A New Life Science Ecosystem

Designers explore a new type of urban life science facility to support the people, process and community of companies developing life-saving medicines, therapies and technologies.

New technologies, scientific breakthroughs and global demand are transforming the life science industry. Every element of research and production is evolving at an unprecedented pace, fueling demand for new facilities to support the life-saving mission of these highly specialized companies.

Next-generation life science facilities will take a more holistic approach, moving beyond the closed-off stereotype of traditional lab spaces. Top companies are demanding high-performance buildings that do more to connect with the community and sustain the people involved in sensitive, high-pressure tasks.

“The space should reflect the mission and purpose of these companies,” says LPA Managing Director Eric Jones, who has worked on facilities for several large pharmaceutical makers in San Diego. “When you connect the mission and purpose, you’re supporting the individual, the company and their work.”

For Catalyst, LPA designers were asked to push the concepts further to explore the design of a facility that addresses the needs that life science companies will have in the years ahead. In a charrette and smaller visioning sessions, members of the engineering, landscape and interior design teams analyzed different aspects of the role a building can play in supporting their work, including everything from biophilia to more responsive HVAC and mechanical systems.

“What is the next step?” LPA Director of Laboratory Planning Isabel Mandujano asked during an early meeting. “What is the transformation all these different forces are creating?”

The New Lab

The fundamental nature of labs is changing. The growth of automation, miniaturization and computational research is reducing the dependency on intense chemical and wet lab use. Biologics and data analytics are growing in importance. Local zoning codes and regulations are keeping pace, making it easier to place research facilities in urban settings.

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“There is an opportunity to consider nontraditional space, such as the adaptive reuse of downtown office buildings as life science facilities,” Mandujano says. “Lab spaces can be closer to research institutions and help develop vibrant urban centers fostering innovation.”

Demand for life science facilities is expected to remain strong for years, regardless of politics or the economy, commercial real estate analysts say. Research funding is growing at a historic rate, driving demand for new drugs and new facilities. National Institutes of Health research funding jumped 37.4% from 2015 to 2020 and accelerated during the COVID pandemic. Venture capital funding hit record highs in 2021, according to accounting firm PwC.

“From a macroeconomic growth perspective, life science remains at the top of the list of secular growth sectors that will continue to expand in the future, regardless of economic cycles or changes in monetary or fiscal policy,” Newmark, a commercial real estate company, concluded in a 2021 report. Life science companies paid an average of $585 a square foot for space in 2021, up more than 50% from a year earlier, Newmark reported.

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Life science companies are asking for buildings that are open to the public and put their work on display.

A ‘Day in the Life’

As the industry expands, companies are looking for better, more efficient ways to support a development process that is increasingly mixing research, automation, data analytics and manufacturing.

“We’re entering, I believe, a new phase of pharmaceutical research where the end-to-end research is much more integrated,” Vertex Pharmaceuticals Senior Vice President Paul Negulescu said in a recent discussion. (See Q & A.) “Successful companies will be able to recruit and retain employees because they have ways for them to generate and use data more efficiently and effectively.”

LPA designers focused in on the different ways a facility can support a “day in the life” of the life science teams. The discussions examined the effect of new technologies on workflow as well as on the health and wellness of the people doing the work. While technology is rapidly evolving, companies are putting more emphasis on supporting the people doing the critical research and promoting innovation and scientific dialogue.

Design solutions were organized around people, process and community, exploring the site context and the building’s role in making teams more efficient, healthier and happier. The “people” aspect includes spaces that support focused work, collaboration and mentorship and environments that spark inspiration and provide respite from the often grueling work.

“It’s important for scientists to have space outside of the lab where they can recover and relax,” Mandujano says. “Restorative environments allow the mind to process and come to ‘aha moments’ that are critical for creativity and discovery.”

There is an opportunity to consider nontraditional space, such as the adaptive reuse of downtown office buildings into life science facilities. Lab spaces can be closer to research institutions and help develop vibrant urban centers fostering innovation.

How to support the process is a complex issue that will vary depending on the company and its work. But themes emerged from LPA’s discussion, including the need to provide lab-specific amenities such as cloud-based automation, visualization, in vivo research and management of supplies and hazardous materials. In addition, robust building infrastructure and plug-and-play flexibility is essential to the creation of resilient facilities.

“Developers can seize an opportunity by creating facilities that will adapt to meet the needs of world-class life science companies for decades,” says LPA Director of Commercial Nick Arambarri.

More than ever, life science companies are looking for facilities that also help them connect with the community and collaborate with academic institutions. They are eager to put their work on display and give people a glimpse into their work. For recent designs, executives have told LPA designers that they want their facilities to provide a hub for community collaboration, innovation and scientific discussion, including space for STEM education, workforce development and incubator labs, to foster the next generation of scientists.

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Molecular visualization labs will be part of the digital toolkit for many life science companies.

“It transforms the stereotype of life science facilities from dark, sterile labs in a basement into vibrant organizations that are woven into the fabric of their community,” Mandujano says.

A Holistic Design

The design produced from LPA’s discussions sites the lab facility as an anchor for a new urban neighborhood, connecting the life science company to transportation, housing and funding and research institutions.

“A life sciences company can drive the growth of a neighborhood, creating synergy between the different elements and supporting the growth of alternative transportation, residential development and compatible businesses,” says Matthew Porreca, LPA Design Director.

The concept merges the different elements of life sciences work, providing a seamless transition from bench to desk to digital realms. Community spaces are designed to highlight the work and serve as a catalyst for the exchange of ideas. A multipurpose event space is designed to host entrepreneurial and speaker events.

The larger themes support a healthier workplace that inspires collaboration and innovation, providing a facility that fosters a sense of community and retains top talent. An open-air terrace and indoor biophilia connect people to nature. Easy access to stairs promotes healthy activity and casual collisions between different teams. Plug-and-play modular systems and flexible spaces ensure that spaces stay relevant as technologies and priorities change. Respite areas and access to daylight help create supportive environments that bring out the teams’ best work.

“In the end, the lab is a workplace,” Mandujano says. “It must function as a healthy, supportive environment for people.”

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1. The urban site connects emerging life science companies with a network of academic, tech and medical research institutions.

2. Live and work communities with easy access to active open space, housing and transportation help attract and retain the best talent.

3. A co-working incubator space provides a collaborative pipeline for state-of-the-art research innovation.

4. An open public lobby with a storytelling element engages the community, puts science on display and instills a sense of purpose for scientists.

5. A flexible forum space to hold poster sessions, workforce development and entrepreneurship events fosters a spirit of scientific exchange.

6. Spaces designated for computational science, cloud lab, data analytics and automation support a technology-enabled research process.

7. A small-scale GMP manufacturing clean room and a contract vivarium are lab-specific amenities that support early stage research companies.

8. Designated portal for supply and hazardous materials management facilitates biosecurity and safety flows.

9. The building provides robust infrastructure to support a variety of research modalities, with provisions for lab exhaust, enhanced ventilation and emergency power.

10. Careful space arrangement provides easy workflow transition from bench to desk to digital realms.

11. Design promotes well-being by maximizing access to daylight, views and outdoor space.

12. Respite areas offer opportunities for relaxation and reflection, reducing stress and allowing the mind to restore attention and facilitate creativity.

13. Providing quiet, private space for focused, heads-down work is critical for the scientific discovery process.

14. A variety of collaboration areas throughout the building provide flexible space for knowledge sharing with peers on-site or remotely.

15. Communicating stairs incorporate storytelling and biophilia to encourage an active lifestyle and casual “collisions” between different departments.


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High-performance design can achieve meaningful reductions in a lab’s use of water, energy and materials, while improving indoor air quality and creating a healthier environment.

LPA takes a broad definition of sustainable design, looking at each project through the lens of performance, experience, wellness and community. The approach recognizes the overall benefits of healthy building design on the health, safety and well-being of the occupants.

LPA designers were asked to suggest examples of lab-specific sustainable strategies.

1. Organize different program uses
into typologies based on system requirements.

2. Utilize demand-controlled ventilation
to monitor contaminants and set ventilation rates in accordance to real time conditions.

3. Promote natural ventilation
in office, conference rooms, and collaboration spaces.

4. Reduce plug loads
to address the changing culture of research (laptops, water-chilled freezers, green plugs).

5. Decentralize systems
with standalone cooling towers for optimized free cooling.

6. Harvest daylighting
to reduce required lighting loads and increase employee access to natural light and views.

7. Consider integrated thermal energy
storage to help balance energy supply and demand.

8. Reuse condensation
from the cooling towers for landscape irrigation.

9. Reimagine existing properties
to accommodate laboratory functions. Recycling existing properties in pre-developed urban areas is the first step to responsible use of resources.

10. Use modular adaptable design
with plug-and-play elements to create flexibility, adaptability and resiliency.