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COVID-19 has accelerated the need for flexible labs and research environments

April 09, 2021

By Ginger Desmond

Designing spaces that meet the needs of fast moving, multidisciplinary research

This article first appeared as “WANTED: Laboratories” in Stantec Design Quarterly Issue 11.

It’s no secret that we’re witnessing a global explosion in research and investment in the biotech and pharmaceutical realm, as well as the fields of life sciences, genetics, biotechnology, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing. The stakes are high in a quest for healthcare innovation too—for example, developing therapeutics that can change lives worldwide. On the surface, these disciplines might sound distinct and unrelated. But they are increasingly converging in many interesting ways.

Today, cross-disciplinary clinical research spurs the innovation that many tech start-ups and successful research firms are built on. This research boom, therefore, is taking place in geographic areas traditionally strong in health science and medical discovery—places like Boston and Cambridge in Massachusetts, and North Carolina’s research triangle where universities, research, and entrepreneurship flourish.

Boston, with its proximity to major research universities like MIT and Harvard, has long been a center for health science and medical science research. Today, its Kendall Square and Longwood areas are home to a high concentration of life science, biotech, and biomedical research firms.

Offices are out and labs are in

Meanwhile, the real estate picture has shifted. Developers who are building new or renovating—some may already have a permit in hand or a building in the ground—are adjusting their plans in light of the uncertain future demand for office space during and after a pandemic that’s made remote work commonplace. However, demand and the continuing need for new lab space remains strong because the majority of science research requires specialized spaces and equipment not found in a home office. In addition, because of the chemicals and other potential hazards used in "wet” laboratories, these labs require specialized environments equipped with a high degree of safety features. The boom in drug discovery and search for COVID-19 vaccines and therapies has only amplified this demand for labs.

Developers are choosing to build lab space, often in mixed-use projects. However, many are new to the research market and must get up to speed quickly to understand how they can create spaces that truly meet the needs of this dynamic industry.


The research community is increasingly multidisciplinary and new laboratory spaces must reflect that. Today’s research incorporates everything from artificial intelligence (which can look at the qualitative information and increase the speed of data processing) to materials science, biomedical engineering, genetics, and molecular biology. A researcher might be working on medical research—such as exploring the use of synthetic chemistry to create material for a nanotube designed for pinpoint accuracy in drug delivery—while using physics to measure and predict the behavior of the tube. It's not just traditionally more segregated branches of science such as biotechnology, bioscience, or biochemistry that researchers are using in their day-to-day work. It’s an intersection of different technologies in different spheres of work that is becoming commonplace and accelerating. That’s one of the main drivers for space and trends in the research workplace.


Research and lab spaces are taking their cues from the coworking world—places like WeWork—in incubators such as Lab Central, biolabs, and Greentown Labs. Such coworking spaces in existing biotech clusters like Kendall Square offer start-ups access to shared, powerful equipment (from 3D printers to centrifuges and clean rooms) that they otherwise might not have the budget for, as well as access to peers, organized poster sessions and conferences, and collaborative culture. These spaces give firms a chance to recruit recent graduates who possess the latest innovative ideas and energy. But perhaps more importantly, they allow them to outsource the non-science parts of their business (facilities management, environmental health, and safety) so they can concentrate on their research or product development. Successful start-ups are emerging from these coworking situations.

The boom in drug discovery and search for a COVID-19 vaccines and therapies has only amplified this demand for labs. So, developers are choosing to build lab space, often in mixed-use projects.

Even more open, flexible, and modular

We’ve been designing labs to be open, flexible, modular for decades. But today, the interdisciplinary nature and speed of changing technologies in research makes this even more important. As research teams change the technologies and disciplines they require for development of their concept or product, they want a space that can change with them. Companies need the ability adapt their space to those technologies. For instance, they must be able to add a new piece of equipment quickly and effectively as needed.

Today, we design research space that is specific enough to address the specific needs of scientists, but also flexible enough that our clients can change that without tearing the laboratory apart and starting over from scratch. Planning electrical, plumbing, and other services or service pathways and locations for maximum floor plate flexibility with minimal physical change is increasingly critical to achieving maximum long-term flexibility within research environments.

Research spaces on developer-led projects need the features of a typical lab building, but with more flexibility because we don't know who's going to be moving in. If the user is focused on bioengineering, they have a very different set of needs than users doing traditional biopharma work. Bioengineering (such as making improvements in bio-sensitive robotics for artificial limbs) can be much more hands-on than research in a pure biology or pharmaceutical lab. This is where plug-and-play technology, modular and movable casework on wheels or legs, and services (electrical, exhaust, gases, etc.) from the ceiling are essential. Why? Because sometimes changes need to occur on the fly in a matter of days. The availability of elements, such as a modular cleanroom built off-site and plugged into an existing building, further extend the flexibility of these new lab spaces.

Small-scale production

Traditional pharma products are made in giant facilities on an assembly line, stored, and shipped off for distribution. But more targeted individual therapies are emerging. And in some cases, the pharma industry needs smaller-scale production for these products. Small production run drugs—for non-commercial drugs or targeted therapies, for example—will require flexible, modular spaces for a production line that can be adjusted as needed. Adaptability of production for varied or smaller-scale production will only become more important to the industry. 

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Smart MEP

Smarter technology is making the mechanical supply of fresh air, ventilation, electrical, and plumbing systems that labs require more efficient. Smart tech can control when the system exhausts air and when it is required for use or increasing exhaust of spill fumes in emergencies, for example, to save energy. And labs can automatically run in a more efficient mode with fewer air changes when unoccupied. With active chilled beams, ventilation can be used independently from heating and cooling. These technology advances mean that while laboratory spaces will likely require more power and air, they won’t be as hungry as usual.

Shift work

Many of the safety protocols for working in laboratories are, ironically, well-suited to life during a pandemic. Researchers are already used to wearing PPE, masks, gloves, and goggles or face shields. But like everyone else, corporate labs are also having to adjust in response to COVID-19. Shift work is the major operational change we see. Rather than sit face-to-face at benches all day, lab workers and researchers are now broken up into shifts, working every other day—or morning or evening hours—so that the density of lab occupation is cut by half or more. It will be interesting to see how the implementation of shift work affects the collaborative culture at these research and discovery-oriented firms.

Marketing flexibility

Developers face a challenge in how they can market a space to a wide variety of potential users engaged in research. But what they can offer is a combination of design features that promote rapid reconfiguration, coworking space with shared equipment, and a hybrid environment that blends ideas and culture from a wide variety research typologies. And that can make a difference—for both start-ups and corporate researchers in the fast-moving race toward innovation.

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  • 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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