Darius Umrigar

Darius Umrigar

Science and Higher Education Director, NBBJ
Darius has over 25 years’ experience spanning education, science, healthcare and residential sectors. He has particular expertise in the higher education sector and specifically in research, teaching and learning facilities. He is currently delivering a new multidisciplinary science centre for University of Oxford, the university’s largest building project to date, creating a world-class centre for life and mind sciences.

Look Both Ways: A Virtual Roundtable Exploring Trends in the Life Science Market and Workplace

May 18, 2022

Science and Higher Education Director, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: The second in NBBJ’s Look Both Ways series, “Life, Science & Living” is a virtual roundtable connecting life science industry leaders from the US and the UK. Focused around the “Golden Triangle” in the UK and the Boston Innovation District in Boston, MA, the conversation centers on themes related to the boom in life science developments, featuring perspectives from tenants, developers, project managers and agents. The ideas in this post have been condensed and reprinted with the permission of the participants.

Look Both Ways Virtual Roundtable Participants:

From the UK:

  • Dr. Kristin-Anne Rutter, Executive Director – Cambridge University Health Partners
  • Emily Slupek, Director of Science and Innovation – Buro Four
  • Jeanette Walker, Interim Director, Unity Campus – Howard Group
  • Chris Walters, Head of UK Life Sciences – Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL)

From the US:

  • Peter Bekarian, Managing Director – Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL)
  • Kelly Kurlbaum, Associate Director – Vertex Pharmaceuticals
  • Jake Sparkman, Manager, Life Science Investments – Boston Properties


NBBJ enlisted a graphic artist from Scriberia to document the conversation in real time and identify the main themes discussed throughout the event. Click the image to view a larger version.


Clustering and the Importance of Location and Connection

A shift in priorities toward quality of life and working environment is driving the development of spaces that are more than just a place to work. To remain competitive and recruit and retain talent, organizations are placing themselves in areas around other science businesses, hospitals and universities to capitalize on the opportunity for collaboration.

In the US and UK, life science companies are positioning themselves in areas that will draw potential employees naturally. For developer Boston Properties, a location-driven strategy means a two-pronged approach, developing core areas and pursuing a strategy along the urban edge. “End users are willingly accepting options in Waltham, MA, or the Boston Seaport since these are now viable submarkets of the overall cluster and locations where people think they can thrive long-term,” says Jake Sparkman, Manager of Life Science Investments at Boston Properties.

In the UK, the government is also making a wider push for expansion of the life science industry into areas outside the “Golden Triangle” by including science in its “Levelling Up” agenda. Investment in research and government infrastructure across the country will provide attractive anchors for hot spots in other locations. Meanwhile, the high commercial rents may accelerate companies to choose these alternative locations as well as encouraging new-build science villages such as Begbroke and North Oxfordshire. This link between geography and other drivers like affordable housing and schools may also mean that the heat map for the next generation of life science clusters will look very different in five to ten years.

Connection is also especially important in nurturing life science start-ups. For example, of the 400 companies that are formally part of the Cambridge Biomedical Center, more than 85 percent are small or medium companies, and approximately 60 percent are in a science park. “For this small, tight-knit community, connection and networking between companies and with the university is extremely important,” says Jeanette Walker, Interim Director of Unity Campus at Howard Group. Dr. Kristin-Anne Rutter, Executive Director of Cambridge University Health Partners advocates taking the idea of connection one step further and “facilitating a link back to the mission. Right now, on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus we are looking to build a cancer hospital with research floors which will incorporate patient areas and care facilities in their labs.”

The Works offers a unique, flexible commercial space suited to accommodate life science use within the Cambridge life science and technology cluster.


Finally, a shift toward personalized medicine is encouraging connection within organizations. “Typically, these companies want to keep their entire R&D and pilot manufacturing activities in one place so that they can manage the process, and I think we will see a big push in that area in the UK looking forward,” says Walters. In Boston, some therapeutics companies are bringing R&D and manufacturing into the city center to accommodate and appeal to their talent, rather than outsourcing manufacturing. There are some companies who do most of their manufacturing in a centralized location, where their R&D facilities are also located. Outsourcing means you may risk losing the community feel and impact company culture when drawing people back to work post-Covid and endeavoring to make people feel a part of a centralized company.

What Makes a Good Science Building?

Life science tenants are moving away from firm, rigid spaces toward spaces that can adapt to changing needs and an evolving industry. For example, Unity Campus in Cambridge, UK has consent for multiple new buildings, but must decide how best to cater to different tenant types. Emily Slupek, Director of Science and Innovation at Buro Four recommends taking a ground-up approach with a flexible riser strategy, “allowing more floors to have more uses.” “Build a little bit of everything. Develop a cluster for incubator spaces, make spaces that are turn-key and reusable,” adds Sparkman.

A “shell and core” model—like the one developed by NBBJ for Guy’s and St. Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust—where a building is designed not for a specific tenant but with the ability to customize the space for future use is one way to design for adaptability. Another is to “bring in a specialist for lab fit-out and allow the tenant or client to contribute to any additional costs,” says Slupek. Cathy Bell, a Global Science and Education Practice Leader at NBBJ, has seen a similar technique in which developers commit to a partial build-out. “As developers secure tenants, the tenant may want something different. With a partial build-out, the layout is flexible enough to be able to add a closed lab or remove one,” says Bell.

Though lab design is becoming more universal and there is more tenant-to-tenant reusability, life science tenants do have requirements that are different from those of other organizations. For example, scientists often require their own workspaces and are less open to desk-sharing or hotdesking, and ceiling clear heights are higher for labs than in standard buildings—an issue that is particularly tricky when it comes to adaptive reuse of existing building stock. Incorporating state-of-the-art fixtures, lighting and finishes so that the space feels new, and adding labs with views to adjacent labs or to the exterior can make a building more desirable, as can planning for expansion to accommodate headcount increases. Looking to the future, Dr. Rutter points to high-rise labs, which capitalize on the socioeconomic and environmental benefits of high-density design and are already being embraced by some research organizations.

Views to the exterior, or to other labs, are desirable. The Quadram Institute in Norwich, UK,  puts “science on show” with visual connections from office to lab.


What Else Are Clients Looking For?

Employee and community amenities are increasingly important to life science tenants. “At the end of the day—but for the physical needs and infrastructure and MEP that a life science building needs to provide—life science employees and users are no different from any other company’s employees. They want cool, innovative, interesting, dynamic spaces,” says Peter Bekarian, Managing Director at Jones Lang LaSalle. Amenities that promote well-being and balance—such as gyms, day care centers or access to nature such as walking paths—and those that provide opportunities for collaboration like cafés are most desirable.

Adaptive reuse is also gaining popularity as a viable and more sustainable option for the creation of agile and adaptable lab space. In Boston, landlords can easily lease space due to high demand but must contend with a lack of existing building stock. Re-leasing can also be a challenge since many older buildings do not provide the uses tenants are currently seeking. “It’s important to strike a balance between over-designing and under-designing—we mustn’t be complacent about the demand,” says Slupek. Instead, landlords who are willing to invest in the delivery of new labs, or the renovation of existing labs without disrupting process flow, will see a greater return on investment. Says Bakerian, “At the end of the day, the functionality of these buildings is far from what is expected and necessary for these companies to accomplish their mission. You can always add a coffee shop or fitness center, but you can’t go back and redo your air handling system because it’s not delivering enough to the end users.”

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The Future Science Workplace Is Here Today (Part 2)

A Conversation with Professor Philip Withers, Chief Scientist of the Henry Royce Institute

December 9, 2020

Science and Higher Education Director, NBBJ

Editor’s note: From research to discovery, science buildings can be designed to encourage talent attraction, community and future flexibility. In the second of a three-part series, we speak to Professor Philip Withers, Chief Scientist of the Henry Royce Institute to gather insights about what it means for the future science workplace.


NBBJ: What do you consider to be emerging best practices in designing new workplace research facilities of the future?

Philip Withers: Science workplaces need on one hand to bring people together to share ideas and spark new ones, but on the other provide contemplative spaces to enable these ideas to be worked through in detail. They should reflect the aspirations of the company and provide a convergence point bringing together people from industry and academia and to enable serendipitous encounters between those visiting for meetings and those who are permanently resident.

The new science workplace must support the four key activities taking place within:

  • Engage: To draw in visitors and inform them about the science and to provide an informal meeting space/display area.
  • Collaborate: Where people can converge to discuss ideas formally in meeting rooms or in small groups, or perch for a short period to send emails etc., between meetings in the building.
  • Concentrate: To think, concentrate and contemplate – an aspect often overlooked in modern workplace design and critical to scientific discovery and learning.
  • Experiment: Fully serviced with state of the art facilities for cutting edge research with access electronically enabled.

Key to all of these areas is flexibility to adapt to the constantly evolving needs and opportunities for science and research.

NBBJ: Many research facilities are built with flexibility in mind, but how flexible have they proved to be in practice? What flexibility and longer term adaptability strategies need to be rethought, and how do they need to change?

Philip Withers: Scientific challenges of research institutes evolve quickly; indeed the challenges of Covid-19 and the subsequent recovery of our economic base are reminders of the pace at which the UK’s science and engineering challenges can change. Equally, there will be no such thing as a standard day in the life of a research building, with different types of activities, meetings and events taking place simultaneously.

Flexibility, agility and configurability are therefore key to long term strategies and may include placing meeting and engagement spaces at the front of the building to encourage and enable engagement; large windows into laboratory spaces to demonstrate ‘science on show,’ and creating visual connections between research groups to encourage collaboration.

New state of the art equipment will be acquired, groups will grow and move, and exciting, novel activities and interdisciplinary links will be forged. The ‘engine room’ spaces in a research building should be zoned according to different activities (bio, chemical, engineering, etc.) with the appropriate services/environments to accommodate and run different types of complex equipment supplied from the ceiling so they can be reconfigured to meet future needs.

NBBJ: Were there any other sectors — corporate workplaces, commercial development, healthcare, retail, process engineering/production – you looked to for inspiration when briefing a new space?

Philip Withers: Research spaces are often multidisciplinary, so ideas from diverse sectors can be helpful for developing the design brief. For example, large commercial developments may influence the way we incorporate open spaces, such as mezzanine levels with ‘mini atria’ interlinked by open staircases, to facilitate multidisciplinary collaboration between inhabitants on different floors.

At the opposite end of the scale, the way small companies use multipurpose reception spaces inspires ground floor presentation/immersion spaces. Small companies don’t have space for a dedicated large lecture hall to promote their company but we were inspired by a company in Delft which set up an immersive area for presentations and introductions. This is a fantastic way of enabling interactions between the scientists that work in the building and members of the public who are interested in what we do, as well as providing a great space for ‘Café Scientifique’ style meetings.

When designing the laboratory areas of a building, we look to hospitals for the most effective way of segmenting research space according to biological complexity to allow for different levels of work to be done in different areas. Similarly, we learn from process engineering labs that micro-scaling facilities would allow access to have a wider range of processes and more flexibility in the additive manufacturing and 3D printing spaces.

NBBJ: How do you see the development of technology and automation impacting facilities, workplace and general operations? As we move into the era of robotics, how will this define the new workplace and how do we safeguard a human-centric approach?

Philip Withers: In materials science, our field of expertise, there has been a move towards additive manufacturing, reconfigurable manufacturing and Industry 4.0. This looks at how we can use large numbers of sensors and information to increase the efficiency of industrial processes. Merging sensors and digital precision with computation and machine learning will accelerate the development of new materials.

In effect we have tried to build on the concept of the ’96 well plate’ used for high throughput screening to create prototype manufacturing systems which allow us to systematically make, test and characterise large permutations of advanced materials on a small scale.

Quickly iterating materials design through a combination of modelling, experimentation and machine learning will vastly accelerate the development of new materials systems. Further, we’ve been learning from our partners at Liverpool Materials Innovation Factory and Culham Centre for Fusion Energy how robotics can rapidly generate reliable and repeatable research data and handle hazardous materials, enabling scientists to efficiently and safely tackle the complex problems that challenge our society.

NBBJ: How do you see the Covid-19 pandemic affecting your working practices? How do you think the Institute will need to change in the future to support these changes?

Philip Withers: Covid- 19 reminds us how quickly priorities and working practices can change and the importance of the design of research spaces to keep up. Flexible design means we have the option to reconfigure laboratory space to ensure people can work together safely as required.

Here at the Henry Royce Institute, we have core capabilities at partner spokes across the UK and are open to all UK academics and industry. In fact, bringing together separate groups to collaborate is at the heart of what we do. Consequently, we were already practised at connecting numerous people at disparate locations using online meetings and providing remote access to equipment, but certainly the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated this process.

The response to Covid-19 also raises expectations about the degree to which working together in science and engineering can bring about rapid change and accelerate the rate of discovery. This must not be forgotten once the initial concern over infection has eased; rebuilding our economy will need the same adventurous and collaborative spirit.

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The Future Science Workplace is Here Today

A Conversation with Colin Brown, Director - Development at Howard Group

December 2, 2020

Science and Higher Education Director, NBBJ

Editor’s note: From research to discovery, science buildings can be designed to encourage talent attraction, community and future flexibility. In the first of a three-part series, we speak to property developer Colin Brown of the Howard Group about a recent science project in the UK, gathering insights about what it means for the future science workplace.


NBBJ: What do you consider to be the emerging best practices in designing the new workplace research facilities of the future?

Colin Brown: There has been a significant cultural shift where property professionals, designers, employers and investors have recognised that people have to come first. In the past, some companies would describe themselves as a ‘people business,’ or being engaged in a ‘people industry.’ Employers across virtually every sector now recognise that every business is a people business, and to that end are investing properly in those people, whether it be in their physical and mental health, their workplace or their training and career development.

Strategic master planning and building design can facilitate communication and collaboration. The more I engage with R&D/life sciences tenants our market (Cambridge, UK) the more I realise that the old way of doing things has passed. The ‘arm around your homework’ silo mentality benefits very few, and the big challenges of the world require cross-sector co-operation and the sharing of insight and resource. Very few companies will get to where they want or need to be without harnessing the skills or the research of others. That raises a whole load of exciting challenges and opportunities for the property industry. It also taps into the primary source of workplace satisfaction for the highly educated research workforce – to be part of something big, positive and world-changing.

This approach was very much front of mind when considering the master-plan at Unity Campus – our new 260,000 sq. f.t (24,155 sq. m.) business park in south Cambridge which has always been about driving interaction between people and businesses. There is very little graded car-parking or internal vehicle movements, the amenity space is shared and central, buildings are much closer together and the campus feels a lot more collegiate than the standard research parks in the region. The campus approach is deliberate, and we believe it is a much more appropriate response to changing tenant demands.


NBBJ: Many research facilities are built with flexibility in mind, but how flexible have they proved to be in practice? What flexibility and longer-term adaptability strategies need to be rethought, and how do they need to change?

Colin Brown: Flexibility is seen by many as the panacea for commercial property development, but ultimate flexibility invariably comes at a cost. The risk is that in trying to be all things to all people we neglect to provide accommodation that is truly fit for purpose for anyone. At Howard Group we have had to really educate ourselves in not only the physical but also the commercial flexibility required by research tenants who often experience extremely fluid high-growth or contraction patterns. Flexibility is as much about being fleet of foot and identifying solutions to possible problems before they are encountered as it is about catering for the most demanding requirement in the market (and then being forced to charge accordingly to make the development viable). Our challenge is to understand what flexibility means across all aspects of our occupiers’ business, not just the structure or design of a building.


NBBJ: Are there any other sectors — corporate workplaces, commercial development, healthcare, retail, process engineering/production — you look to for inspiration when briefing a new space?

Colin Brown: Howard Group is active across all commercial sectors as well as having a large student accommodation presence. We certainly see the benefit in coming to a sector with a fresh outlook, although we are also very aware that we have a lot of learning to do. To that end we surround ourselves with the very best consultant teams in the business to both support and help us develop our knowledge and expertise.

In Cambridge particularly, the competition for talent is so fierce that employers will go to great lengths to create workspaces which attract the best people. Millennial and Gen-Z workforces are generally happy to spend far longer at work than previous generations, and they want that workspace to feel a lot more like home. In response to this, we are working hard to create spaces where people can relax, enjoy their surroundings, take a longer break than they might otherwise do and come back to their workspaces invigorated and inspired.

I’ve noticed myself that whilst working through the Covid-19 lockdown, the process of getting outside, engaging with people outside of our business, eating well and exercising makes me a whole lot more focused on my work when I’m back at my screen or on the phone. Given the home working that has been so much a part of 2020, we are and will continue to see the design principles from quality residential schemes arriving in many research and office environments. An excellent example of this is an AI occupier in our 95 Regent Street development in central Cambridge, who are proposing to install a breakfast bar, sleep-pods, music and games rooms into their expansion space!


NBBJ: How do you see the development of technology and automation impacting your facilities, workplace and general operations? As we move into the era of robotics, how will this define the new workplace and how do we safeguard a human-centric approach?

Colin Brown: I have to caveat my response here with an acknowledgement that in Cambridge we are in an almost unique position. Employment figures are high and a disproportionate number of those are employed in knowledge intensive industries, capable of benefitting greatly from the development of technology and automation rather than being at risk from it. We have witnessed robotics, electronics and technology doing incredible things; improving many aspects of daily life and I hope we will continue to see that evolve. Howard Group has occupiers and investee companies who are using tech to target some of the largest sustainability issues, from reducing embodied carbon in construction practices, to creating more sustainable building materials, to increasing the efficiencies in global electrical grids.

Where tech is able to create a better quality of life for all, we greatly welcome it. As cliché as it sounds, the key is to make tech work for humanity and not the other way around. This commitment to looking after people, and developing in as sustainable a way as possible is intrinsic to what we do. Through responsible investing in people, places and ideas, we are committed to improving and enriching lives whether it be developing a forgotten place or backing a new and exciting life science entrepreneur.


NBBJ: How do you see the Covid-19 pandemic affecting your developments? How do you think buildings will need to change in the future to support these changes?

Colin Brown: There has been a huge amount of discussion about what the new normal might look like. I think some of the chatter will disappear into the background and I don’t foresee a fundamental systematic change in the way that we design and construct buildings coming soon. However, the way that workspaces are fitted out, occupied and managed is unlikely to go back to where it was before the pandemic for a considerable period of time.

I have spoken to a number of tenants during the course of this year, and many have told me of their sense of frustration at not having had control over their own destiny. Landlords of multi-let buildings, secure research parks or serviced office providers have had to prescribe to tenants how (and whether) they are able to access and use their buildings, which I think could become more of an issue as we see the lockdown restrictions lifted and people start to interpret what best practice looks like. Being part of a community is great, but having your own front door also affords a degree of autonomy, which might look attractive to those frustrated at over (or under) cautious landlords or those who want to control their own environments and ensure safe working practices throughout.

I think we will almost certainly see companies giving their business resilience and disaster mitigation strategies more forethought. That might lead to greater investment in technology and agile working infrastructure, but it will also be about key-man risk and pooling of knowledge, client relationship management etc. Working remotely is great on occasion when the nature of your job allows, and we’ll all be much better equipped to do it going forward. However, working together in teams and improving collaboration internally and externally is also a critical aspect of future-proofing a business and building resilience.

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Seven Ways that Life Sciences Buildings Can Support Today’s Advanced Research Needs

As Research Methods in the Life Sciences Develop at an Unprecedented Rate, How Can Our Buildings Keep Up?

April 22, 2019

Science and Higher Education Director, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post is condensed from an article co-authored by Alinea, NBBJ and Arup and originally published in Building magazine.

By 2023, experts anticipate the UK economy will create an additional 142,000 new jobs in science, research and engineering. The way scientists work is changing, and so must their environments. Here are some of the key drivers affecting life science spaces today:

  • Attracting talent
    While the UK’s demand for highly skilled researchers, technologists, scientists and engineers is growing, the talent supply is falling short: the Open University found 91% of organisations struggled to find skilled talent in the last 12 months.
  • High workspace expectations
    More than one-third of knowledge-based workers work outside a traditional office setting, and the design of academic and science workplaces goes beyond just offices and laboratories: these spaces must support collaboration and focus as well as embody the vision, values and culture of the research organisation. Workspace expectations are also high in relation to the health and wellbeing agenda.
  • Advanced technology and processes
    Due to increasing technological support, in the last 10 years laboratory designs have shifted away from the traditional wet lab with separate office, to include a larger proportion of dry lab spaces and engagement areas.
  • Highly optimised and efficient buildings
    Some organisations now lean towards shared spaces and equipment, in which lab benches are booked rather than assigned permanently, lab concierges designate space and arrange ‘just-in-time’ apparatus deliveries, and scientists and specialist technicians pool their complex analytical equipment.
  • Future flexibility
    Despite ongoing demand for highly specialised spaces, research facility design can be based on generic, flexible configurations to allow a wide range of multidisciplinary scientific activities. The most successful future-proofed environments provide long-term adaptability without overdesigning and overspending.


Design Responses

The trends and themes described above have specific implications on the design of lab spaces, as designers rise to the challenge of meeting the future needs of the fast-growing and constantly evolving science sector:

  • Facade design may need to respond to the increasing desire for ‘science on show’ while fulfilling high-building performance requirements.
  • Adjacencies of different relevant functions must be captured, connectivity provided and the ‘chance encounter’ encouraged.
  • A sustainable and flexible approach to soft and hard facilities management should be adopted within the design approach.
  • Flexible space will offer the potential for future adaptation and allow users to flex between wet and dry lab space.
  • Testing the layouts for potential usage options at an early stage allows the team to make a considered provision for central plant, with strategies for locally flexing the provision as usage changes over time. Overprovision of services does not benefit the scheme economically or strategically, adversely affecting floor heights, plant sizes and capital cost.
  • The location of plant needs careful consideration to accommodate vibration-sensitive equipment often associated with life science research. Early identification of zones where low vibration can be safeguarded helps define equipment zones, support spaces and influences plant locations. Providing sufficient distance between fume extract requirements and intake locations adds further constraints.
  • Structural solutions need to respond to floor-loading requirements to keep the building’s use flexible over its lifespan and to meet localised vibration criteria requirements. Structural layouts should be developed to set a rational grid that responds to design efficiencies, while at the same time creating ‘swing space’ for laboratory or office planning modules.


Controlling Costs

As the volume of research accelerates, so too is the increasing pressure to monitor operational costs associated with running these highly serviced and complex environments. Designing alongside specialists and users helps building designers improve functionality, increase efficiencies and create more sustainable buildings.

The design process itself can be made increasingly efficient by using a data-driven approach. Smart tools are allowing designers to determine the ideal spatial relationships at the onset of the design process. Design computation allows clients, designers and consultants to explore numerous variables simultaneously — and to review the impact on space requirements and costs in real-time.

These tools, combined with the closer integration of architecture with structural and building services design, are challenging traditional laboratory design concepts, allowing teams to create more efficient buildings that add value while minimising capital and operational cost expenditure. As with any building project, understanding and developing the brief with the client leads to improved and successful long-term outcomes.

Banner image courtesy jarmoluk/Pixabay.

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