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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