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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