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The life sciences are undergoing a rapid transformation fuelled by a convergence in maturing technologies, scientific breakthroughs, demographics, and geopolitical trends – much of which accelerated during the pandemic. Globally, the sector is forecast to more than double by 2030, while in the UK investment has already increased 12x over the last decade1.
Laboratories play a key part in this transformation, supporting all stages of the life science value-chain: including R&D, quality control, diagnostic services, and teaching. As a result, demand for labs is growing rapidly. In Cambridge and Oxford for example (two of the UK’s main life science hubs), demand for labs now outstrips available supply by nearly a hundred to one2.
Alongside this growth, improvements in IT, staffing challenges, and new ways of working, now mean that remote or flexible working is commonplace. For life science developers and companies this has created a major opportunity: converting increasingly vacant or cheaper office space into labs – saving time and money. This may appear to be the perfect solution, however there are additional challenges to consider.
Office to lab conversions will often result in some compromises. Where the science, technology, and compliance (safety and quality) are generally hard requirements, it is often the productivity or flexibility of the lab space that is impacted.
Regarding productivity, office to lab conversions tend to be less spatially efficient (e.g. bench space per floor area) than a new-build. This can be due to structural grids or the general proportions of the available space, among other things. A tight or convoluted lab layout may mean disorganised or congested material and personnel flows, adding time to processes or increasing the risk of mix-ups and cross-contamination. There may be insufficient maintenance space, or a lack of space for collaboration between scientists or analytics and informatics work, which are particularly important in R&D environments and increasingly so with the rise in automation.
Regarding flexibility, science and technology are evolving rapidly, which means new processes, equipment, and requirements. Furthermore, the life science industry is very fast-moving, and businesses are routinely scaling-up or going bust. Flexibility is therefore vital not just for businesses and tenants, but also for developers looking to ensure buildings remain occupied. In our experience, open plan offices with 7.2m grids and above are best suited to flexible lab conversions as these enable a wide range of bench configurations, larger equipment, subdivision into smaller rooms, as well as compliant installation of future MBSCs (microbiological safety cabinets) and fume cabinets. Some extra space for unexpected changes or new technology introductions will almost certainly be beneficial in the long-run, and consideration should also be given to areas outside the main lab, such as the impact of automation or remote working on write-up and meeting areas. Rather than cater to all eventualities, a cost-benefit analysis will often drive an ’80:20’ approach towards future flexibility.
While office to lab conversions may seem to make good economic sense, compromises around productivity and flexibility can impact the life science business, tenant, or developer in ways that aren’t immediately obvious. Many of these issues can be mitigated simply through good design, and, in our experience, layouts need to be detailed earlier than a new-build project. Capacity modelling may also be necessary to better forecast the amount of equipment, benching, storage, desks, lockers, etc. over the long-run.
Capacity model for a biopharma QC lab showing utilisation of individual equipment items over time.
An ideal starting-point for a lab is a floor-to-floor height between 4.2 and 4.5m, with an office typically being in the 3.6 to 4.2m range.
Taller items such as fume cabinets and MBSCs can normally be accommodated under a 2.7m high ceiling (similar to what you might find in a modern office), however some specialist or larger-scale equipment will require additional headroom or maintenance and withdrawal space, and localised raised ceilings may be necessary, or the equipment simply might not fit.
Labs require many more services than an office, which normally means a deeper ceiling void. Limited risers in offices can also result in more service crossovers and congestion, increasing this depth further still. It is often possible to mitigate some of this through good design, such as lowering ceilings in corridors to accommodate main ductwork runs or positioning lower height rooms close to risers. Ground floor units and older office buildings may also have larger floor-to-floor heights, and there can even be opportunities to increase headroom by removing raised-access floors (though this will impact floor thresholds.) A deeper ceiling void may also introduce the need for sprinklers or fire detection systems.
Some automated and larger-scale lab equipment can be particularly heavy, and even high densities of smaller equipment or storage items can result in relatively high loads when compared to a standard office fit-out. A typical office may have a live load capacity of around 3-4kN/m2, while a lab will often require 4-5kN/m2, with some specialised equipment reaching over 20kN/m2. Labs will also require additional suspended services and potentially new HVAC or utility plant in the refurbished office space or on the roof, meaning a wider building assessment is necessary. Additionally, some lab operations can be extremely vibration sensitive, and a lightweight steel-framed office might not be the best starting point.
Potential solutions include spacing and arranging lab equipment or storage to better distribute loads or reduce vibrations (e.g. by placing sensitive equipment near grids and cores), introducing new steelwork, converting ground-floor units or older, sturdier buildings, or localised solutions such as spreader plates, analytical benches, and even active dampening systems.
Lab fit-out in a building originally intended for office use
Fume cabinets installed as part of a biotech lab fit out in an existing office
Kit-of-parts developed by Bryden Wood for rapid deployment of labs into existing office and commercial spaces
Bryden Wood's kit-of-parts for lab design
Laboratory air-changes will be many times higher than those found in an office. This is driven by the regulations, pressure cascades, cooling loads, dispersion rates, local extraction, higher levels of filtration, and ideally some degree of futureproofing. For Containment Level 3 (or BSL3) and above or cleanrooms, air-changes will increase further still, often becoming impractical for an office conversion. In addition, it may be necessary to separate lab HVAC systems from other parts of the building.
The top priority should be to optimise the HVAC design with a view to reducing the amount of plant and riser space required. Techniques such as transferring extract air from adjacent office spaces to partially make-up the new lab supply can sometimes be used, however their compliance must be carefully reviewed.
Even with an optimised design it is likely that new, larger HVAC plant and additional ductwork will be required. For some office buildings this can be difficult to incorporate, with limited roof, external, riser, and ceiling void space available. Ideally, new riser space can be formed in such a way that it doesn’t significantly reduce net usable lab space or cause issues with adjacent tenancies (where relevant). Where this isn’t possible, external ductwork can be considered, however there are other issues such as building appearance and Planning Permission that can make this unfeasible.
Exhausts for fume cabinets, ducted MBSCs, storage cabinets, and LEV (local extract ventilation) will also need to find their way to roof level. With limited riser space this means upper-floor office conversions are preferable, though these tend to be less advantageous from an access or structural point of view.
It is essential roof exhausts have efflux arrangements that ensure discharged fumes get sufficiently away from the building to prevent recirculation into make-up systems or to anyone on the roof or in a nearby building. In the UK, the British Standard has a blanket statement requiring fume stacks be either 3m high or 25% the building height – whichever is greater. For tall buildings this can lead to very high stacks that would impact the building’s appearance and will likely require Planning Permission. For example, a 10-storey office building with an average floor to floor height of 4m would require a stack 10m tall (nearly 3 storeys.) There are a few ways to challenge this, including CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics) modelling and the use of alternative discharge stacks (e.g. strobic fans), which may be necessary for some office to lab conversions. Of course, local standards elsewhere will vary.
A typical lab will consume two to five times as much energy as an office and may also have additional back-up power requirements. This means more power and cooling, and therefore more plant (e.g. chillers, heat pumps, generators, UPS) and distribution which can be difficult to install due to lack of space. Also, existing office utility plant may simply be too old, inefficient, or unreliable for lab use, making upgrades necessary.
While purified water can be generated locally, drainage for lab sinks and equipment can be challenging due to a lack of risers in a standard office and difficulties achieving falls, so an overhead pumped system may be necessary. Liquid waste may need to be collected and even treated on-site, which again means additional plant space, and potential spillage (e.g. from vessels or emergency showers) also needs to be assessed – particularly on upper-floor office conversions.
Lastly, labs will typically use a range of gasses. These must be stored and distributed, and appropriate safety systems installed. In some cases this can be relatively simple, while other gasses (e.g. vaporised liquid nitrogen which is used in cryogenics, or oxygen which is used in bioreactors) can be very problematic – especially on upper-floors or where labs neighbour office tenancies.
In the UK, offices can be converted into labs without needing Planning Permission since they now fall under the same ‘Use Class.’ This includes facilities used for “research and development of products or processes,” “industrial processes,” or the “provision of medical or health services.” 3 There are of course caveats, and there may be other Planning or legal conditions to consider or parties to notify. An office to lab conversion also cannot be detrimental to the amenity of residential areas (e.g. noise, vibration, fumes), and this may still require demonstration via CFD or noise modelling. Appointment of a Planning Consultant and application for a Certificate of Lawfulness is often advisable.
Furthermore, new external chillers, AHUs (air-handling units), stacks and fans, louvres, waste stores, external access, and other material changes to the office building may still result in the need for Planning Permission. This can add many unexpected weeks or even months to a project and introduces an element of risk. In the fast-moving life science industry this is particularly frustrating and removes much of the benefit of converting an office in the first place. The faster a lab can be designed, the faster these issues can be assessed and potentially mitigated.
Planning and other permitting matters will of course differ significantly outside the UK and a different approach will also be necessary.
Office elevators sometimes aren’t big enough to transport larger lab equipment (e.g. some automated bioreactors and liquid handlers) or HVAC and utility plant, which can only be broken down so far, and just because these items aren’t required on day one, an assessment should be made on potential future needs.
Welfare facilities will need to be provided somewhere in the building, with food, drink, toilets, showers, and break areas typically kept outside the main lab space. Furthermore, given the increasing competition to attract talented scientists and lab technicians, more luxurious social spaces such as gyms and chill-out areas are becoming the norm. Office buildings that already provide these facilities may be more cost-effective overall.
Complications can arise where elevators, corridors, and external areas used to store or transport critical, sensitive, expensive, hazardous, or large volumes of materials are then shared with office or other lab tenancies. In some cases these issues will be covered by regulations and can therefore impact health and safety or quality compliance. Further considerations include containment and contamination control, building security and opening times (e.g. for 24/7 lab operations), shared lab functions (e.g. washrooms or stores), and IP sensitivities – with the size and type of life science business or tenant a driving factor in how these are managed. In all cases, a lab design should be developed as soon as possible, with material and personnel flows and relevant zonings mapped out across all lab and common areas to identify any potential issues.
A lab will most likely contain more flammable or hazardous materials and sources of ignition than an office. In most cases this can be addressed with special storage cabinets, fume cabinets, and good housekeeping. However, where larger quantities or more dangerous materials are used (e.g. oxygen, or even inert materials like liquid nitrogen) this can be particularly challenging. Further complications may also arise where labs divide up previously open plan offices with new partitions, corridors, airlocks, pods, or inner rooms – further complicating egress routes.
For office to lab conversions, fire and egress strategies must be reviewed holistically with the whole building in mind. For example, neighbouring tenancies may currently rely on staff crossing through the new lab to reach a second means of escape, which might no longer be possible. Similarly, labs in office buildings can result in additional occupancy types (‘purpose groups’ in the UK) and will therefore drive the need for additional fire compartments.
Possible solutions could include storing materials or siting labs on ground or lower floors, local gas generation (to reduce peak volumes), detection, shut-off and alarm systems, local extract or natural ventilation, and it may be necessary to divide labs up into smaller compartments to keep hazardous material quantities below acceptable limits. In the UK it can also be useful to appoint a specialist Approved Inspector rather than go through the Local Authority Building Control. This will often accelerate the project, which is particularly important in the life science industry, and they will be more familiar with labs and specialist standards that can be more forgiving (e.g. BS9999.)
Of course, there are a wide range of other health, safety, and environmental regulations to incorporate, as well as the possibility of insurance or employer standards and recommendations that can, for example, dictate sprinklers even when this isn’t a legal necessity.
For most office to lab conversions façades will simply require locking of openable windows and general making good. However, for Containment Level 3 (or BSL3) labs and above, cleanrooms, environments requiring exceptionally tight tolerances, and other more onerous requirements, façades can be quite problematic. Airtightness is a particular challenge that can make a perfectly adequate office facade ill-suited for lab use, or may result in suppliers unwilling to guarantee lab performance, or disputes during commissioning. In such cases, rather than re-clad the building (which defeats most of the point of a conversion) a possible solution is a ‘box in a box’ lab fit-out, though this will be more expensive and will reduce net usable space.
Furthermore, given how much energy labs consume compared to an office it may be sensible to improve the performance of an older façade, which will, of course, add cost and programme, and there can be other issues around cladding, for example, some systems and materials used in offices are not accepted by life science businesses and insurers for fire safety and loss prevention reasons.
Office finishes are unlikely to be suitable for lab use, and it is almost always best to complete a full strip-out of the office at the start of a project. This will simplify design and construction in the long-run, and will often expose hidden defects or complications (see below.) Raised access floors will also ideally be sealed or removed to minimise future sources of contamination. For the lab fit-out itself, appropriate finishes must of course be selected, and this will be based on a wide-range of criteria such as cleaning material compatibility.
Existing offices, like all buildings, will almost always harbour some latent issues that will add complication during design or construction. This can range from old plant in need of an upgrade, to asbestos or structural defects. Office to lab conversions can make good economic sense, however risks and realistic cost and programme contingencies should be captured from day one to avoid future disappointment. Early strip-out, surveys, and review of existing information including the Health and Safety File are all good practice.
Reusing an existing building is one of the best ways to reduce carbon and achieve a project’s sustainability goals. However, labs consume a lot more energy than an office and this can still make some conversions extremely expensive and carbon-intensive to run without significant upgrades, which may be an even bigger issue in the long-run.
Sustainable labs are also more likely to attract environmentally-conscious staff and tenants, and life science businesses expecting to partner with larger companies (e.g. as a CRO or CDMO) may one day find themselves at risk – with many of these companies already moving towards BREEAM, LEED, WELL, and other accreditations for their own facilities. While demand for labs currently far outweighs supply, this probably won’t always be the case, and sustainability could in the future become a critical differentiator in an increasingly competitive market.
A recurring theme we hear from our clients is that talented scientists and lab technicians are increasingly hard to find and retain, and at the time of writing both roles are priorities under the UK Government’s skilled worker visa programme. Increased competition means life science businesses and labs must be exceptional places to work, and of course they must also impress current and prospective customers and the regulator.
Together, this often means good transport connections, high-spec and high-tech spaces, lots of internal and external glazing, environments that are comfortable (e.g. temperature, humidity, lighting, noise, ergonomics) and which provide a variety of break-out and social areas. Hence, while some conversions may look particularly cheap or quick to deliver, a poorly located or unattractive lab in a rundown office building could struggle in the long run.
At Bryden Wood, our architects and engineers work closely with life science businesses, tenants, and developers to quickly translate scientific, technological, and business requirements (both current and future) into compliant and productive lab designs. We aim to do this during the earliest stages of a project, long before a brief has been finalised and ideally prior to an office being purchased or leased, all with the goal of identifying and then mitigating potential challenges as quickly as possible – giving the project and our clients the best chance of success.
1 Gov.UK: Life sciences – what's next for this top UK sector, Nov 2022.
2 Financial Times: Lab space shortage threatens life science boom in Oxford and Cambridge, Aug 2022.
3 The Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2020
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Kit of Parts developed by Bryden Wood