Strong life sciences sector sparks new construction and fast conversions
Growing investments in life sciences research are fueling demand for more laboratory space. That trend, in turn, is presenting contractors with business opportunities and practical challenges of how to deliver technologically sophisticated projects on tight schedules and despite pandemic supply chain problems.
In addition to new ground-up laboratory construction projects, Maryland is “seeing significant interest in office-to-lab conversions,” said Thomas Reusche, Executive Vice President of Bala Consulting Engineers. In particular, life sciences researchers and companies are seeking space near two academic institutions in Baltimore City (the University of Maryland Biopark and Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures) and throughout multiple locations in Central Maryland, including the BWI area, Anne Arundel County, Columbia, the I-83 corridor and I-270 corridor.
A viable conversion of office or flex space to laboratory space hinges on several things, including the structure’s ability to hold extra weight, adequate utility services to the building, suitable floor-to-floor clearance (laboratories typically need 14.5 feet) and design opportunities to meet a laboratory’s needs, including lab exhaust, increased ventilation, fire protection, backup power, and management of lab waste, sanitary waste and chemical storage.
Office-to-lab conversions — especially in the face of high market demand and an ongoing pandemic — present additional challenges.
Many office building owners are doing the conversions on spec.
“That makes the projects more challenging because often the client doesn’t know who will be going into that space and exactly what their needs will be,” said Scott Davis, Director of Mechanical Engineering at Bala.
That has prompted Bala to essentially “work backwards” through the design process. Bala engineers determine the maximum capacity of laboratory operations that a building could support then develop a building master plan for upgrades and conversion of individual spaces, Davis said.
At the same time, project teams need to meet many owners ‘speed to market’ goals, including completing large office-to-lab conversions within six months.
“That’s a tough schedule especially considering that large lab exhaust systems and air handling units can have lead times of 16 weeks,” said Edward Dolan, Executive Vice President of Bala.
Consequently, laboratory project teams are increasingly opting to resolve those equipment requirements very early in the process and pre-purchase the equipment, Dolan said. “There is a level of risk with pre-purchasing because down the road, the client may land a tenant with different needs. So we try to look for systems that are more modular and flexible and scalable so later you can pull back or add on fairly easily.”
To deliver those complex and quick projects, owners are increasingly using design-assist and bringing on not only the construction manager but also key subcontractors, such as mechanical and electrical, early in the process. That practice, Reusche said, has provided project teams with valuable, trade-specific insights on how to adjust designs, construction processes and materials acquisition to maximize construction efficiency and avoid pandemic-related supply chain slowdowns or price hikes that could prove critical to a project.
Outfitting individual labs requires another injection of expertise. Colimore Architects, which is currently working on nearly two dozen lab projects, has learned over the years that meticulous, early-stage communication with individual researchers is vital to a project’s success, said Ashutosh Belgi, Principal. “It is all about understanding what the researcher is doing, what equipment they are bringing into the space and understanding that equipment. Then it’s our job to conceptualize a floor plan that gives them a well-functioning lab. It’s almost never an easy fit.”
Project teams, Belgi said, need to be mindful that academic institutions, federal research facilities and other venues may have their own standards for what can and cannot be supported in a renovated lab space. Teams also have to be prepared to innovate in some challenging locations. Many out-of-state researchers have been moving to Maryland to work at Johns Hopkins, he said. That has left some researchers and their construction teams striving to determine how to create a highly specialized, cutting-edge research laboratory in a building that is more than 100 years old.