How to Design Commercial Buildings to Meet Demand for the Life Science Boom

December 15, 2020

Partner, NBBJ

Editor’s note: From research to discovery, science buildings can be designed to encourage talent attraction, community and future flexibility. In the final edition of a three-part series, NBBJ’s Tom Sieniewicz, Jonathan Wall and Mark Bryan share key tenants to keep in mind when converting commercial space to life science use, or designing new lab structures from the ground up.


Like many industries, the coronavirus pandemic has injected uncertainty into the commercial real estate sector, especially in the short term as a vaccine is slowly distributed that will bring many companies, including Netflix, back to the office in 2021. Where the traditional commercial property and office market present challenges for some tenant types and geographies, the life sciences sector — encompassing pharmaceuticals, biotech and others — represents an industry of opportunity for commercial developers.

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

Time-sensitive demand for appropriate lab and office space — and a notably low vacancy rate in life sciences — is seen in markets across the US, from Boston to Philadelphia to New York to San Diego, as well as across Europe.

This juxtaposition of an unexpected surplus of vacant commercial space in the near-term and growing demand from life sciences presents an opportunity for developers to buffet their portfolios by repositioning existing buildings into spaces suitable for both light and heavy life science use. Meeting demand for life science over the long haul will also require new building development — projects that are explicitly designed for life science and for buildings that are designed with flexibility in mind, that can accommodate either life science or general business tenants.


An Opportunity to Develop More Dynamic and Kinetic Life Science Environments

With a shift away from blockbuster drug development and the simultaneous growth of personalized medicine, considerable growth in life sciences 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 space – whether repurposed or built anew – is a key part of that strategy. Place matters, both to attract and retain talent and to create the conditions that lead to innovation and breakthroughs.

Thoughtfully designed buildings can create the kind of atmosphere and community that is demonstrably proven to spur innovation by allowing 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, both adaptive reuse and ground up, companies have the opportunity to develop more kinetic and generative life sciences environments by 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.


When Time Is of the Essence, 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. Primarily, planning for air changes since science work depends on higher than average air changes. One way to assist in this regard is to boost the amount of fresh air circulating through the space. And labs can 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 like air handlers can be installed. Building owners can also mitigate vibrations within traditional office spaces by using localized stiffeners in targeted areas as opposed to throughout the entire building.

These ideas of both next generation, kinetic life science design and strategically adapting existing commercial space to meet sector demand for space is exemplified at The Works in Cambridge, UK. Recently completed, The Works accommodates the growing demand for appropriate office and R&D space of South Cambridge’s booming biomedical and biotech cluster.

The Works adapts an industrial warehouse into a contemporary, reimagined idea of an office park. Tailored to meet the needs of life sciences startups, it creates 72,000 square feet of space adapted from the building’s original historic pre-cast concrete frame. The openness of the original warehouse provides a modern and airy multi-use campus that feels more like a tech or creative campus than the institutional office stock typically available to the sector, with ample natural light, open work spaces, and a central atrium ‘street’ open to the public. The campus is also closely knit with the surrounding community and linked in with biking and public transit.


To Meet Long-Term Demand, Futureproof New Life Science Environments Through Flexible Designs

There is clearly an immediate need for inspiring and appropriate life sciences environments, but life sciences is also a long term opportunity for the real estate sector. This is why many developers are recognizing the continued strength of the sector and are investing in ground-up buildings accordingly.

There are four areas developers can focus on in creating dynamic and effective new environments for life science tenants: designing for flexibility and planning for the future from the outset; designing for community and finding opportunities to bring the outside in; designing for both environmental and human health; and designing for 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 pre-fab and modular systems and movable partitions that allow rooms and areas to be quickly and easily converted for different uses and the use of kinetic lab equipment, mobile conference rooms, flexible floor plates and reconfigurable workstations.

Recognizing that innovation and breakthroughs don’t happen in a vacuum, new life sciences buildings should be designed to foster community — both with other companies in the sector and with the wider neighborhoods they’re a part of. Developers and designers can work together to create campuses that find the right mix of transparency and privacy, where the community can engage with research and can be brought in with dedicated public amenities including co-working spaces, restaurants and retail, parks and greenspace, convention centers and public plazas to host farmers markets and other community events.

In addition, research buildings are incredibly energy intensive. Therefore developers should look wherever possible for opportunities to integrate self-generating and renewable sources of energy like solar, geothermal, biomass and others that both reduce onsite energy costs and feed power back into the grid. Eco-friendly features that promote sustainability and benefit employee wellbeing like green walls and rooftop gardens can also be considered.

While always critical to future human and environmental health, this year demonstrates 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. And the environments in which they work, from wet labs to dry labs, from social spaces to the lobby, have a critical role to play 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 despite an unknown future.


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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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Responding to a China on the March

December 8, 2020

Editor’s Note: This piece, written by former Architectural Record editor Clifford Pearson, has been adapted from its original version and is used with permission here.


I’m not a political scientist or an economist or a military expert, but I have covered China as a journalist since the early 1990s and have learned a thing or two about the country by viewing it through the particular lens of architecture. First of all, it is many places with different peoples and languages. Go to the mountains of Sichuan, the river deltas of Guangdong, and the desert landscapes of Gansu and you’ll find an incredible diversity of attitudes, customs, and cuisines. Same as a road trip around America would.

In the nearly three decades since I first visited China, the country has been transformed into a global juggernaut. While this may have surprised many in the West, it is seen in China as a return to its rightful place at the center of the world. There’s a reason why the Chinese think of their country as “the Middle Kingdom” and see the previous two centuries as a brief (for China) period of humiliation at the hands of unscrupulous Western nations.

On my first trip to China in the autumn of 1994, I shook my head at all the new buildings clad in white bathroom tile and fitted with reflective blue glass — materials that seemed “modern” to the locals. When I visited the offices of a major architectural publisher in Beijing I noticed large piles of cabbage on the balconies of an adjacent building. They were the allotments of winter produce that the publishing company gave members of its work unit as part of their housing.

Today, all those blue-glass buildings are either gone or dwarfed by architecturally ambitious structures that grace the pages of magazines like the one I used to work for. Many of the most innovative buildings in the world rise from the streets of Chinese cities. In a few brief decades, China has developed the wealth, sophistication, technological skill, and ambition to build world-class architecture. Driving this boom has been a powerful competitive streak in the Chinese character, not dissimilar to that of America’s.

During this same period, China has also nurtured a generation of talented local architects. Many of them earned graduate degrees in the United States, Britain, and Europe, then returned home to set up their own practices. Because the nation was building so much, these young designers got the opportunity to work on the kind of ambitious projects that their American counterparts could only dream of. Although not well known outside of China, practitioners such as Pei Zhu, Zhang Ke, Xu Tiantian, Liu Jiakun, Neri & Hu, Urbanus, and Atelier Deshaus have been busy creating remarkable architecture around the country. In 2012, Wang Shu became the first Chinese architect to win the Pritzker Prize.

After establishing thriving practices in China, a few of these architects came back to the West to run academic programs, including Yung Ho Chang at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Ma Qingyun at the University of Southern California. (Disclosure: I worked for Mr. Ma at USC, teaching and running the school’s American Academy in China.) One Chinese architect, Ma Yansong, is a rising star both at home and abroad.

So a vibrant back-and-forth exchange is shaping the relationship between China and the United States in terms of architecture. Despite current geopolitical challenges, American architecture firms remain busy in China and Chinese architects are starting to make their mark in the U.S. Thousands of Chinese students are studying architecture at U.S. schools and when they graduate many of them work for American firms doing business in China. In 2018, China had 662,000 students studying abroad, more than any other country, and those in the U.S. accounted for a third of all international students here.

Engaging China has been remarkably rewarding for American architects and the architectural profession in general. According to the American Institute of Architects, China was the biggest market for American architecture firms working internationally in 2017—accounting for 26.8% of gross billings for foreign projects, compared to 19.9% for Western Europe, 11.6% for East Asia and the Pacific, 11.4% for Canada, 7.3% for the Middle East and North Africa, and 6.8% for South America.

While China now has a deep pool of talented native architects, it still relies on large foreign firms to design many of its biggest projects. For example, American architects have designed nine of the 10 tallest buildings in China and Hong Kong, showing how the country’s ambitions have strengthened a collaborative relationship between the two countries. In recent years, the expat community in China has hovered around 600,000 with Americans accounting for the second largest number, behind only South Korea.

As every athlete knows, you play your best when you play against the best. For the past few decades, China has learned from the U.S., while buying our products and providing business opportunities to our companies. “When I moved to China in 2008, all of the Chinese executives I met wanted to know what Bill Gates’ office looked like, what Google was doing,” says NBBJ partner Eric Phillips. “Now these guys are setting standards that American companies need to match.”

While architecture represents a very small piece of the complex relationship between the two countries, it shows how a competitive, two-way process can be productive for both sides. The presence of U.S. architects in China has made Chinese architects better and the flip side of this equation now is pushing American architecture and business forward.

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