Bridging the Gap Between Office and Labs

Not every office building is right for a lab conversion. But a holistic approach and creativity can develop safe, efficient lab spaces in even the most challenging buildings.

By Isabel Mandujano
LPA Director of Laboratory Planning

Office buildings can make for great lab spaces. Looking at different space typologies, older commercial buildings in urban centers, for example, typically are inserted in the fabric of walkable communities, in amenity-rich environments with good access to transit, peer companies, institutions and services, which are essential for a healthy life science ecosystem. Low-rise suburban office parks tend to feature access to landscape and views, plenty of parking, room to grow, and buildings with access on all sides — key ingredients for creating a successful life science campus setting.

But converting an office building into a lab also comes with unique challenges. For starters, laboratories are resource-intensive spaces that can require 10 times more energy and 4 times more water than a typical office space. A life science lab building typically provides floor-to-floor heights of around 16 feet to allow for HVAC ductwork, a robust structure to support heavy equipment and minimize vibration, and high-capacity MEP systems to accommodate continual operations and proper ventilation — all of which the typical office building lacks. While a lab conversion may look like a simple adaptive reuse, the infrastructure required to realize it is often largely new.

On first analysis, given the challenges, it might be easy to dismiss the potential of converting an office building to any kind of lab. However, making a conversion work often comes down to due diligence and applying a careful analysis of factors, including a building’s physical condition, location and footprint, measured against an owner’s timeline, budget and programming needs.

Bridging the Gap 01
A gap analysis matrix illustrates at a glance a property’s suitability for a specific tenant type.

As the need for lab spaces grows, I’ve worked on several projects where a holistic approach and creativity overcame obstacles for lab conversions. For example, faculty and researchers at a university in Southern California urgently needed wet lab space to accommodate growing departmental needs while a new larger facility was under construction. An existing office building available for lease on campus was identified as a potential site, but there were issues. The building did not have a service elevator sized to handle necessary deliveries for lab loading, and there were suboptimal structural systems on the second floor to handle lab equipment and reduced vibration, and incompatible MEP systems. Ultimately, our integrated team of engineers and designers delivered a thoughtful analysis that found while a conversion was certainly possible, the time and cost investment necessary to accomplish this feat did not make good business sense. This analysis helped the university team develop a firm grasp on their programming needs, and therefore pursue the type of space that was appropriate for their lab needs.

On the commercial side, speed-to-market and flexibility are much more critical. Developer clients will often ask our team to evaluate buildings for speculative repositioning to attract a new type of tenant. At this point, strategizing how to convert the space without knowing the exact requirements of a future tenant comes with a higher risk. An experienced team that understands the needs of the market can design solutions with adaptability and flexibility in mind. In a competitive market, tenants appreciate having access to lab space that is 80–90% there and can be quickly adapted to their specific needs so they can move and start operations in a matter of a few months, not years.

Our team has seen the benefits of this approach when converting core and shell office buildings for lab use, and then coming back to adapt previously occupied or spec lab-developed spaces for new tenants. The key here is to find the right balance of investment in the core and shell to be “wet lab ready” with enough flexibility to accommodate tenant-specific needs. Understanding the capacity and limitations of the base building is important when evaluating the right fit for any potential tenant.

An integrated approach, focusing on all elements of the design from the site amenities and access to utility distribution and programming — including better working conditions for scientists — can make these conversions work for all sorts of properties. To start, building owners should know up front the types of science facilities that have demand in the local market, including the features and amenities in and near the site, and the amount of investment necessary to make the building ready for the type of tenant they want to attract. This requires a realistic appraisal of the space, building infrastructure and the budget.

Understanding the capacity and limitations of the base building is important when evaluating the right fit for any potential tenant.

In the city of Carlsbad, California, one of our clients commissioned a feasibility study for converting an existing property in a low-rise corporate campus into a wet lab. Our study concluded that the space was better suited for dry lab use. Collectively, the projected infrastructure upgrades for a wet lab, including MEP systems and structural retrofits to allow for proper loading requirements and the available space for new mechanical equipment and ductwork on the roof and above the ceiling, would simply prove too costly. On the other hand, the existing electrical infrastructure was able to support robust power density and emergency systems. Armed with this knowledge, our client was able to market the future space to a targeted list of potential tenants.

With the life sciences industry experiencing unprecedented growth, the long-term benefits of tapping into this booming market are clear to investors and building owners. While the future of the traditional workplace is uncertain, remote work is a rarity for scientists needing controlled environments and specialized instrumentation to do their work at the bench. And rents are significantly higher for lab space, due to the resource-intensive and higher operating costs.

Lab conversions will require higher upfront costs for the building owner than a typical tenant improvement for office use. But the upfront costs should not be a deterrent. Lab conversions done appropriately in areas with high demand are often a solid long-term investment. A renovation can be more cost effective, address speed-to-market needs and prove less carbon intensive than new construction.

In many cases, where a client may see too many obstacles to count, many of those issues can be resolved in the inclusive design process. When all the stakeholders are involved in the process and decisions are based on research and a sound plan, everybody wins.

Isabel Mandujano leads LPA’s laboratory planning practice, helping to create innovative research and development facilities for corporate, pharmaceutical and biotechnology clients.