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.

Share this:  envelope facebook twitter googleplus tumblr linkedin
Comment Follow nbbX

All Together: Summoning Ideals During a Period of Crisis

November 23, 2020

Principal, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This essay was originally published by Alex Krieger for the Harvard Graduate School of Design here


Optimism in America can be in short supply. A fearsome pandemic has taken an intolerable number of lives, with many more people succumbing daily. Livelihoods are at stake as millions remain out of work, and the economy is suffering. The particularly shocking murder of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of white police officers—and shootings since—have awakened wide-ranging cognizance of persistent racism, a much longer national crisis than the pandemic. And some political leaders shamelessly stoke divisiveness rather than speak out for tolerance and unity.

In truth, national unease was present prior to the arrival of Covid-19. Among a gathering of worries was climate change inaction, growing environmental harm, housing unaffordability, health care insecurities, and accelerating economic and social inequalities. Unlike prior generations—who trusted in a better future for their kids — today’s parents believe that the prospects for their children’s lives seem not as promising as were their own.

Along with optimism, expressions of ideals are in remission. Yet even amidst individual anxieties and the anger of the multitudes, one can sense a desire to reassert certain ideals. Let’s look again to the ones embodied in the opening sentence of the Constitution, “to form a more perfect Union,” and in our oldest motto, e pluribus unum. Would not the desire for equality, well-being, respect and acceptance of others, shared prosperity, valuing those who serve, caring for the environment, and access to health care be embodied in such aspirations? Add happiness, too, as in “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Ah, but you are thinking that such hallowed statements — voiced by the privileged — were not actually intended for all, despite the phrase “All men are created equal.” No, we have never fully met the challenge of America’s lofty aspirations. But should we not continue to try, especially now? That oft-repeated phrase — We are all in this together — heard both in relationship to fighting the pandemic and among the marchers for justice, is not unrelated to an intention to form a more perfect union.

Can we all together transition from marching in protest to overcoming racism and other inequalities? And while we’re at it, can we all insist that fresher air remains over our cities once the pandemic is conquered? Can we collectively distribute less carbon into the atmosphere? Continue to enjoy congestion-free, pedestrian-friendly streets throughout urban America? Keep a healthier balance of work and life? Prolong that respite from incessant travel demands? Continue spending more time with family? Maintain daily walks with a loved one when social distancing mandates abate? Why not commit to keeping those Himalayan peaks visible from broader regions of India? Such shifts have been, pardon the expression, breaths of fresh air, illuminated by a crisis.

Throughout American history, a reconfiguring of society following a crisis often catapulted the nation forward. Shouldn’t today’s interrelated crises do so as well? For inspiration, recall the earliest colonists, finding not the Eden they imagined while sailing to a new world, but confronting a harsh wilderness instead. They persisted to fashion a version of Eden in which to prosper. Against odds, their descendants defeated a mighty empire standing in the way of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Now remember the establishment of a Homestead Act in 1863, enabling any citizen to acquire a quarter-section of America—160 acres—at minimal cost, simply by occupying it and providing minimal improvements. Talk about affordable housing! Or, recall the Morrill Act, also passed in the midst of the Civil War. It required states to establish a public university with the proceeds from the sale of land granted by the federal government. Sixty-nine such land-grant institutions were founded, greatly expanding access to education and the “useful” skills necessary for a modernizing society. Among these were Texas A&M, the University of California, Cornell University, and MIT.

Now consider the determination to overcome distance: Construction of a transcontinental rail system was completed within a couple of decades during the second half of the 19th century. Concurrently, thousands of acres of parks and greenswards were “planted” in rapidly industrializing and increasingly harsh cities, in order to make them more humane for all those arriving from subsistence farms and across oceans. Remarkable environments such as New York’s Central Park and Boston’s Emerald Necklace were the result.

And we haven’t yet gotten to the 20th century, during which America prevailed in two world wars; invented a social security system and Medicare for the elderly; reconnected the country with roads, telephones, and the internet; increased the percentage of families attaining their measure of the American dream; and finally established civil rights in law (if not always in reality). We even landed a person on the moon, and even more remarkably returned him safely to Earth—a catalyst for major public commitment to scientific research in multiple fields.

To summon either aspirations or accomplishments of American culture is not to ignore, much less excuse, the many dystopic aspects of American history: the near total destruction of Indigenous cultures; the horrors of slavery and systemic racism; the conceits of Manifest Destiny and American exceptionalism; the continued corporate and political restraints on economic parity; the despoiling of the environment in the name of progress. Mere voicing of ideals have not led to their attainment. But to live and flourish in company with others — in more perfect union — requires shared ideals.

Summoning ideals during a period of crisis is hardly naive. Re-read John Lewis’s letter written right before his passing, imploring us to pursue “the next chapter of the great American story.” A lifetime of struggle against racism and for civil rights did not lead Lewis to abandon America’s ideals. And back in 1859, at an event in Boston’s Faneuil Hall, scene of revolutionary foment a century earlier, Carl Schurz — senator from Missouri, 13th secretary of the interior, and an immigrant appreciative of his adopted country — spoke to the value of following national ideals. “Ideals are like stars,” he said. “You will not succeed in touching them with your hands, but… you choose them as guides, and following them will enable you to reach your destiny.” Sound advice.

The pandemic will be conquered, vaccines are on the horizon and the economy will gradually rebound. An incoming administration promises to address partisanship and social discord. Many are hopeful for that effort’s success. Still, rather than pining for a return to a prior normal, lets commit, all together, to a destiny that enjoys the necessities of clean air, justice and equality for all.

Share this:  envelope facebook twitter googleplus tumblr linkedin
Comment Follow nbbX

Helping Universities Adapt and Respond

Three Ways to Leverage Campus Real Estate in Support of Mission and Longevity

September 16, 2020

Principal, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post was co-authored by Megha Sinha, Kim Way and Britni Stone.


As universities evolve strategies for reopening amidst the pandemic, many are also faced with major financial and logistical challenges. The combined impact of the loss of international students, financial strains that predate Covid, and the millions in losses caused by shutting down in-person classes leave many institutions in a serious bind. The space needs of universities are also changing rapidly, with the evolution of teaching models, the need for socially distanced learning environments and hybrid classrooms that support online and in-person learning. Given this context, there is a compelling need for universities to take a deeper look at their real estate assets and be creative with how they leverage their campus.

Real estate can be a valuable and untapped tool for universities seeking flexibility and additional resources to support their academic mission and financial stability. There are three key strategies which can support universities in this effort—scenario planning, partnerships, and creating flexible campus environments and spaces.

1. Scenario Planning

Scenario planning is a strategic planning method that universities can use to create flexible long-term campus plans, which can be particularly valuable in this era of uncertainty. Rather than creating a prescriptive master plan that lays out a single vision for the distant future, scenario planning helps institutions to envision multiple scenarios, each of which triggers a different planning approach. This ensures that the campus plan evolves with the changing landscape, and enables a more creative, flexible use of available space.

Each plan is unique as each institution is unique, but there are four key steps for institutions to consider as they develop a scenario plan:

  • Identify the key space needs drivers, both internal and external. This may encompass factors like enrollment trends, technology, areas of academic and research emphasis, evolving teaching models and student life and support facility needs. It is also important at this stage to start with the institution’s academic mission and vision, and consider how real estate can support this.
  • Assess existing facilities. This step involves understanding how space is currently being utilized and the condition of existing facilities. The challenge of addressing deferred maintenance may loom large on the horizon for many universities, though careful consideration should also be given to how facilities in need of renovation can be modified and used to accommodate pandemic related space needs in the immediate term.
  • Explore plausible scenarios. Universities should map out how programs, enrollment levels, and delivery models may evolve and change over the planning horizon, and use these projections to create a range of plausible scenarios. For instance, a university may anticipate steady on-campus enrollment growth, but should also consider the possibility that enrollment levels plateau or decline.
  • Provide a range of near and long-term recommendations. The last step is developing multiple or alternative near and long-term recommendations based upon the scenarios. This allows an institution to pivot to the recommendation that most closely reflects the scenario that plays out. For instance, if on-campus enrollment grows, then the university can adopt the recommendation that helps meet growing academic and student life space needs on campus. If the growth takes place in the online cohort, then the university can adopt the recommendation that enables a smaller real estate footprint, or reinvestment in technology within facilities, if hybrid learning models evolve.

2. Partnerships

Institutions can create more flexibility by partnering with other academic institutions, businesses, developers and allied organizations, utilizing their real estate to further their academic priorities. This approach can include:

  • Raising capital. Universities frequently have valuable real estate which is often unused, including parking lots and ageing or vacant buildings which they can’t afford to renovate. This real estate can be leased or sold to developers to raise capital that can sustain and enhance the institution’s strategic and academic mission.
  • Campus expansion. Universities frequently have facility needs that cannot be met through the traditional capital budgeting process. By partnering with developers through joint ventures or other arrangements, universities can still realize important projects like town/gown commercial districts, research parks, student housing, recreation amenities or other facilities. Some universities, like UC Davis Sacramento, have gone further by seeking out developers to finance, develop, own and manage significant parts of a new campus.
  • Partner with mission-aligned organizations. Universities can also raise capital and further their academic priorities by partnering with mission-aligned organizations, such as industry partners. For instance, co-locating with and renting campus space to companies allied with an academic research program or incubator space could bring financial benefits to the university while strengthening its research capabilities or commercialization efforts.

3. Create Flexibility in Existing Campus and Facilities

The pandemic demonstrates the importance of flexibility, as universities scramble to repurpose athletic facilities, outdoor space and other unconventional settings for socially distanced learning, dining or other functions. As part of a more long-term strategy to enhance adaptability and resilience, universities should consider flexibility as a central premise for the design of their campuses and spaces. But in the more immediate term, there are a number of strategies which can enhance flexibility within existing spaces to promote social distancing.

A fair degree of flexibility has been built into classrooms over the last decade, and this can be leveraged to make learning environments safer. For example, movable partitions in seminar rooms can be used to create smaller hybrid classes, and reconfigurable furniture can be spaced out to support social distancing. Similarly, shared common areas can be repurposed and zoned for lower density, serving as secondary spaces for learning, with the existing technology potentially used for virtual learners in a hybrid classroom. With an increase in remote work, some institutions may even rethink the design of staff space, adopting hoteling or shared hub strategies that provide the same choices offered in classroom environments and third spaces to faculty.

Technology is another enabler which may create new flexibility within existing spaces. With classroom technology becoming increasingly mobile, a number of areas, such as outdoor open spaces, building terraces and indoor atriums with good ventilation can potentially be used as temporary classrooms. Some universities are also deploying mobile hotspots to students in remote locations and boosting parking lot wifi to facilitate online learning.

While the immediate challenges of the pandemic will eventually recede, universities will need to continue to adapt and evolve in response to changing teaching models, enrollment trends and financial dynamics. Scenario planning, partnerships and designing for flexibility will be important tools for universities as they undertake this vital work.


How are you and your organization dealing with the coronavirus? We’d like to hear from you. Drop us a line at

Banner image courtesy Matthew Carbone.

Share this:  envelope facebook twitter googleplus tumblr linkedin
Comment Follow nbbX
Next Page »

Follow nbbX