Yet, at the very moment of society’s greatest need for breakthrough pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and software, clinicians and researchers are being stymied by a scarcity of lab space — a problem that is only getting worse. Lab vacancy rates are at 5 percent compared to U.S. office vacancy rates of 17 percent, CBRE reports. In Boston, lab vacancies are 1.7 percent; in New York vacancies are 1.1 percent; and in San Francisco vacancies are 2.6 percent.
Adding to America’s growing lab space problem is the issue of wet lab quality. The sterile, isolated, cookie-cutter lab designs that have prevailed for decades in the life sciences no longer meet modern needs. An emerging generation of life science workers in the biotech, medtech, and biopharma industries is increasingly demanding more from their lab environments. They want to work in settings that promote exploration, experimentation, communication, and collaboration, the fundamental building blocks of a modern laboratory.
Designed for Success
In order to meet the evolving needs of life sciences tenants, real estate developers serving the sector must broaden their vision beyond the merely functional, purpose-built laboratory facilities and campuses of decades past. That journey begins with a collaborative relationship between the developer and the life sciences tenant. It goes without saying that the developer needs domain expertise; after all, you wouldn’t want someone who’s never cooked a meal in their life designing your kitchen. First and foremost, life sciences developers working with these tenants must be sophisticated about the science, while being responsive, flexible, and anticipatory. Decision-makers and executives with life sciences backgrounds who can speak the language of their wet lab tenants are an added plus.
Beyond planning for space and equipment — equipment that is needed immediately and equipment that may be required in the future — today’s labs must be designed with the inbuilt capacity to adapt to unknown problems and unforeseen circumstances. And every design must take into account existing regulations and safety best-practices.
Lab vacancy rates are at 5 percent compared to U.S. office vacancy rates of 17 percent, CBRE reports. Ensuring that a lab footprint is flexible, i.e., it can accommodate immediately needed and future equipment, is a huge advantage for early-stage companies. That’s because it is highly disruptive for a life sciences company to have to break down all of its equipment and pack up everything to move to a new space. Developers who build flexibility into spaces, future-proofing them for growth or changing needs, provide a singular advantage to their tenants. To accomplish this, the developer must be a partner with the lab client before, during, and after construction.
Design is critical because it takes into account everything from how the equipment will be positioned within the lab to how each scientist works with colleagues, traffic flow within the lab, and other space considerations. How workstreams can be modified or improved for efficiency also goes into the design; this includes eliminating any perceived or anticipated bottlenecks within the facility, such as where business offices are located in relation to the bench spaces.
Understanding the equipment needs from the user is the next important step. Lab equipment ranges from the smallest beaker or pipette, to benches and large machinery such as autoclaves. The developer needs to understand the size and scale of the equipment and plan spaces accordingly to accommodate the variety of machines and other equipment that will be used in the lab. Of course, electricity, water supply, and ventilation needs must be considered, too. All the while, the developer needs to attend to contemporary trends in lab design. For example, large, open-plan labs with as many as 12 or more benches in a common space are giving way to smaller spaces with five to eight benches. To ensure adequate space, answers are needed to many questions, including:
- What types of equipment will go into the space?
- What infrastructure (electrical, plumbing, HVAC, LAN, etc.) will be needed?
- What special requirements (weight, heat, electrical load, cooling, vibration suppression, etc.) will the equipment require?
- How might the facility and its support systems grow within days, months, or decades?
Ensuring that a lab footprint is flexible, i.e., it can accommodate immediately needed and future equipment, is a huge advantage for early-stage companies. Conversion Considerations
No one can deny that there is a profound need for more high-quality lab space nationwide. However, life sciences developers are divided over the question of how best to meet that need. One solution is to convert underutilized office space into research suites. Yet it can be tricky — not to mention costlier — to repurpose an office, industrial, or retail space as a lab. There are numerous considerations driving the determination of whether a space is suitable for conversion, including:
- Space requirements and constraints: Cutting-edge lab facilities will have a variety of spaces: open lab, lab support, computational, open office, write-up areas, enclosed offices, conference rooms, huddle space, break, collaboration, and interaction areas.
- Life safety and fire protection: Space designed for office use, for instance, may not have been constructed to the robust levels that labs handling hazardous materials demand.
- Air distribution: Unlike recirculated office air, a laboratory air distribution system may need to be separated. Labs working with toxic chemicals and gasses need fume hoods and enclosures.
- Electrical capacity: Because lab equipment demands higher electrical loads, labs generally need upsized panels, plus backup and emergency power.
- Plumbing: Wet labs may need much more water than an office building’s original restrooms.
In my experience, the collaboration and interaction areas are key. They must be a fundamental part of the initial design, not an afterthought. From our standpoint as a developer focused on life sciences, perhaps the most important element is how space promotes collaboration by satisfying the needs of its human occupants, the scientists and others working in the environment.
Perhaps the most important element is how space promotes collaboration by satisfying the needs of its human occupants, the scientists and others working in the environment. A superior lab environment can attract the right talent too. Life sciences employment has continued to fare better than the U.S. job market with year-over-year growth up 7.9 percent and 11.4 percent in 2020 and 2021, respectively, according to Cushman & Wakefield, the global real estate services firm headquartered in Chicago. Since 2011, total U.S. employment growth has averaged 1.0 percent per year, while life sciences employment has increased by 6.6 percent per year, on average.
Speaking of attracting talent, we have begun to see more and more calls for commercial real estate firms to bring on leaders with scientific backgrounds. To return to the analogy of designing a kitchen, there is a tangible advantage in having these real estate clients — who have very specific and exacting requirements driven by the type of science they are engaged in — have as their primary point of contact a real estate executive who understands those needs inherently because they too have worked at a lab bench.
Human-centered architecture and amenities are important because, at the end of the day, buildings and laboratories don’t make scientific breakthroughs. Scientists do. By creating lab environments where research and the exchange of ideas is easy, enjoyable, and seamless, we increase occupant satisfaction and set the stage for innovation.