Lab Design and Furnishings

Life Sciences Construction Amid COVID-19

Ensure that your life sciences project follows proper safety protocol

MaryBeth DiDonna

Lab Manager spoke with Steve Eberling, executive vice president and general manager of Lendlease, a designer for life sciences companies, to discuss the life science construction best practices that go into building facilities dedicated to developing new biotherapeutics and vaccines—even as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. 

Second floor of South lab OEB 4-5, featuring workbenches with power poles and lab gases, fume hoods.

Q: What kinds of containment and social distancing features are necessary when constructing a facility to develop biotherapeutics and vaccines? What features are put into place to keep researchers safe during a pandemic and/or when dealing with potentially harmful samples?
There are certain practices and methods necessary to construct facilities built to develop biotherapeutics and vaccines that are separate from the social distancing measures required during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, Lendlease has built several facilities that house live viruses. These vaccine operations centers (VCC) included redundant qualified utility systems, which include clean steam (CS), water for injection (WFI), and clean in place (CIP). Additionally, specialized facility equipment such as bio-safety cabinets, fume hoods, and weigh booths are all considered based on facility design and needs. HVAC air flow, air changes per hour, filtration levels and cascading pressure schemes all are critical to protect both people and science. Lendlease is building a project involving the demolition and construction of a new 5,000 sq. ft. expanded manufacturing suite. The design includes a personnel airlock (PAL) and custom air handling unit for the protection of end users. The project will also modify existing utilities to support new manufacturing equipment, including scales, a chromatography skid, a tube welder, a gas welder, an incubator, and a floor scale to support the process. In addition to the technical requirements, this project is significantly complicated due to being constructed on an active campus within an occupied building that is currently in full vaccine production. We have to be nimble, flexible, and efficient to ensure everything is done in a safe and non-disruptive manner.

Q: What construction practices are necessary when working on projects during a pandemic? What measures are taken to keep construction staff safe?
The necessary construction practices during a pandemic that help keep a site safe are similar on all construction sites, whether for a life science project or not. Every state has its own mandates to be followed as well as recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For example, controls are in place to ensure symptomatic workers stay home or are sent home; hot water wash stations with liquid soap and/or hand sanitizer stations are easily available, with COVID-19 hand-washing instructions; shift size is appropriate to maintain six-foot separation in work areas; policies are in place to use PPE during work and breaks; all employees receive project-specific COVID-19 training; and there is a designated safety manager and teams implementing the plans.

First floor environment chambers 1-12.

Q: How has the COVID-19 crisis impacted your business? Are you seeing more business, less business? New clients, and/or different kinds of building requests (such as healthcare facilities or research buildings)? Are projects being put on hold, or have timelines sped up so that projects are finished faster?
The biggest impact we have seen are that clients are scaling back non-essential work and focusing on critical projects. A positive impact is that there has been more business interest generated for long-range projects looking ahead five to seven years. We have seen an increase in healthcare and research and development building opportunities. We also have experience in delivering projects as quickly and efficiently as possible due to the specific timelines for vaccine and biotherapeutic research. COVID-19 has created a rush to find a vaccine for this specific virus, and made even more necessary the development of biotherapeutics and vaccines to support trials in other disease areas, including oncology, rare diseases, infectious diseases, hemophilia, and rheumatoid arthritis. Life science construction is relatively unique, and workers are well aware of the critical nature of these projects, which leads to quicker completion dates and higher engagement.

Q: How has the current pandemic affected your relationship with your design/build colleagues? Have you found ways to collaborate with them while adhering to social distancing protocol (example, video conferences, fewer team members meeting in person, etc)?
Lendlease’s relationship with our design/build colleagues has only enhanced since the current pandemic. Our investment in information technology was put into place over the past several years, including our recent switch to Microsoft Teams. As a global company, Lendlease is very familiar with working remotely, collaborating with our partners, and using the most current and efficient technology to communicate, plan, and deliver.

Q: How did you develop your current best practices, during these unprecedented times? What kinds of resources should other design/build firms and lab management look to in order to develop their own best practices?
As a global company we had the benefit of collecting lessons learned and best practices from our Asia-Pacific region that experienced the pandemic in advance of U.S. exposure. In addition, throughout the U.S. we collaborated with our colleagues across all market sectors to further enhance global best practices. We were able to develop these best practices into site specific plans which included the U.S. CDC mandates and client requirements on each project site. While we already have detailed and robust site safety plans, we are confident that the enhanced provisions in response to COVID-19 will continue to introduce more safety standards that will be in place long after the pandemic passes.