition, the profile of natural behaviour in the wild for each species included control of surroundings, security, safety, occupation, resting, nesting, and eating. Furthermore, Dr Ottesen asked each expert an unusual question: If you were going to build the best animal conditions, what would you do?

There were small and large group workshops— specialists from many countries who held diverse perspectives and who had had a wide variety of experience in the design of housing and management of animals gave valuable input and the Novo Nordisk animal caretakers came up with ideas on how the experts’ input could be translated into practical solutions. After a year, Dr Ottesen had a plan and the first prototypes for new housing solutions for some of the species were made. Was the Novo Nordisk team ready to build? Not at all. Dr Ottesen re-invited the group of experts to review the plan and make recommendations, but he also extended the invitations to a number of new experts. “We wanted new experts, new ideas, and new ways of seeing; we wanted people sympathetic to our aims to take a dispassionate look at our plan and enhance it”.

Interestingly, many of the experts that came back said that this second invitation came as a surprise to them. They were used to people asking for their advice; however, they had never been re-invited to see the preliminary results of their advice and with a wish to further enhance the housing.

Novo Nordisk started in an existing facility and later built new rodent and rabbit facilities from scratch. Rodent cages were no longer in the basement and there was a pen system for rabbits. With daylight available, scientists could control cycles of vision and employees could see the sunlight. To see videos of the new housing systems used by Novo Nordisk, go to Today there is a refurbished facility for dogs and pigs and the company anticipates one new refinement project each year. Top management are invigorated and the company is looking at the cost/benefit balance sheet in entirely new ways. Number of animals per square metres isn’t the gold standard any more.

We offer many thanks to our generous contributors.


Helen Kelly is a Contributing Editor at ALN World. She divides her time between Boston MA and Sheffield UK.

Vera Baumans, DVM, PhD, Dip ECLAM is a Laboratory Animal Science Specialist in the Department of Animals, Science and Society, Division of Laboratory Animal Science, at Utrecht University, Utrecht, the Netherlands.


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