Everyone involved or associated with the field of Life Sciences, clearly understands that Change is the only constant that they can expect. The foundation of Life Sciences was established on the perpetual, and often rapid, pace of discovery that comes from new technologies, methodologies and thought leaders. These welcomed change makers will continue to lead in the advancement of better outcomes for our communities in the forms of diagnostics, medicines, food supplies and treatments. However, life science laboratories need to keep pace with the speed of science through renovation and repurposing.

While minor changes within existing lab spaces can often be self-performed, such as shifting benchtop equipment, many change drivers require our laboratories to undergo renovations or overall repurposing. In my local region of RTP, NC, the average vintage of laboratory space can range from the 1980’s up through early 2000’s. This is not a unique regional situation based upon many recent discussions I have shared with laboratory owners from across the nation. Rather, this common condition of outdated and unsuitable lab space can be considered the average of state of national laboratory infrastructure. Now in 2020, we should acknowledge how much science has changed even in the last 20 years, yet our laboratory facilities are lagging significantly behind the rapid pace of science and the problems scientists are working to solve.

Financial Case for Renovation

The persistent trend in life science real estate, in the last 40 years, is the continual concentration of life sciences organizations into regional clusters. This has been deeply researched and documented by the experts at JLL, CBRE, Longfellow, and Alexandria Real Estate. This real estate pattern has promoted collaborative advancements and the creation of new fields of research but simultaneously limited the supply of available modern laboratory space. The low vacancy rates for laboratories, along with the limited opportunity for new “greenfield” constructed facilities, have established the financial necessity for renovating and repurposing most existing laboratories. The financial model for renovating becomes further compelling when owner’s review the effective utilization of their existing laboratory space in a facility or an overall real estate portfolio. It comes as no surprise, that the lack of optimization of lab space is a direct result of the gap created between the current lab users’ science and that of science used to plan the space 20 or 30 years ago.

On average, renovating an existing laboratory can be completed in half the time and cost of constructing a new life science facility. 

Understand that there are site and user specific factors that can widely vary the cost and schedule to construct each specific lab space; however there are the consistent savings opportunities with renovating any laboratory space soon as compared to new construction.

How do laboratory renovations eliminate scope and offer savings?  

  • Land Acquisition: “Cluster” regions are expensive and desirable
  • Site & Civil: New grading, storm water and landscaping  
  • Utilities: Power, water, fire, sewer, and natural gas
  • Structural: Foundations, vertical structure and floor slabs
  • Envelope: Walls, fenestration, circulation, egress and roofing
  • Permitting: Federal, state, municipal and regional authority requirements
  • Weather: Avoid the risk of universal construction delay.

Once a Lab Facility Owner commits to the financial merits of a laboratory renovation, repurpose or even an upfit, the next immediate questions they typically ask is, “How quickly can we complete the renovation project to “Go-Live” with our science?” While this common question is an understandable progression of thought, there is a more vital question that needs to be considered at the chartering of a laboratory renovation project. “What is the acceptable Degree of Disruption (DoD)?” This question should also be considered in tandem with asking, “Which team and delivery method/approach can best achieve the acceptable DoD?” but that topic will be detailed in a later article.

Project within a Project

Since many lab renovations require addressing some disruptions, it would be very reasonable to consider the renovation of the actual lab space as a small project within an overall larger project. The Degree of Disruption (DoD) can be best understood using the analogy of a recovering patient and physical therapy, where without some degree of pain to the patient, then little will be gained towards the overall goal of recovery. The standard “triple constraint” of projects (scope, cost, and schedule) applies to any lab renovation project, but consider disruption to be the fourth constraint. Disruption must uniquely be evaluated and managed throughout the project. The DoD can be attributed as a direct expansion/creep to a typical owner’s understood scope, as well as an increase/unexpected cost to the project.

There are many viable solutions and strategies to avoid or mitigate a direct impact from disruptions to the overall project schedule, but all these approaches require proper planning and design prior to the start of construction. Lab owners will realize that when defining the DoD for a project, many of the identified concerns and limitations are born from the adjacent spaces and from the centralized infrastructure of the existing facility. Remember that adjacent spaces are not just limited to those spaces across the corridor, but also the spaces below and above that are often impacted by the needed changes to plumbing and HVAC systems.

The perceived expansion from the “understood” project scope and construction area may arrive as shock to some project owners. The truly great design and construction teams communicate the connection of each perceived addition with the associated degree of disruption that will be avoided or mitigated. Utilizing DoD approach in a laboratory renovation will not guarantee any improvements in quality to the final constructed lab space, but it will increase the measured and perceived success of the project.

Typical DoD that Lab Renovations encounter:

  • Phasing and Swing spaces
  • Life Safety Systems and Egress
  • Shutdowns and upgrades of MEP systems
  • Air pressurization and IAQ control of spaces
  • Noise/Vibration
  • Construction Pathways for workers, materials, and debris
  • Security and Access Control

There are other key factors that emerge when considering the DoD of a renovation, such as the introduction of multiple new indirect stakeholders that are now impacted by the project. Additionally, the need to rebalance or clarify the project funding/accounting for the costs associated beyond the renovated laboratory space can present challenges for previously established project budgets. Even with the “added” scope and cost of addressing the DoD needs, renovations of laboratories can provide better returns on capital project investments. This is especially true when the project investment is measured against the realistically short life span of any laboratory space, which can only expect the need for change in the near future.

Closing Thoughts

The recent events surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic have greatly demonstrated the need for our laboratories to keep pace with the speed of science. The first steps are increase the utilization of renovations and repurposing of existing laboratories, as the quickest and most cost-effective solution. It is important to also share that the lab management and users that I have encountered, remain determined and passionate about their science regardless of the condition of their current lab space. And so, while it is unfortunate that many laboratories are not configured or fully capable of tackling the current challenge at hand, we can highlight both the ongoing need as well as the immediate opportunity for investment so our laboratories.