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Designing Flexible Labs for Rapid Growth

Key drivers of change in the Life Sciences sector

The pandemic has reinforced the importance of the Life Sciences sector. In a sector that was already on a growth trajectory, Life Sciences companies are seeking flexible spaces to set up laboratories and research centers to begin, or continue, life-saving work. This demand is creating new thinking about what a non-traditional lab and research space could look like and how it could function as a collaborative space.

There remains a strong need for new advanced lifecycle buildings, and in parallel, there is evidence of success in the adaptive reuse of available office and retail space and converting industrial buildings to viable options for a wide range of uses. Adaptive reuse brings opportunities for expanded space, faster time to market, smart technologies and integrated systems that create healthy and sustainable workplaces. In a dynamic sector, there is a need for dynamic considerations and solutions.

In this Insight Article, we provide our perspective on three key drivers of change in the Life Sciences sector that shape how we design today’s flexible labs and hubs.

1. Converging Sectors & Partnerships

There is a growing convergence of sectors, institutions and industries, where formal partnerships are forming to advance research. Academia, healthcare, education and pharmaceuticals are now collaborating more closely compared to a pre-pandemic world to share collective knowledge. The result is a need for new types of spaces. While the lasting impacts of the pandemic on the growth of remote work cannot be understated, the Life Sciences sector still relies heavily on employees having the proper space and equipment for physical work.

With traditional commercial and retail space experiencing unprecedented vacancies, an opportunity exists for the Life Sciences sector to embed research workspaces in urban locations. As well, the growth of Life Sciences hubs is proving to be a successful ecosystem for research and commercialization.  An integrated lab encourages collaboration through a structured and robust infrastructure that accounts for both physical space, shared facilities or equipment and shared amenities. Designing spaces that accommodate same sector companies, with flexibility for graduation spaces, helps to expedite the outcome of a common goal.

A recent Colliers Research Report stated that from public and private funding increases to the demand created by the COVID-19 pandemic and the vaccine rollout underway to combat it, the life sciences sector is seeing a significant increase in interest from both developers and investors. In addition, rapid growth in Advanced Therapy Medicinal Products (ATMP) science, which includes gene therapy, is driving demand for lab and manufacturing space from both early and mid-stage biotech companies.

“With a steady stream of discovery, government funding for research, private equity and venture capital fueling the sector, the demand for space is outweighing the supply,” said Joe Fetterman, Executive Vice President, Healthcare and Life Sciences at Colliers. “To manage this imbalance and in response to uncertainty in the office market created by COVID-19 many landlords are re-evaluating their buildings for potential conversion to lab use. Landlords and designers are collaborating to assess these buildings for required infrastructure, including HVAC, structure, power and water and evaluate the ability to create amenities that will promote interaction and community among the scientists and leadership of growing drug development companies.  Those landlords and their designers and lenders who can creatively solve for the large capital investment in improvements, limited balance sheet capacity, rapid expansion and potential contraction of these companies have a terrific opportunity to capitalize on the current real estate market dynamics.”

2. Shift in Scientific Trends

According to the World Economic Forum, more than half of the tasks currently completed manually in labs will be automated by 2025. Design must account for the needs of computational power and speed. Automation with digital scientific equipment, supercomputing data centers will provide unprecedented amounts of data and real-time feedback. Designing an adaptive lab must consider the continuous connectivity to the outside collaborators as well. Science and research spaces can incorporate automation to allow for more creative time and collaboration and contribute to the shared knowledge that we now value so heavily on a global scale.

Different innovators, companies and processes need different spaces. Biotech companies often need varying degrees of ‘wet’, automated and or write-up spaces and this can change overnight as we saw throughout 2020. Designing for flexibility has never been more relevant to the spatial characteristics, service distribution and modularisation of lab benches so they can be re-distributed or reconfigured quickly and effectively.

3. The Human Factor

The shift towards computational workflows and therefore less wet lab space also provides an opportunity to design a stronger user-centered experience. Designing spaces that are daylit and prioritize transparency, are more inclusive and accessible, once a luxury in laboratories is now expected in the Life Sciences sector. With healthy building design expected to outlast the pandemic, it’s critical to consider the design elements that elevate wellness, mood and productivity. This is also inherently tied to sustainability. Implementing biophilic design elements and eco-friendly features contribute to a higher-performing building in the long-term while simultaneously improving user experience. . Many existing and new robust amenities already offered to office space employees will also be made available to Life Sciences users as repurposed buildings make way for multiple tenant types.

Thinking about where people live, how they get to work and their proximity to important urban features is another benefit of repurposing traditional office, retail and industrial spaces. Now, employees can be closer to the universities they collaborate with, the restaurants and gyms they frequent or the schools their children go to. Reimagining the scientific workplace as a fundamental element of a region opens infinite possibilities for the future.

Long-Term Resiliency 

Repurposing these spaces is challenging. Every lab type has unique spatial considerations that must be flexible and adaptable to work within a less traditional environment. There is an especially high demand from tenants for ‘graduation space’, the stage beyond incubator space, and a need for landlords to consider phased infrastructure. Ceiling height, circulation doors, increased loading zones, HVAC systems, riser locations and structural grids are just a few of the many examples that are critical to a lab’s success. These spaces need to be reconfigured and designed properly to ensure the demand of services can be met today – and in the future.

The lifelong nature of the industry means these spaces need to be flexible, sustainable and considerate of the users who operate in them. Taking a holistic design approach ensures collaborative scientific workplaces are resilient for the long term.