In a time of widespread economic upheaval, the life sciences industry is one of the few whose prospects have changed for the better. Called upon to rapidly develop and distribute an all-important COVID-19 vaccine without sacrificing the research and production of existing drugs, the biotech industry is expanding at breakneck speed.
Currently, around 13.9 million square feet of life sciences research and manufacturing space is under construction in key markets. In the United States, lab space vacancies have dropped to 7.1 percent, while commercial properties are being converted into R&D facilities on a massive scale.
This biotech boom is providing a vital lifeline to the construction industry. Due to the impact COVID-19 has had on various industries, plummeting contracting demand has led to the loss of roughly $60.9 billion in GDP, as construction jobs dropped to 6.5 million across the U.S. By embracing the current demand for life sciences facilities, developers can not only thrive in difficult times, but also play a role in speeding the world’s recovery from COVID-19.
Contractors are, therefore, rushing to secure lucrative projects, building research and manufacturing facilities in the life sciences sector. But with speed-to-market being a critical factor, biotech executives must choose construction partners who can mitigate shortages in labor and materials while guaranteeing timely government authorization to improve delivery timelines and get their clients working in a new space as quickly as possible.
The Challenges of Supplying Demand
Prior to the pandemic, medical advances combined with an aging and expanding population were projected to grow the life sciences sector. With the global prescription drug market expected to surpass $1 trillion by 2022, there has been an increased demand for lab space and the development of life sciences hubs. Repurposing commercial spaces to meet lab requirements continues to be a growing trend, as is the need for multi-product facilities to produce more personalized medicines that are generated in smaller quantities. In order to meet these requirements, life sciences companies must choose developers that understand current design specifications for specialized spaces and can deliver projects quickly.
Currently, around 13.9 million square feet of life sciences research and manufacturing space is under construction in key markets.
Having the ability to mitigate several issues causing significant project delays across the industry is paramount for construction companies. Supply chains have been upended since the early days of the pandemic in China, an essential manufacturing hub for the construction industry. Companies have had to stockpile material in an effort to continue projects without interruption.
The continued shortage of skilled laborers has been another ongoing challenge for the construction industry. Despite major layoffs last year due to pandemic-related site closures, specialized and skilled construction workers are still difficult to find and are becoming more expensive to employ. Closed borders and pandemic restrictions further exacerbate this issue. With speed a main focus for biotech firms looking to stay competitive, construction companies must address these supply and labor shortages to deliver the specialized facilities their life sciences clients demand.
Select for Flexibility
When choosing a contractor to build their new facilities, life sciences companies should make agility and flexibility their main criteria. Only the most adaptable companies with advanced problem-solving skills and existing established relationships with strategic vendors and subcontractors will be able to account for shortages in skilled labor and slowdowns in materials supply lines. Construction companies must be willing to embrace new ideas, or they simply will not be able to deliver usable spaces in time for their clients to reap the rewards of increased demand.
Design and construction companies that engage in strong pre-planning and demonstrate the foresight to scope down their projects will be highly desirable to life sciences firms. Planning an efficient, robust design utilizing minimal materials and personnel means decreasing the chance a project will face shortages. Such contractors react to the needs of their clients and will even choose to retrofit the clients’ existing spaces rather than build facilities from scratch — despite the larger payout of building new structures — if that means the client can move in and begin work sooner.
When choosing a contractor to build their new facilities, life sciences companies should make agility and flexibility their main criteria.
Cost, schedule (project controls), and project managers can increase on-site efficiency with real-time data reporting, efficient scheduling, and staggering tradesmen, further countering skilled labor shortages. Managers can maximize efficiency, getting the most out of workers and materials by proper planning, minimizing rework, managing material deliveries, and managing owners’ responses to work that may be impacted on the field. Continuous on-site training and working with the same team across all projects can also help secure employee loyalty and reduce training times. Strategic partnerships and commitments from owners at the early stages of project inception will allow them to prioritize material selection and delivery, as well as timely decision-making for the right equipment.
Modular construction practices can also minimize the required timelines per project. For example, by embracing modular and pre-manufactured material methods, key components, main utility runs, gowning rooms, and/or entire cleanroom of a facility can be built in a controlled factory setting and then assembled on-site by skilled workers in a shorter amount of time. Assembly of these systems can take place in parallel with the main buildout to save time with a “fit to use” approach. These adaptable practices create synergy that helps solve both the labor and materials shortages, as modular and off-site construction techniques also support physical distancing requirements by limiting the number of people needed on-site.
Speed of Certification
Government funding has played an influential role in accelerating drug research, with COVID-19 vaccines and other new therapies receiving a boost from government spending to combat a shortage of life-saving drugs. National and state governments are offering funding incentives and regulatory bodies are working with pharmaceutical companies to review and approve new treatments as efficiently as possible.
A risk-based qualification approach to “qualification” and “validation” is a necessity in speed-to-market conditions as well. Validation requirements and protocols should be embedded into the design and construction drawings and processes. If validation agents can start working on projects from the beginning, by the end of construction, qualification can be achieved to minimize time loss for operational readiness. In addition to this, proactive construction companies should be able to phase the project delivery per prioritization for the client to start with “operational readiness.” To help their clients achieve a competitive production speed, contractors must work with regulatory bodies from the pre-construction phase onward, immediately looping in safety and standards organizations.
Strategic partnerships and commitments from owners at the early stages of project inception will allow them to prioritize material selection and delivery.
Building Toward a Stronger Future
Continued growth for the life sciences construction market is expected as solutions are identified to mitigate supply chain and workforce issues. New and existing drugs are more in-demand than ever, and as the government pushes the development and manufacturing of different therapies, more U.S. companies will emerge. This increased demand is helping the construction industry remain strong, with non-residential construction starts rising 16 percent in August of last year.
This is when flexible construction practices are absolutely critical. Understanding the process for manufacturing, testing, certifying, and selling treatments can offer flexibility to developers, allowing them to adjust their techniques to meet client goals. And by establishing a strong foundation of project controls that incorporate building and user requirements, it becomes a matter of pivoting strategically to meet unexpected circumstances, rather than responding reactively to new challenges.