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Lab Design and Furnishings

Life Sciences Facilities for Today’s Dense, Urban Environments

Vertical cluster design offers next-gen lab spaces

Brooks Slocum, AIA

It is no secret that the nation’s life sciences industry is booming across the country. There is an ever-growing need for smart space that integrates lab, office, and other R&D space suited for today and tomorrow’s life sciences companies. But often, the available life sciences space is limited and expensive.

What is the best strategy to solve these life sciences facilities challenges and maximize your return on investment?

SGA, a Boston and New York-based architecture, interior design, branded environments, planning and virtual design and construction firm, late last year unveiled a first-of-its-kind life sciences facilities design fitted for today’s tight urban spaces. Known as the Vertical Cluster, this innovative design is ideal for densely populated cities like from New York to San Francisco and from Tokyo to London.

Aerial view of the Vertical Cluster design.

The Vertical Cluster is a proposed 24-story, 750,000 sq. ft. tower containing wet and dry labs integrated into a Class-A vertical research tower that will serve as a next-generation building type for life-sciences developments in dense urban settings, such as New York and other cities where land values are prohibitive to low rise development. The vertical nature of the prototype reflects local zoning and building codes, allowing the stacking diverse programmatic needs typically found in a horizontal life-sciences and technology campus complex. The result is a contemporary facility that quite literally elevates the work of industry professionals and engenders a sense of community through deeply integrated vertical collaboration spaces.

With access to world-renowned universities, research hospitals, venture capital firms, and the start-up community, life sciences have been the pulse of cities like Boston and San Francisco for some time now. Despite its wealth of talent and resources, New York is just beginning to join the movement and will lead the next wave with our design.

The New York life sciences industry’s slow start is the result of several factors. First, while many high-profile office and tech tenants have the means to meet New York’s exorbitant rents, early-stage New York-based life sciences tenants have not enjoyed the same level of funding or support as their counterparts in San Francisco, New Jersey, Boston, and the Research Triangle. Secondly, real estate firms aggressively seek to maximize rents immediately—in New York City, the rents for office space are currently very high, which has made many life sciences real estate investments financially challenging.

Why Vertical Cluster?

Clusters as currently defined are costly and take up a lot of horizontal space that is hard to find in tight urban environments like New York, Hong Kong, or San Francisco. The idea of a “Vertical Cluster” solves the problem of the high cost of the land and creates an efficient state-of-the-art building.

The Vertical Cluster features two key architectural elements. First is a highly efficient tower with 32,000 gross sq. ft. plates that are configured to maximize the nimble adaptability of laboratory operators and tenants. The tower’s steel superstructure is designed with 33 ft. structural bays and 15 ft. floor-to-floor heights, which provide ample ceiling height to accommodate the intensive mechanical needs of the laboratories. A lab-responsive core provides generous mechanical shaft space and a high-speed service elevator that links laboratories to an enclosed ground floor loading bay with lab-specific mechanical and storage areas. A mechanical floor mid-level in the building allows the air supply to run up and down the tower and avoids the need for oversized shaft ways at the valuable upper levels.

The Vertical Cluster design is a dynamic mix of interior and exterior collaboration spaces.

The modular configuration of mechanical equipment allows for future expansion as the needs of laboratory tenants change with the science. An efficient double skin façade improves thermal and acoustic comfort within the laboratory spaces and maximizes the energy efficiency to reduce operating costs. The base of the tower houses incubator/accelerator space, graduation space, and a dedicated vivarium for enhanced research and development efforts. Having the manufacturing visible to the investors and to the researchers helps build a sense of pride and personal satisfaction for the work they are doing in the tower above. Other unique challenges include chemical processing and storage, along with strict ventilation requirements.

There is quite a difference between the code required 100 percent outside air for a lab building, and the exhaust requirements for the fume hoods; versus an office building, which tries to stay as tight as possible. Then there are considerations for the flexibility of the labs to allow, for example, converting a lab that produces hazardous waste to one that needs to be highly sterile. This need makes the engineering of any life sciences building critical. There are air handler needs, power requirements, gas storage, plumbing, and HVAC requirements—all of which have been considered in the design.

The second key architectural element of the Vertical Cluster is a dynamic mix of interior and exterior collaboration spaces. The design includes personal, collaborative, and group spaces to rival any of top tech firm campuses. The flexible office-to-lab mix ensures that no matter the science, each floor has the ability to transition from one type of research to another with minimal disruption or downtime.

This dramatic outward projection can be seen from the efficient floor plates of the central tower. The Vertical Cluster is a collection of spaces housed within articulated tectonic forms that facilitate vertical integration of floors, using monumental communicating stairs and visual connectivity between levels. The hairpin street profile is formed by interconnecting stairs that allow occupants to ascend the building within the Vertical Cluster and creates opportunities for discovery and interaction on each level. Landscaped exterior terraces tucked between the folding projections provide a sense of well-being to building occupants and allows them to enjoy sweeping views of the city and beyond. Transparency between programs and the interconnectivity of spaces encourages occupants to participate in the exchange of ideas, advancing the work of the life-sciences industry. Activities within the Vertical Cluster range from passive focus to active scripted or unscripted events that promote knowledge spillover and networking.

Finally, the Vertical Cluster will make sustainability easier than ever. The tower integrates responsible solutions like water purification systems, air filtration, reusable waste systems, emergency generators, heat recovery units, renewable energy, and green building materials. Not only does this initiative make the building more sustainable, it makes the building environment much healthier. The building will also feature a double glass wall façade between the exterior and interior glass wall, that will allow for cooling when open and a warm-air buffer when closed. Advanced delivery methods (including Virtual Design and Construction) were used to assure delivery and reduce costs for this initiative.

The ultimate intent behind the Vertical Cluster design is that the environment where this life sciences work is being done should not unfold in the dark, uninspired lab buildings of the past. It should be built as monumental structures within prime locations with all the grandeur and respect that their work deserves in our society.

Brooks Slocum, AIA, is SGA’s New York studio manager, where he leads both the architecture and interior design practices.