Commercial Observer: LPA’s Isabel Mandujano On the Challenges to Life Sciences Building Design

As one of the most in-demand real estate product types in the market, the life sciences sector is producing impressive innovations as designers and developers create new ways to build state-of-the-art lab space.

It’s one of the more challenging obstacles in real estate development due to lack of available land and the hyper-specific requirements needed for one-of-a-kind operations. Isabel Mandujano, the new director of lab planning at Irvine, Calif.-based design firm LPA, spoke with Commercial Observer about new adaptive reuse opportunities; the challenges facing designers in an urban environment; issues due to supply chain constraints; and the overall sustainability of new developments.

Commercial Observer: You’ve talked before about how the biggest challenge is getting life sciences facilities built fast enough to meet the high demand, and that adaptive reuse has become a common solution because it shortens the project timeline. Are you seeing a lot of conversions, and can you talk about the opportunities you’ve found in unexpected places?

Isabel Mandujano: We’re seeing a lot of interest in conversions, and there are a couple of reasons for that. One, the demand for life sciences space has exploded. The pandemic just made that even more pronounced. California is, of course, a major cluster of life sciences innovation and research, and some markets are really tapped out. … We’re looking at like 1 percent or 2 percent vacancy rates, and of course that is bringing rent up as well.

So, for a company that is in the upper stages of development of drug discovery, it’s so difficult to find affordable space close to where they want to be, so that has triggered an interest in other space that was not originally built for labs.

Office space has been a particular one that we’re seeing a lot of interest in because, of course, with the pandemic, a lot of office workers went to work from home. […]

But the demand for life sciences space remains because you can’t do your lab work from home. I’ve also seen interest in simple retail spaces that have also suffered from less demand or are closing down because of the pandemic. And, we’re also looking at some creative spaces that weren’t considered before, like industrial warehouses or buildings that have been abandoned or underutilized for many years.

It’s obviously not your normal conversion, because the requirements for lab space can be so specific that it could limit you, with controlling temperatures, monitoring the air, etc. Is it difficult to find spaces that allow for this?

It’s definitely a different building type, which traditionally has a lot more demands on the infrastructure. Energy-wise, laboratories use 10 times as much energy than typical office space would use. So, in my work on conversions, that’s the first concern that comes to mind: that we have to basically have new infrastructure to support these types of spaces.

Especially for air ventilation and exhaust, you need to think about adding robust mechanical systems. With power, lab users need emergency generators for support. So, thinking about the physical space needed to house this equipment; the investment that it takes to install or retrofit all these systems; and even just the capacity of the building to support the equipment structurally. You might need a new piece of equipment, mechanical equipment on the roof, or you’re finding space on the floor for things like electrical panels or vacuum pumps. Those are some of the big challenges.

It’s also thinking about the physical bones of the building. Warehouses have their own challenges because of the space between the ceiling and the floors, and you have to deal with climatizing that high volume of space. A lot of times, it’s slab floors on grade so you have to think about demolishing to put infrastructure in the floor.

On a typical office building, you’re thinking about access to loading; the type of tenant that you’re trying to support; column spacing could be a problem; and the tenant might need a lot more air or chemical use, versus a company that is more biological or dry lab electronics.

All of those factors come into play in deciding which building is the best fit. There are many challenges to adapting a building and I think it’s a case-by-case basis on how adaptable a building is.

Everyone’s talking about supply chain issues these days, but could you explain how that’s affecting things in your realm and maybe restricting things right now?

Supply chain issues and material shortages mean that pre-planning is more important than ever. Many of the construction and raw materials imported from abroad, such as metal studs, insulation, stainless steel and glass, are becoming hard to source.

For building developers, it means that early design decisions must be made before a tenant is identified, and designers must get creative in considering alternative materials to meet project schedules.

One of the things that has helped is having contractors on board early in the design phase, so we’re able to work with our vendors early on. [Another thing is] bringing the owner, developer and contractor, everyone to the table early on, and knowing that those things come with a certain amount of risk.

On the design side, it’s designing spaces that are flexible and adaptable, because a lot of times we don’t know who the ultimate user of the space is going to be. So adaptability, flexibility, modular design, and thinking about those elements is more important.

Lab managers are having similar issues finding basic laboratory supplies and many companies cannot afford to stockpile materials, so facilities that can accommodate just-in-time deliveries and warehousing are highly sought after.

You talked about the importance of sustainability, but as a more holistic term as it pertains to both building performance and the new awareness of health and wellness in the workplace. Can you talk about the changes you’re seeing in that regard in designing and building lab space?

Talent is the most important value that you have, and attracting and retaining talent has become very important. So, you think of labs as this kind of sterile space in a basement somewhere with no windows, and that’s really not what you want if you want to attract talent.

You need design quality, and spaces that support wellness and health are really important to be able to get the best talent and keep them. It’s the human experience, and making sure that spaces are memorable, healthy, sustainable and provide more than what’s needed to meet basic requirements, and taking that to the next level and making it a space that people want to be in and work at.

Especially for sciences, having a space that is inspiring and allows for discovery and creativity and collaboration is, I think, a basic element of success. They’re literally discovering the next medicine for cancer or for COVID or whatever the challenge is.

The sustainability aspect is also starting to establish life sciences companies as a resource for the community. And, so, it’s not just what you do inside the building, but how you are able to integrate as part of the community in urban areas like L.A., providing a source for people to create jobs, workforce training, and involving the universities and educational facilities.

The pandemic has brought on this new awareness of the importance of science to make our lives better: we were able to develop that vaccine in record time. I think we should take advantage of this opportunity to really put science at the forefront.

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