Science and technology construction projects tend to share an overriding priority—speed to market. For nearly every project that is creating a space to conceive a new drug, manufacture a medical device, or perform research and development of any kind, return on investment (ROI) often hinges on how quickly activity can begin.
James Awford, a principal with Western US-based contractor BN Builders, noted the importance of speed to market in a Q&A with GlobeSt.com: “When a drug or medical device is approved, the manufacturer has a short time to live in that space before the next competitor comes up with the next shiny new object,” he told the real estate publication. “Once they get the approval, they want the lab built out immediately because every day it’s not functioning as a lab, their competitors are getting that much closer. For developers of biotech who are focused on attracting tenants to market, if they can convince clients to move into one of their spaces, they want them in there quickly.”
This being the case, S&T building developers and owners far too often unwittingly sabotage their own urgent need for speed. They do this by failing to consult design professionals before making major decisions that influence project success, and by not recognizing all of the ways that these experts can help to accelerate the process. Having an architect or designer on board and contributing early can put them a step ahead in meeting their speed-to-market goals.
In what areas can investors, owners, developers, and researchers expect to benefit from the early—and continued—involvement of design professionals in major planning decisions for science and technology construction projects?
Location and local knowledge
Many projects have seen their ROI become DOA before the first line was drawn due to poor location choices. This is why it is critical to have someone in the room from the outset who knows the real estate landscape in the geographic areas being considered, who can gauge the benefits and drawbacks of various factors (e.g., rehab vs. ground-up construction), and who understands constructability of all types and sizes.
For instance, a developer building a biotech’s satellite manufacturing facility in Southern California made multiple missteps because they lacked the input of a trained architect during the planning stage. Their first mistake was settling on an abandoned warehouse to repurpose for a laboratory—had they been aware of the available research in the local area, they would have found several other existing buildings that could much more easily and cost-effectively accommodate the lab. Creative solutions come from creative conversations, and architects can be key to unlocking those possibilities.
They also misread the sentiment of local officials, which added substantially to the already-prolonged planning process. An architect or designer familiar with the local municipalities could have steered the developer through the minefield laid by the various departments. Having someone on the team who knows the community’s priorities and tendencies is priceless.
Certifications and permits
As the project developer in the case study above learned, navigating through the jurisdictional obstacles encountered in a development project can be daunting. This is potentially even more so for a facility intended for scientific or technological uses. As a result, red tape can slow science and technology construction projects to a halt when the leaders driving the process lack a professional resource with sufficient understanding of the regulatory landscape.
Competent, knowledgeable, and well-networked representation from the very beginning is critical, especially if the owner or developer doesn’t have these capabilities in house. For architects and designers, familiarity with state and local policies and regulations, as well as with the municipal officials who create and enforce them, comes with the territory.
Flexibility and agility
Modern science and technology space is all about flexibility and agility. The ability to readily adapt to changing requirements, new technologies, and multiple other factors can greatly influence a building’s ultimate contribution to a sci-tech venture’s success.
Ensuring sufficient flexibility and agility requires substantial forethought, however. Decisions made early in the process can better enable an efficient process when a quick change is needed, or it can hamstring the entire operation by creating impediments to fluid course corrections and modifications.
Inflation, escalation, and material availability
You can’t build anything without the materials you need to build it. And even if the materials are available, you won’t get them if you can’t pay for them. Two simple truths, but constant considerations in the construction process—especially at a time when inflation, cost escalation, and material shortages are front page news.
Architects and designers consulted early in the development process can help guide the project in the best way to ensure that the materials needed are available. They will also implement strategies that ensure that the actual cost comes as close to the budgeted cost as possible under the existing conditions. There will still be challenges, particularly in the current economic climate, but the chances of securing the needed materials at the best price increase exponentially with the right design professional involved at the right time.
Speed to market is a team event
Architecture and design services are a relatively minor piece of the overall cost of a science and technology construction project. Investing a bit more to ensure expert guidance in the multitude of critical decisions that need to be made early in the process will subsequently result in financial benefits that far exceed the upfront cost. Ultimately, this early collaboration will help owners and developers create a better-functioning, more cost-effective facility that is providing ROI at the earliest possible date.
Edward Gomez, Associate AIA, NOMA, is project designer with Taylor Design.