How Science Drives Buildings for Life Sciences

The role programming, site assessment and building operations play in the selection and construction your next lab building.

As the life science industry in the Greater Boston/Cambridge area grows, there are many factors influencing real estate decisions.  The two most important factors are 1) the lack of available lab ready space in the region and 2) the pace of scientific discovery and the need for speed to market.  There are other factors that are important of course, such as employee attraction and retention, the need for flexibility of lab design, and the push towards sustainability in lab design.  However, this article will focus on the first two factors.

How to find a site that can be converted successfully to a lab building:

Boston and Cambridge have been fortunate – the development of key areas such as Kendall Square, Cambridge Crossing, and the Seaport are models of how a city can transform underutilized, manufacturing/commerce sectors into productive developments for the life sciences.  However, the cost per sf, the demand for long term leases, and the cost of building out in the downtown areas means these projects are too rich for the average biotech.  And high rise, multi-tenant buildings are also not suited for lab much beyond basic R&D functions.

As we reach beyond the city limits, sometimes due to cost – but currently due to pandemic concerns as well- we are forced into an existing portfolio of buildings and sites that require they be repurposed.  This has provided a myriad of opportunities, however they come with their own challenges.

For a conversion of a site or building there are several key factors that must be taken into consideration.

  •   Access is the key in several ways:
    • to the site itself via loading docks, ample freight elevators, etc. This allows for separation of tenants and can be key to getting into more technically complex lab research.
    • for people – providing for amenity spaces, and access to either parking or public transportation.
    • for deliveries of lab equipment, supplies, and the vast quantity of materials that are required during normal business operations are an important consideration. And if you have specialty spaces such as hazardous materials, animal facilities or clean rooms, these issues of building flow become extremely important.
  • All labs create a large amount of waste that requires permitting, regulatory control, and management.  Lab waste from sinks must be properly treated before entering the town/cities sewer system.  Chemical, biological, and hazardous waste must be separated, stored and removed by professionals.  And maintaining the cleanliness and sterility of the lab environment may mean industrial equipment which may incorporate vast amounts of water use.  Proper drainage, ability to test and measure use and contamination, are all part of the design of waste systems and key to successfully operating lab facilities.
  • Building Infrastructure. Of course, all labs use sizable amounts of power, water and HVAC.  Providing for proper mechanical areas, both on the ground (for waste management and storage), on the floors (for shafts and controlled areas), and at the top (large penthouses and easy access to roof space for mechanical systems and generators) are the golden ticket of a good lab building.  This can be a real challenge for multi-tenant buildings where tenants have to fight for shaft and penthouse/roof space.  Additionally, structural requirements such as ample deck to deck height (15’ min) and an energy efficient building all add to the cost of construction and the without them, the likelihood of having unhappy tenants.

The solution is having a clear vision of the needs in the building.  Understanding the condition of the existing facility, the constraints of the site and/or building, the restrictions of the municipality, and requirements of the potential tenants, means fully developing a vision for the property.  Starting with a vision, or charter, can help align your design and construction to meet your commercial requirements.

Speed to market means uncertainty in tenant’s requirements

Biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies are highly competitive.  They compete for funding, research, talent, and real estate.  The cost of operating a life science company is substantially higher than a traditional office or manufacturing facility.  They need to be in the right place at the right time, with the right product or solution.

The first step to determining the need for real estate is understanding a company’s scientific vision.  What are they researching, how will that change over the next few years, and where will their research likely lead? Different companies will have different concerns.  Asking the right questions of your scientific team can determine if their science vision meets the realities of the site.  Managing expectations is key in having a successful lab building.

How do you do this when most of these companies have no idea what will happen in 6 months – never mind in 5 years time?  A few strategies may include:

  • Benchmark against other companies attempting the same or similar research.
  • Develop a scientific vision and ensure you have the means to realize it
  • Look for flexibility and creative solutions to the average problems a biotech may encounter
  • Understand operational requirements – ensure you are able to operate easily in your prospective site
  • Be realistic in the costs for building and operating a life science building.


There are several things you can do to ensure success with your next life science building.

  • Develop a vision that includes a realistic view of your scientific goals
  • Do your due diligence on the site you are considering
  • Create a team that can help your real estate venture to mirror your goals and vision
  • Don’t underestimate the time and cost to plan your project.