Design Trends: Life Sciences Environments of the Future

  • Date 04.05.2022

  • Team Nick Price, Ed Breen, Kalee Holdren, Lauren Coughlin

The demand for life sciences real estate is exponential. Now is a great opportunity to reevaluate the success of traditional lab planning methods with an eye toward the future of work, innovation, and connectivity. We interviewed our internal life sciences experts to uncover the future trends in lab environments. Their responses focus heavily on the need for flexible planning, infused collaboration, and enhanced aesthetics. Here’s what our team had to say:

What are your clients’ greatest concerns in 2022?

NP (Nick Price, Project Manager): Lab space is still catching up to demand, so many developers are looking to get ahead of the need. We are seeing a lot of spec lab/office and spec GMP spaces in development. Designing spec lab environments that are maximized within a building footprint and that provide flexibility for tenant customizations is critical for both owner and tenant.

KH (Kalee Holdren, Project Designer): Flex space is top of mind for all. Designing a space that is too optimized for lab only or manufacturing only or office only may be restrictive down the road. An approach often taken is to design on a module so that, when evolution is required, a module can be repurposed with the least amount of disruption to the surrounding spaces. This ‘block’ space approach can also be used in early-stage planning to understand a variety of utilization options very quickly.

Given the push for the development of flexible ‘spec’ spaces, what advice would you have for a client considering an office or retail to lab conversion? 

NP: Do a deeper dive sooner than later to determine if the building will work as a conversion. Not all buildings are created equal and it’s better to know before the investment window closes. Knowing the limits of the building will help to ultimately realize its full potential.

KH: Mechanical and electrical considerations are key. If the building doesn’t have adequate power or HVAC requirements, the cost needs to be understood. Thorough investigation of the existing systems should occur early on to avoid the potential delay of ‘ready-to-go’ lab space due to necessary infrastructure upgrades!

“Being a part of such momentous causes should spark pride, common purpose, and an immense motivation to do great work”

The traditional workplace is currently in a state of big evolution. What elements of the office could be adapted and used in a life sciences environment?

EB (Ed Breen, Senior Project Architect): Researchers, more than most other work types, thrive on collaboration – both within their work group and outside of their “silo” (think a chemist bouncing an idea off a geneticist). Large conference rooms, small meeting rooms, all technology-enhanced, and small open areas can host ideation. Also, labs by nature are bright, light, and cleanable. Their materials and color palette tends to be somewhat predictable. The downside is that they can feel somewhat oppressive after not much time with them. So, space for researchers outside of the lab might provide relief by incorporating the softer finishes and warmer zones of lighting found in more corporate and creative environments.

LC (Lauren Coughlin, Director Strategy + Culture): Branding! Scientists today are performing noble and inspiring work that is saving lives or advancing industries or changing the world. Being a part of such momentous causes should spark pride, common purpose, and an immense motivation to do great work. The spaces scientists occupy should celebrate these achievements. While self-motivation is likely innate, gratitude for their endeavors and recognition for their achievements could be center stage in the messaging.

“Collaboration is being considered as a part of the program for a variety of amenity types”

How are collaborative spaces changing in the life sciences environment? 

NP: Collaboration is a big driver – even in the shared spaces in multi-tenanted buildings. The idea of creating a “community of learning” and designing a space to allow both planned and chance encounters is important. Collaboration is being considered as a part of the program for variety of amenity types as well, both owned (in-suite) and shared (building common). This shows that the scientific community is beginning to approach collaboration more informally and is willing to allow for it in places like shared lounges, game rooms, and cafes – not just in the conference room.

KH: Typically, labs that require a high amount of cleaning and prepping to enter, will have dedicated meeting spaces that are far separated from the lab itself. Perhaps utilizing ‘buffer zones’ for collaboration could accommodate those coming from ‘clean’ and those coming from ‘dirty’ areas. Is this accomplished with video calls? Or partially separated spaces – through glass, maybe. Science workers in a GMP or ISO level room would benefit from the gained efficiency and quick info exchanges possible if they could sit down without having to go through full decontamination.

LC: Innovation spaces for idea sharing, third party collaborations, and workshops. These spaces could take many forms – from round table to technology-infused to interactive demo. With scientific revolutions occurring around the world, knowledge-sharing and education are critical.

“in-lab research will go on with more assistance from robotics and running more virtual experiments ahead of test tubes”

What other pandemic driven space type changes are on the horizon?

NP: Integration of technology is now a greater driver for lab environments which allows the lab team to gather as needed – virtual, WFH, Zoom, in-person – to share work product and explore ideas across town, state, and globe.

EB: Research labs need in-person effort to set-up experiments, monitor their progress, and log results. The stripped-down work of in-lab research will go on with more assistance from robotics and running more virtual experiments ahead of test tubes. As we know, much of the protocol around labs with hand-washing, air-changes, wearing a mask to protect samples have been in place long before Covid hit the scene. It is the collaborative activities in the science community that get a little uncomfortable.  In the past, the scientific community hosted an abundance of seminars, conferences and symposiums.  They are getting better at doing these activities remotely except for taking in a sunset with colleagues at the end of a day full of presentations next to lapping waves on a beach. Hello Metaverse.

KH: Again, collaboration spaces may need to be closer to the lab. They may need to be virtual instead of physical. Maybe there are cameras in the labs. Or maybe it’s a huddle with AV or VR capabilities to check in with other labs or with other scientists working from home.  Having bench space dedicated to video calls would offer the ability to take on this plethora of collaborative activities more easily.

What one (or two) elements would you encourage your clients to pursue?

LC: Sustainability and wellbeing should be a greater space driver. Access to natural light, operable windows, and outdoor spaces can provide relief from necessary windowless spaces often required for “clean” spaces. The introduction of green interior landscaping and the use of furnishings that focus on comfort for a ‘sit-and-stay’ environment will help facilitate greater social connections and provide the refresh necessary for high-focus tasks at the bench.

KH: Flexible functionality. We should think of the desk as home and the lab as work and, if they’re too far apart, a hoteling approach could be beneficial. A scientist isn’t in their lab full time, however, they may need to stay close for long periods of time to monitor results, for example. It’s really important to understand and support the relationship between the two primary space types.

NP: Natural light is ALWAYS right when possible – heat gain and glare issues notwithstanding. And it’s free! Also, whether a building is owned or shared with others…collaboration spaces like huddle rooms, a lunchroom, and lounges allow for those chance encounters with other lab users. This can be the generator of new ideas and help reinforce the culture and community of the lab environment.


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