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The Ch’i of Lab Layout

From The Scientist, July 14, 2003

Feng shui practitioners say a little red can lift your spirit, a little green can give you nature, and the balance of all can give you peace.

By Hal Cohen

Each time Susan Fahrbach walks into her dank, windowless lab, she returns to the past. “We have dingy cinderblock walls that give a 1960s feel to our work environment, which is probably the last time they’ve been painted,” explains the professor of entomology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

A working environment like Fahrbach’s can be a huge disadvantage for recruiting. “I had a visitor from Europe ask me why my building looked like a prison,” says Fahrbach. “This isn’t the impression I was hoping he would take back to Austria.”

HISTORIC DÉCOR To make their labs more amenable visually and spiritually, some researchers have turned to feng shui, the ancient Chinese art of placement. In practice for more than 3,000 years, feng shui (pronounced fung shway) was used in ancient China to determine where cities were to be built.1 While feng shui is still practiced worldwide, it has its share of pragmatic detractors who consider it to be nothing more than nonsense. “Personally I think feng shui is bunk,” says Charles Nicolet, facility manager at the Wisconsin Biotechnology Center in Madison. “I’m rooted in the belief that if something can’t be addressed scientifically, it’s probably not worth believing in.”

But certified practitioners such as Carol Olmstead deny the flaky, new-age stigma often attached to feng shui, maintaining that it can be applied even to a place of objectivity such as a lab. “Trust me, you don’t have to put up a lot of Chinese dragons,” she says. “I also don’t use any flying stars.”

Consultants such as Olmstead try to create environments in which positive energy, called ch’i, can flow freely throughout the room. For this to work, the ch’i must first be able to get through the door, so clutter must go. “Clutter is the biggest problem I find in all of my clients,” Olmstead says. “It represents postponed decisions and the inability to move forward, by keeping the energy from flowing in and achieving what you can achieve.”

Windowless labs like Fahrbach’s create stagnant ch’i, through an imbalance of the energy coming from the night and the day. “Many labs without natural light have too much yin ch’i (female energy), creating a feeling of coldness, discomfort, and fatigue,” Olmstead says.

Such moods can be countered by bringing the outdoors into the lab. Placing symbols of nature in a room exemplifies the rules of feng shui, which dictate that the elements wood, fire, earth, metal, and water should be balanced within a space. Each element is associated with particular colors and shapes, and establishing a balance between them can be likened to the dynamics of the game rock-paper-scissors. “Fire diminishes metal by melting it,” says Olmstead. “Water does so by rusting it.”

EXPERIMENT IN LAYOUT Even with all the life forms growing within most labs, most are detached from nature, violating one tenet of feng shui: connection with the outside world. “Nature inspires creativity, and the more in your lab, the better and more creative you’re going to feel,” Olmstead says. “How do you feel in a windowless office, as opposed to where you can see mountains?”

Natural greenery often poses a risk to conducting research, so the next best thing to an actual plant is the symbolic representation of one, such as a painting, photograph, or even a wall painted a soft green, says Deborah Gee, a San Francisco feng shui consultant.

While the layout and immovable components of labs may preclude some options for rearrangement, usually one can work around them. Many labs have a lot of hard, white, metallic objects, namely electronics. Olmstead advises that to counteract the instrumentation without moving it, placing some red objects in your workstation will bring a little passion and fire to what you do.

Glenn Takayama, president of lab Vision, Fremont, Calif., is now a believer. Takayama hired Gee after seeing her on the PBS television special; he says that her consultation has had a noticeable effect on his lab and office. “There’s just a different feeling in here, you can almost sense the difference in energy,” he says. “Even my employees tell me things seem more relaxed, lighter.”

Gee says that although strict guidelines put labs among the more challenging workspaces for using feng shui, even the smallest adjustments can reap big changes. “As the old Chinese expression goes,” Gee says, “Four ounces can move a thousand pounds.”


© Copyright 2019, Carol Olmstead