Building, renovating and engineering Labs: Six things developers and clients should know

Developing lab facilities is far more complicated than developing most other building types, especially when it comes to MEP engineering.

By George Hachem and Nick Caronna September 2, 2021

While many areas of commercial real estate suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic, life sciences flourished. Consequently, some developers who had previously specialized in office or retail properties turned their attention to lab facilities. The sector is thriving and poised to continue its rapid growth. At the same time, it’s important to tread carefully.

Developing lab facilities is far more complicated than developing most other building types, especially when it comes to MEP engineering. Accordingly, we recommend engineers working with lab developers emphasize the following six points:

  1. Labs require much more elaborate HVAC and electrical systems than other commercial facilities to support pressurization, the density of equipment, and extra redundancy. In an office building, an outage might inconvenience tenants; in a lab it could cause the loss of years and years of scientific research. Many researchers, for instance, store biological materials and chemical compounds in freezers and incubators, and the contents may be at risk or lost.
  2. Commercial buildings best suited to lab conversions are ones already receiving ample electrical service and feature high floor-to-floor heights, which allow placement of ducts, pipes and conduits above the ceiling. Few buildings meet both criteria. It’s still possible to convert buildings that don’t, but the capital outlay will be more significant, making the prospective return on investment (ROI) potentially less attractive to developers. It’s good to perform feasibility studies first to help developers assess candidates for conversions.
  3. Industrial buildings are typically well suited to lab conversions, but they are often situated far away from city centers. This is problematic because leading science companies seek to attract the best and brightest scientific talent, and many of the best and brightest prefer to live and work in urban environments. Developers need to consider similar factors when exploring the feasibility of ground-up (greenfield) construction. Land and power are cheaper the farther away you move from cities, but remote locations will make recruitment and shipping more difficult.
  4. Unless a single tenant will occupy your lab facility, the engineer must figure out ways to isolate HVAC and power metering for individual tenants so that the landlord can recoup costs in lease arrangements.
  5. Just as in other fields, work practices are constantly changing. Today, many scientists do some of their work outside of the actual lab space. For example, they can conduct simulations and supervise certain testing remotely. It’s essential the design of and technology in labs accommodate the latest work practices and that development teams stay abreast of industry trends. We recently worked with a client who orients new employees through virtual reality (VR) simulations, which are held in a specialized room designed solely for that purpose. As a result, the information technology requirements were complex. Technology adoption is advancing at a rapid pace in life sciences – requiring continual learning and following system and equipment trends for the sector.
  6. An equally important point to make is that successful lab projects result from extensive coordination among trades. It is essential to involve engineers at the project’s outset – ideally, in the first user programming meeting held by lab planners. These meetings also provide the perfect opportunity for engineers experienced in lab design to relay best practices and lessons learned from past projects.

In short, lab development is not a pursuit that lends itself to “winging it.” Engineers have a responsibility to guide clients and manage their expectations. Let’s leave the experimentation where it belongs: In the lab.

Author Bio: George Hachem, PE, LEED AP and Nick Caronna, PE, LEED AP, Syska Hennessy