How Two Biotech Companies Won at Repurposing Historic Structures for Reuse
Aileron Therapeutics, a Cambridge, Mass.-based startup, and Novartis, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, have each recently repurposed older structures, creating unique and appealing headquarters buildings.
Chris Leary, AIA, LEED AP, Principal, KlingStubbins (Directory 2013)

{{RELATEDLINKS}}As the stock market and economic confidence plummeted in 2008 and companies — uncertain about the future — retrenched, new building construction largely came to a halt. However, despite this pessimistic environment, some successful companies continued to thrive and grow; leases expired and some creative property owners took advantage of the opportunity of time and remaining market demand and shifted their focus from new ground-up construction to investments improving the underperforming existing assets in their real estate portfolios. At the same time, companies looking for a competitive edge realized that their workspaces must appeal to a new generation of knowledge workers who will create the groundbreaking new innovations that will fuel the new economy.

In the currently challenging commercial real estate market, the economics of repurposing an older structure are enticing for any company, be it a small startup or a large established international corporation. What may have begun as a scrappy response to a distressed real estate market — renovating and repurposing older, underutilized buildings — has turned out to deliver remarkably creative results, in some cases culminating in unexpectedly exciting new work environments that would not have arisen from conventional new ground-up construction. Two examples demonstrate how different companies realized their new headquarters buildings by uniquely repurposing existing buildings.

Repurposing a Warehouse into a “New Age” Biotech Theater
Many advances in new, innovative biological, pharmaceutical, and medical technology emerge from small startup ventures, which, by their nature, attract particular creative talents and a fresher employee demographic. To successfully attract those talents, the new workplace must exude creativity and innovation. Ironically, the unique architectural character resulting from repurposing an existing historical building can greatly enhance a space designed for a cutting-edge research organization. For example, Aileron Therapeutics, a Cambridge, Mass.-based startup, was established in 2005 to conduct research on stapled peptides — complex molecular structures that allow medications to attach to specific sections of human cells. By 2008 Aileron had acquired significant funding and was poised to expand its staff. Therefore, a new facility, including office and laboratory space, was necessary.

The discovery and development of innovative new products are the lifeblood of a life sciences company. Observing that the sterility of the high-tech environment and focus on process efficiency at many “big pharma” research laboratories are failing to result in real innovation, Aileron’s leadership instead sought a creative work environment, inspired by a romantic vision of a SoHo artist’s loft, that was the embodiment of their startup culture. After touring a series of uninspiring and unfulfilling conventional real estate options, they turned their eyes instead to an unlikely and nondescript warehouse in downtown Cambridge that essentially provided a blank palette.

To ensure the transformation from a rough, raw, concrete industrial shell of a building into a modern biotech space that reflected their vision, Aileron management retained the KlingStubbins design team to craft their renovation. Because the nature of the lab’s research required collaboration, the workspace had to facilitate teamwork, allowing different scientific disciplines to overlap and interact. In addition, potential investors and licensing partners would be frequent visitors to Aileron, so a “wow-factor” had to resonate throughout the environment with the excitement of fast-paced research, scientific equipment, and robotic devices — employing a sort of biotech “theater.”

Crafting the Dream Lab
Working with the bones of the building’s exterior, and stripping away a few layers of unfortunate later renovations, the design team reconfigured the building entrance to face an adjacent vacant lot that was then converted to parking. A new steel entry canopy clearly identifies the new entrance, complete with stair and ramp providing a new, accessible entrance. Large new exterior windows were cut into the bricks and mortar of the existing exterior, allowing natural daylight to penetrate deeply into the building.

Inside, a new wood, plaster, and glass entry lobby replaced the existing bare concrete block walls. The theme of transparent views through glass walls is then repeated throughout all the office and laboratory spaces. Circulation pathways connecting nearly every lab, workspace, office, and meeting room throughout the building are bordered by transparent glass views, fostering a culture of communication, transparency, and serendipitous interaction. A visitor en route to a conference room, or an employee arriving for work, is immersed in the culture and activity of many of the company’s operations just by walking these pathways.

Although the open laboratory spaces are centrally located, and thus away from the exterior windows, large interior windows allow views and daylight to penetrate into those interior spaces. As if taking a cue from this adaptive reuse, the laboratories were designed with mobile casework that can be easily moved and reconfigured as needed. This flexibility enables reorganization of research teams and repurposing of spaces without requiring even more renovation or downtime from major moves. Throughout, the high bays remain unfinished — there are no suspended ceilings here. Not only do the tall, open volumes permit daylight to penetrate far into the building, but they also create an open, spacious character that is anything but confining.

Many of these design features could have been attempted in a conventional new building, but there is something intangibly authentic about an historic building that is essential in casting the raw creativity expressed by the space. Furthermore, unique architectural features, e.g., the unusually tall ceiling, would not be viewed as practical or affordable in new construction. In the end, this renovation was a win for both the tenant, who realized a unique result on a tight budget, and the building owner, who now realizes a greatly improved return on a previously underperforming investment.

Next: Novartis Creates Research Magic in a Candy Factory

{{RELATEDLINKS}}Research Magic in a Candy Factory
Startups are not alone in taking the route of repurposing an old building. Swiss-based Novartis, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, was looking for an opportunity to develop a large facility in the densely developed Kendall Square area of Cambridge, Mass., to house its newly created Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research (NIBR). With limited options to develop a large new building in densely developed downtown Cambridge, especially on an tight schedule, Novartis chose to repurpose the empty 500,000-square-foot New England Confectionery Co. (NECCO®) building into new office and laboratory space for more than 1,000 scientists. The KlingStubbins design team took the shell of a landmark building, added large doses of creativity and collaboration, and ended up with the formula for a new “Lab of the Year” winning renovation.

The revamped facility emphasizes open spaces and transparency to promote integration of scientific disciplines, social interaction, and energized innovation. The former factory’s loading dock marks the new entrance with inlaid stone that offers intuitive way-finding to the lobby, courtyard, and parking garage. Many of the laboratory spaces are open floor plans; private offices have a glass wall on at least one side; and at the main hallway junction on each floor is a circular, glass-enclosed conference room, now affectionately called a “bubble room.”

Break areas on each floor are mini-kitchens with TVs and abundant seating. The Winter Garden, featuring varieties of plants for medicinal use, is the center point adjacent to the company store and a café, and offers a relaxing area for visitors and employees. The original power plant dedicated to the needs of the candy-making factory was converted into an amenities building complete with a state-of-the-art auditorium, full-service cafeteria, and conference spaces. The “beating heart” of this building is its six-story, amoeba-shaped atrium with daylight illumination from a 1,572-square-foot skylight. Four glass elevators and a curved stairway facilitate the flow of foot traffic to and from the extensions of this U-shaped building.

Repurposing Has Its Benefits
With so many companies downsizing, if not closing their doors, in the wake of this struggling global economy, finding an empty building in just about any location is easy. However, successfully converting an historic building to modern laboratory use requires overcoming many technical challenges, such as reinforcing the building structure to meet current seismic codes, improving the building envelope to meet current expectations for energy efficiency, and inserting new mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems. Yet, there are many good reasons to make this investment.

First, consider the economic benefits. An older building will typically earn lower rents, while renovations will result in a new higher-value use and thus higher rents. In addition, a renovation can, depending on the condition of the building and the extent of the upgrades required, save considerable cost compared to new construction. In some cases, grants and tax benefits make renovation even more attractive.

The financial benefits of repurposing are not limited solely to direct construction material cost savings. Repurposing an existing building can save cost by greatly accelerating a project schedule, both by avoiding the time necessary to erect a new structure and, sometimes even more significantly, by reducing the time necessary for permitting a demolition and new building construction. In some cases, a new building could not be built today at the size and configuration of an historical structure built prior to currently more restrictive zoning.

Next, consider the benefits to the environment. Repurposing a structurally sound building eliminates the need to demolish it, which in turn alleviates the energy, waste, pollution, and landfill waste created by demolition and new construction. In addition, a renovation will greatly improve the energy performance of the building. Not only is reuse practical, but it also helps a development team to earn several points in the LEED® Green Building Rating System™.

Finally, the examples in this article also demonstrate the unique aesthetic character value that results from renovating an historic structure. Although this benefit is difficult to quantify, many successful cutting-edge companies desire something unique in their building spaces, something uniquely provided by creatively adapting an historic building .

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