Life Sciences Boom Sparks Design Innovations for Commercial Buildings

Spring 2021 Issue
By: Tom Sieniewicz, Jonathan Wall and Mark Bryan
The Works in South Cambridge, England, is an adaptive reuse project that has turned a 1970s industrial warehouse into a contemporary, reimagined office park for the area’s booming biomedical and biotech cluster. Nick Guttridge, courtesy NBBJ

Turning existing spaces into laboratories and research areas requires special considerations.

The life sciences sector has been on an upward trajectory over the past decade, with billions of dollars of investment accelerating activity and employment growth. COVID-related research has further catalyzed activity and demand for new lab and R&D space. And while some jobs within the overall economy can be performed from home, life sciences still depends largely on in-person work. 

Time-sensitive demand for appropriate lab and office space — and a notably low vacancy rate in life sciences — is occurring in markets across the U.S., from Boston to Philadelphia to New York to San Diego, as well as across Europe. For example, Cushman & Wakefield's "Life Sciences 2020: The Future is Here" report notes that the sector is expected to see strong growth during the next five years.

The unexpected surplus of vacant commercial space in the wake of the economic downturn, along with growing demand from life sciences, presents an opportunity for developers to reposition existing buildings into spaces suitable for light and heavy life science use. Meeting demand for life science over the long haul will require projects that are explicitly designed for life science and others that are built with flexibility in mind to accommodate either life science or general business tenants.

Attract, Retain and Inspire Employees 

Much of life sciences' growth is now generated from incubators, startups and other early-stage companies. Just like with tech and other sectors dependent on knowledge workers, demand and competition for talent is central to the continued success of these life sciences companies. And workspace — whether repurposed or built anew — is a key part of that strategy. It serves to attract and retain employees and to create the conditions that lead to innovation.

Thoughtfully designed buildings can create the kind of atmosphere and community that is demonstrably proven to spur innovation. These spaces allow staff to work creatively, connect with colleagues and recharge throughout the day. Traditional approaches to laboratory planning and design often silo research teams and work modes. But with new life sciences projects, companies have the opportunity to build environments that are more kinetic and generative. These will encourage people to cross paths, create places to connect, integrate communal space that brings the outside in, optimize visibility to peers and blend workspaces together — all while balancing privacy and transparency.

Adapt Existing Commercial Space to Meet Demand

Because the process of designing, permitting and constructing a new building can take years, quickly converting existing commercial space to meet the needs of life science companies is increasingly popular. It’s also achievable if designers and building owners bring a detailed understanding of the technical and spatial considerations that life science requires.

While these considerations will vary depending on the specific needs of each tenant, there are overarching principles to integrate. For example, plan for higher-than-average air changes in the HVAC system and for single-pass rather than recirculating air flows. This can be achieved by a combination of dedicated input with further air volume being transferred from office areas and extracted from the lab spaces only. Labs can also be moved closer to the core of a building where it’s easier to install hood vents.

Floor-to-floor heights and riser locations are also critical — building owners should look for ceiling depths where systems such as air handlers can be installed. Owners can also mitigate vibrations within traditional office spaces that have been converted to life sciences by using localized stiffeners in targeted areas instead of throughout the entire building.

These ideas of next-generation, kinetic life science design and strategically adapting existing commercial space to meet sector space demand is exemplified within The Works building at Unity Campus in Cambridge, England. Owned by regional property investor and developer Howard Group and completed in early 2020, The Works accommodates the growing demand for appropriate office and R&D space in South Cambridge’s booming biomedical and biotech cluster.

The striking architecture of The Works draws on the industrial heritage of the two-story warehouse which previously stood on the site. Housed within the pre-cast concrete frame of the original building, The Works has been transformed into a contemporary, reimagined multi-occupancy office building at the heart of Unity Campus. Tailored to meet the needs of technology and life sciences start-ups, The Works delivers 65,000 square feet of space. With ample natural light, open workspaces and a central atrium “street,” the openness of the original warehouse provides a modern and airy multiuse building that feels more like a tech or creative space than the institutional office stock typically available to the sector.

The project’s development challenges included the need for extensive concrete and site surveys. Structurally, the cladding replacement used a system that has a similar load to the existing structure to minimize the additional weight. And the existing site was heavily contaminated from an adjacent tannery works, requiring ground remediation to bring the site back into use. The remediation of the site helped the campus knit into the surrounding community and linked to it with public transit and biking trails. 

Flexible Designs for the Future

There is clearly an immediate need for inspiring and appropriate space for these types of environments, but life sciences is also a longer-term opportunity for the real estate sector. 

There are four areas developers can focus on when designing dynamic and effective new environments for life science tenants: flexibility and planning for the future from the outset; community and finding opportunities to bring the outside in; environmental and human health; and employee and team well-being.

Science and technology companies evolve quickly and need their spaces to be built for future flexibility. Evolving research needs can radically alter space requirements, which requires a new, flexible way of thinking about offices and labs and speeding space to market. This can include the use of prefab and modular systems and movable partitions that allow rooms and areas to be quickly and easily converted for different uses. It also involves the use of easily reconfigured lab equipment, mobile conference rooms, flexible floor plates and reconfigurable workstations.

Innovation and breakthroughs don’t happen in a vacuum. That’s why new life sciences buildings should be designed to foster community with other companies in the sector and the wider multiuse neighborhoods they’re a part of. The addition of public amenities such as coworking spaces, restaurants and retail, parks and greenspace, convention centers and public event plazas can foster innovation and serve to attract and retain tenants.

In addition, research buildings are highly energy intensive. Developers should look for opportunities to integrate self-generating and renewable sources of energy like solar, geothermal, biomass and others that reduce onsite energy costs and feed power back into the grid. They should also consider eco-friendly features like green walls and rooftop gardens that promote sustainability and boost employee well-being.

The past year has demonstrated more than ever before the integral role that science plays in our world. Breakthroughs — whether tests, treatments or vaccines — happen because of the talent, ingenuity and collaboration of scientists and experts. The environments in which they work, from wet labs to dry labs, from social spaces to lobbies, play a critical role in supporting their best work. This moment provides an opportunity to better tailor spaces to meet the needs of scientists and for developers to ensure their buildings are financially viable into the future. 

Tom Sieniewicz is a partner at NBBJ specializing in diverse building types, including commercial development; Jonathan Wall is a commercial design principal at NBBJ; Mark Bryan is a senior lab planner at NBBJ.