Lessons from the 2021 Lab Design Conference

Adaptive reuse, connections to the community top topics at annual event

By Isabel Mandujano, LPA Director of Lab Planning

I recently attended the 2021 Lab Design Conference in Philadelphia, where design, architecture and engineering firms came together with lab managers and life science developers to discuss the latest innovations in facility planning. In addition to panel discussions and networking events, we toured some of the most innovative life science facilities in the area, ranging from a high-rise adaptive reuse project to a mixed-use community.

Here are my main takeaways:

New Opportunity in Adaptive Reuse: The trend towards automation, miniaturization and computational research means that today’s labs are less dependent on intense chemical and wet lab use and increasingly focused on biologics and data analytics for conducting research. This provides an opportunity to consider non-traditional space, such as the adaption of downtown office buildings into life science facilities, which allows lab spaces to be closer to research institutions and vibrant urban centers fostering innovation. It also helps life science facilities attract and retain talent, which is more abundant in urban areas. Adaptive reuse provides an immense benefit over ground-up in the current booming market, allowing projects to be completed in months rather than years.

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While the major life science clusters continue to be strong in California and the East Coast, new markets are emerging in other locations across the country. Source: TradingView, SEC 08.2018 by Yi Liu

The Move Toward High Rises: Life science firms are increasingly moving into high rises in urban areas, but this isn’t an option everywhere. California Building Code is unique in that it provides a specific occupancy type ‘L’ for laboratory units, with allowances for hazardous material quantities even on higher floors. In other states that have adopted the International Building Code, the allowances for hazardous materials drop dramatically above the fourth floor.

When considering a high-rise adaptive reuse, it’s important to think about where the systems necessary for a laboratory will live. Roofs aren’t always designed to carry the load of new equipment. A platform may need to be built to house everything. Especially if the program includes lab specific amenities such as manufacturing and vivarium components, the more robust MEP systems required can occupy significant real estate, and additional shafts may be needed to distribute services throughout the building.

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Cira Centre is the future home of B.labs, a life science incubator space in a high rise opening at the end 2021. Location adjacent to transit and close to downtown supports entrepreneurship. Developer: Brandywine Realty Trust. Design: Strada

Connection to the Community: Particularly in more urban areas, life science companies are increasingly welcoming the community into their spaces. More and more companies are incorporating areas for events, and adding incubators to foster innovation in research and development. In some cases, “Shark Tank”-like events with investors and workforce development seminars are hosted in these areas, and students from nearby educational institutions are encouraged to use co-working spaces to study. It transforms the stereotype of life science facilities as dark, sterile labs into vibrant organizations woven into the fabric of their community.

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Fantastic learning opportunities at the Lab Design Conference. On the screen a pedestrian friendly transformation for Lehigh University College of Health Sciences. Design: HGA

Material Shortages: 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. Developers should also build in adaptability and flexibility in the design to avoid expensive rework mid construction. Bringing in construction partners early in the design ensures a much smoother process, as long lead items can be identified ahead of the completion of construction documents. 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.

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Venture café at the CIC (Cambrige Innovation Center) space at University City, featuring conference space, phone booths and access to an outdoor terrace. The organization is converting two floors of co-working office space into laboratories to meet growing demand. Developer: Wexford Science + Technology Design: Strada

Increased Focus on Health and Wellness: With the long hours that are often necessary for workers in the life science space, promoting health and wellness through design is important to attract and retain talent in a competitive market. The pandemic has made this focus even more critical. Outdoor terraces and gardens can provide relaxing areas for respite and collaboration. Indoor biophilia and materials that provide a connection to nature can help reduce stress and promote health in occupants. Convenient access to stairs that double as collaboration space and promote physical activity as well as healthy snacks in the breakrooms further encourage healthy choices.