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What to consider when converting commercial or office space to life-science use

August 04, 2021

By Ginger Desmond

The space needs for life science uses are specific and differ from others. Conversion of existing space to life science requires a careful review.

Exciting advancements in the tools available to explore new therapies such as cancer treatments and vaccines have allowed researchers to increase both the speed and accuracy of life science research. Perhaps the best example is the recent rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines. The available means and speed to explore new ideas has created an array of possibilities for many science- and technology-based products. Life sciences are one area where exciting new possibilities and products are rapidly being explored.

With the increase of empty office space, developers are exploring new purposes for these commercial buildings. Life science use is a clear choice for conversion of these spaces. These structures can be and are being successfully converted into life science laboratories. However, it is important to consider how the requirements for a life science space differs from office space.

Open concept designs are used in commercial life science buildings to allow for more flexibility in layout and future adaptability. (KPMB/Stantec)

Location, location, location

It is essential to consider the location of your building to match it with potential use. Life science clusters typically develop around generators of ideas, such as major research universities or institutions. These organizations provide the source of ideas and potential employees and resources that may not be available to a start-up. Major centers are established in the Boston and San Francisco regions, as well as along both coasts. However other regions across the US and Canada are also expanding their life science presence. Some emerging clusters are Eastern Texas, especially Austin and Houston, with expansion across the country in a variety of locations, including Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina; Atlanta, Georgia; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Denver, Colorado.

Other thoughts for a picking a location are like any other business. These include affordability, access to housing, security, and transportation/ease of access. Life-science employees tend to be well educated and have an interest in healthy and engaged lifestyles. That means access to social and other activities are important. The employees will want the desirable amenities in other types of commercial spaces.

Preplanning evaluation

Converting an office space into a lab will not necessarily take more time than any other construction project, provided you have done some careful preplanning. The infrastructure of your building is the first thing to consider once you’ve decided the location will have appeal for a life-sciences tenant.   

It is essential to consider the location of your building to match it with potential use.

It may seem tempting to save time in planning and design and jump into your conversion, preplanning is a critical step to match the building with the proposed use. It will ultimately help you avoid expensive delays and change orders in construction. Developing a checklist, matrix, or other evaluation tool to compare existing conditions against the goals for your proposed use will help balance requirements and costs while maximizing the potential appeal of your project. Some typical high-level factors include:

  • Structural bay: The ideal structural bays for life sciences are modules between 10 feet 6 inches and 11 feet wide, with deep bays between 32 and 45 feet for open labs. Other layouts may work with standard bench layouts but may inefficiently use the space available.
  • Live load and vibration: Lab equipment is heavy and many types cannot tolerate vibration. A lab structure is typically two to three times stiffer than office construction to avoid vibration. You will need to determine if the floor can support a live load of 120 pounds per square foot or more. If not, determine if you can reinforce the structure to support the live load and minimize vibration.
  • Existing construction IBC designation: Building codes limit the quantities of each class of chemical stored in a Class B office space building. Those codes also impact the fire-separated control areas in the building. Verify that the building will support the segregation of fire-rated chemical control areas. If it won’t, determine whether it can be upgraded.
  • Loading dock and access: Frequent deliveries will involve materials not typical for office use. Make sure the loading dock can support these deliveries. Also verify if there is sufficient space for laboratory waste removal, laboratory gas tanks, hazardous incoming and outgoing material, and other bulky lab supplies.
  • Existing MEP/FP infrastructure: In addition to considering the age and condition of the existing equipment, think in terms of “five times.” Though it varies, the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) needs of life sciences are typically between three and five times what is required for office occupancies, sometimes more. Fire protection (FP) may also require additional capacity over other occupancy uses. This affects capacity of utilities as well as space required to support this need, including shaft space. In addition, you will need space and infrastructure to support lab-specific needs such as once-through air and plumbing systems for lab waste neutralization. 
  • Use-specific infrastructure: The building will likely need space for laboratory gas storage and back-up power for critical equipment—in addition to required life-safety emergency generators. This will require space onsite, either at grade or within the building, with clearances sufficient to install these items safely.
  • Utilities infrastructure: Many cities and utility providers are familiar with the infrastructure needs of buildings for life sciences, but some are not. Keeping an open dialogue with these groups will help you control costs and avoid concerns that might arise after the project is underway. Be sure to discuss any limits and parameters for city zoning and utility connections at early stages of planning through the final design documents.

It is important to implement proper safety standards and personal protective equipment while changing the building from an office space to a lab.

Considerations after selecting a building

You’ve got a great building, and you’re ready to convert it. Before you jump into design, there are a couple other items to think about. 

  • Energy use: MEP use is approximately five times a “typical” building. Can you build a sustainable laboratory? The short answer is yes. You can address regulations and environmental concerns even with the heavy energy-intensive use. Alternate heat and cooling sources, smart building systems, and advanced heat-recovery options are all good choices for laboratory buildings without compromising use or safety.
  • Safety: Safety precautions are critical as employees will use high-risk equipment and chemicals. Hazardous waste needs to be disposed of properly and rules and regulations regarding these materials need to be followed. The proper use and control of hazards within the building will mostly rely on procedures and personal protective equipment, but there are some space considerations as well. You’ll need to ensure there is enough space around the loading dock for storage and incoming/outgoing supplies and waste. Similar space needs impact the service elevator and common passage to labs. Air distribution and avoiding cross-contamination will be achieved as labs are fitted out, but you’ll need to provide the infrastructure that will allow for clean distribution.
  • Keep it flexible, open, and modular: As you refine your concept and revised plan, make sure your building core and other fixed elements allow the maximum options for fit-out and allow updates and reconfiguration with minimal impact. This benefits tenants in initial fit-out and can also assist in moving a second tenant into a vacated space.
  • Don’t forget the amenities: Researchers are people too. Even though there’s already a lot to consider and include in a life-science building, it’s important to include the types of spaces you’d have for any office space. This includes access to food, places to relax and meet up with colleagues, access to natural light and fresh air, or other amenities typical to your area.

What will the future of these buildings look like?

The availability of research tools, methods, and avenues of exploration continues to expand. That creates increasingly specific space needs in the life-sciences laboratory.

However, the fundamental principle of biological laboratory spaces is constant. The central consideration is the human researcher, with the standardized bench configuration and related metrics reflecting human dimensions in relation to the activities and equipment used.

While science may grow and change, a well-considered space can efficiently adapt to that change, especially if we design and plan focused on the principles of flexibility, openness, and modularity. 

  • Ginger Desmond

    Working with our team in Boston, Ginger is a project manager and lab planner. Her passion? Creating beautiful and functional spaces for the sciences that accommodate very technical functional needs.

    Contact Ginger
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