As Covid-19 has proved a catalyst for global business change, what impact has the pandemic had on laboratory operations, investment and future design? Kath Mackay, managing director – Alderley Park, looks at what’s next for the laboratory.

Last week I was lucky enough to join UKSPA’s webinar panel chaired by Ian McFadzen, CEO of Plymouth Science Park, which looked into the future of the laboratory. Joined by John Somerville, Creative Places and Richard Walder, BuroHappold Engineering discussion topics included customer demand, sector growth and new trends in design. Throughout the debate, it was clear that Covid-19 is at the forefront of mind, shaping any future strategy or development. 

Sector growth driving future demand

The life science sector has never been more in the spotlight than it is now, and post-Covid, drivers such as public health, healthy ageing, increased emphasis on prevention, and new breakthroughs in areas such as genomic medicine, cell and gene therapy and digital technology will continue to dominate the market and occupational demand.

The growth of the sector and entry of large tech players such as Google, Samsung and Microsoft hasn’t gone unnoticed by investors – leading to an increased interest in laboratory development. Although the market is relatively immature in the UK (compared to the likes of the US) investors have recognised the prospect of risk reduction as it becomes a more mainstream asset. 

As the market evolves, there is a trend towards speculative developments with a focus on flexibility – something which has been key for our laboratory strategy at Alderley Park. Customers expectations of the developer are increasing – particularly around larger labs where there’s a requirement for the developer to manage more of the fit out. In any case, flexibility remains crucial and strategies such as withholding installing all the M&E to allow the space to stay adaptable and bespoke to the customer. Both myself and John Somerville highlighted the imperative need to understand the potential end user – as every laboratory customer needs bespoke space, fluidity and appreciation of the science are essential.

Adapting to a new way of working

So how will Covid-19 affect future design? At Alderley Park, we’ve been on a fast but exciting, learning curve over the last few months to establish one of three of the UK’s Covid-19 testing laboratories, operated by Medicines Discovery Catapult. Part of the national diagnostic lab network supported by the scientific community, the Alderley Park facility was created at unprecedented pace, with the laboratory operational and testing patient samples in three weeks. What would normally take four to six months was achieved in record time and it’s a real testament to the Bruntwood SciTech teams and collaborators. 

Laboratory design was central to the project and Covid-19 safety measures catapulted the team into introducing futuristic measures to abide to safety and social distancing. Going forward, the emphasis on smart-enabled buildings will increase. At the Lighthouse Lab we’ve already introduced thermal cameras to monitor body temperature on entry and introduced touch-free access controls throughout. What’s more, social distancing and security has played a central role. With an increased demand from companies in the science and tech sector for both physical and cyber security, we’re already seeing things shifting and the return of speed-gates – not only to restrict access but support the management with control of access to enable screening of all who enter and exit. Similarly, whilst trends have moved away from lift usage – we may start to see more emphasis on lifts as their ability to specifically programme and allocate to go up or down, reducing the amount of human interaction and dwell time, becomes more important.

During the panel, Richard Walder, Buro Happold, echoed our thinking for future lab design – highlighting the need for managed spaces to maintain social distancing – for example one way routes in halls and corridors and more natural ventilation.

Arguably, this is the life science and laboratory sector’s time to shine. As demand in the sector grows, it’s up to us to lead the way in innovative thinking and design that enables our customers to discover and research more effectively, and of course safely. Having the flexibility to rapidly respond to any future outbreaks or pandemics is vital and we’re already seeing it influence the laboratory of the future.