Old Offices Become New Laboratories
Construction Considerations

By Kylie Wolfe

After a year plus of remote work, office buildings aren’t in high demand — at least not in the traditional sense. What began as a necessary health and safety measure for thousands of companies became a permanent fixture, one that’s resulted in plenty of vacant spaces. At the same time, the scientific community stepped in to help address pandemic-related concerns and the need for life sciences laboratories sharply increased.

Although many employers have transitioned to a work-from-home model, or at least a hybrid one, most scientists need an in-person option. This, alongside a greater demand for science-based work, is convincing building owners to convert empty structures into flexible lab spaces.

Supply and Demand

Per Statista, 16.4 percent of downtown office buildings were vacant in early 2021. That’s up from 13 percent the year prior. Rent prices for conventional office spaces have gone up 15 to 30 percent, depending on the location, since 2016. But, for lab spaces, prices have risen more than 60 percent in major cities during the same period.

As of April 2021, there were 1.9 million workers in the biotechnology and life sciences industries, a record high according to the United States Commercial Real Estate Services. Paired with increased funding and empty office spaces nationwide, this gives landlords reason to change their focus and laboratories reason to expand, each meeting a new need.

"It takes years to build from the ground up, but adapting already-existing spaces can take only 18 months."

Offices vs. Labs

It takes years to build from the ground up, but adapting already-existing spaces can take only 18 months. Though this helps labs get started sooner, they have unique needs that leave building owners with a long list of renovations.

Offices have basic amenities in place: restrooms, elevators, lobbies. But lab spaces require much more, even things that aren’t always visible. In addition to equipment and instruments, labs need a greater floor-to-floor height to house ductwork, wiring, and gas lines above a drop ceiling. This helps maintain a sterile environment at the benches below. The floors should also withstand 125 to 150 pounds per square foot, accommodating heavy freezers and fume hoods. Of course, reinforcing and reworking a building’s structure is no small task.

According to SGA, an architectural firm, some labs must limit floor vibrations to 2,000 micro inches per second (MIPS) or less. Office spaces have a higher limit, usually 4,000 MIPS. Laboratories have special ventilation requirements, too, and need proper storage rooms for hazardous substances. Research settings tend to use more electricity and water, with each one routed throughout the lab for easier access. Instead of the 12 to 14 watts per square foot that offices require, labs allot 25 to 29 watts per square foot, a statistic from Building Design & Construction. Other essentials, like service elevators, emergency generators, and gas connections, only add to the construction list.

A Flexible Future

Like everyone, building owners have had to adapt to evolving circumstances. In their case, converting existing spaces into new labs has been one of the best ways to pivot. Cities like Boston, San Francisco, and San Diego are witnessing this most, but Seattle, Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago are not far behind.

As the biotechnology boom continues, there’s an opportunity for companies to establish labs closer to large research universities. While landlords hope to attract tenants, scientists hope to attract talent to their new-and-improved buildings.

Kylie Wolfe is a Thermo Fisher Scientific staff writer.

This content was inspired, in part, by “’A Wild 15 Months’: Pandemic Spurs Conversion of Offices to Labs,” The New York Times, July 27, 2021; “Biotech, Life Science Building Owners Look to a Post-COVID Future,” Lab Manager, July 27, 2021; and “How to Reposition A Building For Life Science Tenants,” SGA, Accessed August 2021.