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Designing Developer-Led Lab Projects to Raise a City’s Science Profile

Tim O'Connell
Cities across the globe are looking to promote developer-led laboratory projects that position their cities as destinations for the life sciences.

In 2019 alone, a CBRE report notes that life science companies experienced an 86 percent increase in venture capital funding over the previous year. The report also describes how life science lab spaces in the industry’s five largest U.S. markets expanded by 101 percent over the previous year. This is supported by JLL’s 2020 Life Sciences Outlook ranking the 14 largest U.S. cities by influx of venture capital.

The goal for many of these projects is to catalyze the establishment of mixed-use destinations or “innovation districts” that attract startups and entrepreneurs while engaging talent from local academic institutions.

But these projects are complex. They must be designed to:

  • Balance program space and promote innovation.
  • Provide infrastructure to enable research.
  • Ensure long-term flexibility for future tenants.
  • Include floor plates conducive to collaborative research.
  • Incorporate amenities that attract tenants.

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Key Questions for Commercial Life Sciences and Applied Science Buildings

Designing a speculative lab facility is much different than designing research space for a traditional institution or corporate entity. It requires the blending of two building types—lab and workplace—with a design that cultivates community, inspires innovation and has inherent long-term flexibility.

As we begin our work with a developer on a speculative lab project, we ask questions like:

  • Is the parcel of land you’re considering the best site for the project?
  • What is the site’s proximity to local academic institutions, corporate research institutions, government research facilities and existing life science resources?
  • Which amenities are near the site?
  • How can we create a unique sense of place to establish and develop a thriving science community?
  • Where is there a gap in the market in terms of lab space? Which types of spaces are most-needed?
  • Which program elements are needed for this commercial life sciences building?
  • What amount of infrastructure investment is appropriate for attracting a broad range of tenants? What do you plan for vs. build on day one?
  • What has made previous commercial life sciences developments—both in this city and others—successful?

These questions spur conversations among designers, developers and other stakeholders that shape the programming and design of the building.

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For potential adaptive reuse projects, the same questions apply, just at the building evaluation stage instead of the design stage. Other considerations to evaluate when looking at the conversion of existing buildings to lab facilities:

  • Will zoning restrictions limit the type of research that can be conducted in the building?
  • Will the building’s floor-to-floor height accommodate the mechanical infrastructure necessary for a life sciences facility?
  • Is the structure conducive to a lab layout and use in terms of column spacing and vibration criteria?
  • Will the building accommodate the installation of supplemental HVAC equipment to serve the high air flow and exhaust demands of a life sciences research facility?
  • Does the building have a loading dock, service yard and materials elevator to accommodate materials and hazardous waste flow?

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Challenges for Speculative Lab Facility Design

Developing speculative lab spaces requires a multi-layered series of planning and analysis tasks that incorporate strategic, physical and operational considerations. Design teams must understand issues related to target occupancy, building cost, financing, construction schedule, utility needs, building efficiencies and flexibility. And they must create desirable space for tenants that often haven’t yet been identified.

It’s important to design diverse spaces that can grow along with their tenants. For example: Though young life sciences companies may start in an incubator, it’s common for them to quickly outgrow that space and look for a bigger scientific workplace that enables their business to evolve. They have very specific space needs and do not want to commit to long-term leases.

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Lessons Learned

HOK’s work on projects including the 2-million-sq.-ft. Cortex Innovation Community in St. Louis, home to more than 400 companies and 600 employees, and the Mayo Clinic’s 90,000-sq.-ft. One Discovery Square in Rochester, Minnesota, has revealed several lessons about designing speculative lab buildings. These include:

  • Thoughtful early planning related to initial site and building costs is invaluable.
  • To ensure long-term viability, designers must balance the attractiveness of space to initial users with giving tenants the ability to quickly customize interior solutions to meet their short- and long-term needs.
  • Carefully consider the level of core and shell infrastructure the landlord will provide with what will be part of tenant fit-up. This is important from structural and MEP engineering perspectives.
  • Work closely with the developer to make the best decisions about building elements that, in the future, will be difficult and costly to change. These include floor-to-floor heights,  loading and vibration factors, mechanical infrastructure, electrical backbone, metering, and shared vs. tenant-supplied specialty and support spaces.
  • Determine the right amount of flexibility in layout and utilization for wet lab, dry lab or office space.
  • Develop a strategic construction scheduling and phasing plan. Fast-tracking the process can bring the building to market more quickly, creating opportunities to attract the best tenants and jump-start cash flow.

Whether a speculative lab building is being built in a dense urban location or a secondary or tertiary city looking to make a name for itself in the life sciences, a thoughtfully designed facility can help it stand out from the crowd and generate the level of innovation that will help cities rebuild their economies in a post-COVID-19 world.


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