Lab Design and Furnishings

Construction Guide for Start-Ups Planning to Expand

Strategies for enhancing a life sciences space

MaryBeth DiDonna

Establishing a good working relationship between lab managers and a project team—including the construction team—is crucial for a successful lab build or renovation. Lab Manager spoke with Neal Swain and Jim Liston of Columbia, a construction management company in Massachusetts that often consults with start-up life science firms that are growing and forecasting the need for additional space.

Q: Who needs to be included in the initial meeting to get a project started, besides the construction team?
At project inception, it’s essential to establish baseline parameters the design should satisfy. An architect collaborating with the lab planners or lab operators should be included in these initial meetings to determine how users work in the space and what’s important to them during their day-to-day interactions. We like to stress the importance of developing an “Owner’s Project Requirements” document, or “OPR,” which quantitatively and qualitatively describes what the project needs and aims to achieve. These needs could be space sizes, levels of lighting, types of liquid or gaseous utilities, cleanliness of the air, temperature and humidity tolerances, levels of security, and clearance requirements for material or equipment handling. The OPR can specify types of materials that are preferable or known to be compatible with the client’s operation and can go as far as specifying preferred utility termination details or other user-interface preferences.

Benchtop lab space with overhead service panels.

The OPR can also set more global goals for the project that aren’t driven by process requirements. Examples of global building goals are measurable sustainability objectives like target efficiencies for energy and water usage or community engagement goals like common working spaces or flexible event spaces.

Q: What's the first thing, physically, that needs to be done?
For renovation projects, existing conditions surveys are critical in understanding the location of existing utilities and the physical constraints of the building structure. The project team needs to understand the type of structure they’re working with and the health and capacity of the base building utilities. When evaluating physical constraints, 3D laser-scanning has come a long way to quickly stitch together virtual models of spaces, within which designers can configure the new space.

For new builds, the physical work to research existing conditions is less extensive; however, geotechnical surveys and sub-surface utility investigation are important to perform very early in the process to understand what lies within the footprint of the new area.

Q: How much flexibility should be factored into a project budget?
There are two primary types of contingency we consider when anticipating unforeseen conditions: design contingency and construction contingency. Design contingency is budgeted to address unexpected costs incurred during the design phase, whether they are from owner-driven changes to reconfigure spaces and utilities or they are driven by new site information if one of the team’s initial assumptions is no longer accurate. In many cases, design contingencies are carried to account for details that have not been fully vetted. Design contingencies are anywhere from five to 10 percent of a project’s value. More time invested upfront to fine-tune an OPR and thoroughly investigate existing conditions tends to reduce the recommended design contingency.

Construction contingency is budgeted to address unforeseen costs incurred during the construction phase. These costs could arise from existing conditions the team could not verify prior to starting work, unexpected weather events that impact work, or the construction costs for modifications to design details that were not clear at the time contractors were assigned the job. Construction contingencies are generally between two to five percent of a project’s value. More time in the design phase clarifying small details and more thorough existing conditions verification tends to reduce the recommended construction contingency.

Bear in mind these contingencies are for the “known-unknowns” that exist even when the vision for a project is relatively stable. If your project’s needs or your team’s preferences are likely to change course multiple times over the life of a project, budget separately for re-designing certain elements. 

It is important to note that using “rules of thumb” to establish the construction budget for a project can have significant consequences in influencing an owner’s perception. For example, the $300 per square foot cost assumed to be adequate may have been accurate for a 20,000 square foot lab fit-out in a building already configured for a life sciences tenant; however, if you are changing typologies and converting office space into lab space, that unit rate may not account for the MEP infrastructure needed to support your program. Communication is a significant factor in budgets getting off track—if owners, designers, and builders maintain open conversation about the needs of the project and how those needs impact the design, budgeting is more predictable. Engaging a construction manager to help develop a realistic construction budget early in the pre-construction process will set a reliable baseline as funding is planned for a project.

Q: How much input should be obtained from lab managers? Lab users?
Input from lab users and lab managers who thoroughly understand how the users operate in the space is critical to the success of the project. This input should be at the heart of the design since the lab users will interact daily with the finished space. The OPR is a great tool to catalog input from the users and preserve it as a baseline as the design team moves forward.

Q: How do you go about calculating a timetable for project completion? What factors need to be considered?
Unfortunately, there is no one formula to set the timeline for a project. The schedule largely depends on the availability of material, access to the construction area and surrounding site, the density of activities in each space, and the local market’s demand on the labor pool. In general, a thorough design with a more extended procurement period allows a team to line up material for a shorter construction duration. Projects may be fast-tracked to enable construction to start before completing the full design; however, this requires close collaboration between owners, designers, and builders to ensure elements of the design are locked in place in an appropriate sequence. Re-work is costly from a schedule and financial perspective, so it’s imperative to set the right sequence up-front, so the design effort is aligned with the construction effort.

300L bioreactors.

For some projects, the utility requirements to support processes are more than the available municipal utilities. When an increase in electric, natural gas, water, or other utility capacity is needed, coordination between the local utility and the design team may necessitate significant additional time. There are specific tasks and timeframes to upgrade utilities, and these need to be forecasted in the construction schedule. Consider requesting feedback from a local construction manager who is in tune with local market movement to get a sense of a project’s timeline.

Q: What are some of the main documents/permits that need to be obtained?
Permitting varies from town to town since local jurisdictions have their permit application processes. In general, permitting is managed by the construction manager. and the building permit application (for new buildings or renovations) takes the longest time. Plan on four to six weeks for permitting after your design has progressed to permit-level documents. Additionally, in some states, projects are required to file notifications with the DEP, and separate EPA or other regulatory permitting may be required depending on the scope of the project. Renovations to existing buildings may be subject to asbestos removal notifications or permitting for other hazardous materials depending on the site conditions. Larger new-construction jobs may have separate foundations permitting to allow structural work to proceed before completing the permit-level documents for the non-structural components. Close coordination between owners, designers, and builders helps sequence these activities appropriately for a site. Speak to the local inspector about what steps can be expected or engage a construction manager to take care of the steps and help prepare for a successful process.

Q: Please share some strategies for effective communication between the construction team, other project team members, and the site owner/lab manager/etc.
Every team subset communicates differently, and in a digital world where information moves, changes, and is obsolete in minutes, it’s essential to meet face-to-face. Find the conversation style that works for your team, stick with it, and meet with a regular cadence. The cadence should allow meaningful progress between meetings since not all workstreams follow the same flow. Keep a transparent “action log” for each work stream to assign, monitor, and close the appropriate actions as the job progresses. Establish an electronic repository for decisions the project team makes—it’s essential to capture the history and evolution as the project grows. These tools don’t need to operate in the foreground either: if it works better for a team, track actions and decisions offline and let a different style take the front seat.

Several software platforms have enabled virtual face-to-face collaboration as we absorb and adapt to our experiences with COVID-19. GoTo Meeting, Zoom, and Microsoft Teams have become a critical infrastructure for external and internal meetings with clients, design teams, and our inner Columbia family. Despite our physical separation, we prioritize maintaining open lines of communication between and within our organizations. The bottom line: expansion is exciting, the building process should be fun, and the resulting project should meet your needs. If your experience isn’t positive, your team hasn’t found the right style yet.