The current demand for well-located, appropriate lab and office space has contributed to the juxtaposition of an unexpected surplus of vacant commercial space created by the COVID-19 pandemic and growing requirement from life science tenants. This presents an opportunity for developers to buffet their portfolios by repositioning existing buildings into spaces suitable for both light and heavy life science use. Quickly converting existing commercial space to target the needs of life science companies is now one of the most active areas for landlords and developers.

The conversion and adaptation of office, industrial or surplus accommodation into laboratories, naturally comes with a range of specific challenges based around building fabric, structure, services capacity, location and regulatory issues. As with any re-purposing project, each of these aspects will require appraisal and analysis, but there are some overarching principles to consider.

For example, floor-to-floor heights are critical, since these will determine the type and size of the equipment and therefore the nature of the research that can take place. Building owners should look for minimum clear ceiling zones where air handling ductwork and piped services can be installed, free of structural beams and down-stands.

Riser locations are key to the plan for efficient services distribution. Existing capacity (including landlord and tenant plant) will need assessment and new risers may need to be integrated, with consideration of how these may be threaded through the building to roof level. Integrated routes that minimise disruption and cost are fundamental to achieving the necessary enhanced airflow that will be required. Highly serviced equipment may need to be located closer to risers to avoid long extract duct runs.

Vibrational issues can also be a concern for sensitive equipment. With careful space planning of anticipated needs, building owners can mitigate issues by using localised structural strengthening in targeted areas rather than throughout the entire building.

These ideas of next-generation, kinetic life science design and strategically adapting existing commercial space to meet sector space demand is exemplified within The Works building at Unity Campus, Cambridge. Owned by property investor and developer, Howard Group and completed in early 2020, The Works accommodates the growing demand for appropriate office and R&D space in South Cambridge’s booming biomedical and biotech cluster. The striking architecture of The Works draws on the industrial heritage of the two-storey warehouse which formally stood on the site. Housed within the pre-cast concrete frame of the original building, 

The Works has been transformed into a contemporary, reimagined multi-occupancy office building at the heart of Unity Campus, Sawston. Tailored to meet the needs of technology and life sciences start-ups, The Works delivers 65,000 square feet of space. With ample natural light, open workspaces and a central atrium “street”, the openness of the original warehouse provides a modern and airy multiuse building that feels more like a tech or creative space than the institutional office stock typically available to the sector. 

This year has demonstrated more than ever before the crucial role that science plays in our world. This moment provides an opportunity for landlords and developers to review existing building stock and to ensure their buildings are tailored to meet the evolving needs of a booming Life Science industry.

Author: Darius Umrigar is Director of Science & Higher Education at NBBJ