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Renovating the Occupied Lab

Renovating the Occupied Lab

Cost, safety, and logistics are key considerations when deciding whether to continue work during a lab renovation, or move to a new space

MaryBeth DiDonna

Science and research are advancing at a high pace, and laboratory facilities need to keep up with these new innovations. Many labs choose to tear down their existing, outdated facilities because they pose a safety hazard or because they would rather have modern labs with up-to-date equipment and a future-proof design. However, a new build isn’t always a feasible option, for a number of reasons, including a lack of sufficient funding, time limitations, or environmental factors on the project site.

Renovations make more sense than new builds in certain situations. Lab buildings with “good bones” might just need some updating or expanding to accommodate modern research and development. A renovation may be an easier method than a new build for project teams to identify and address all associated costs. One of the biggest challenges facing a lab renovation is how to protect and preserve the work that goes on in the lab, and the people who perform that work, while the renovation is actually taking place. Moving an entire operation to a new building is a huge undertaking, and may present a risk to research, product, or even people, so in some cases, it’s more beneficial for work to continue in a lab while spaces are expanded or updated.

Communication between teams is key

A renovation of a lab at Arbor Biotechnologies, located in Cambridge, MA.
John Horner

When deciding whether it’s best to undertake a new build or a renovation, the key is communication, explains Bill Sayles, director of life sciences with Columbia Construction, based in North Reading, MA. “The extent of the renovations should be discussed with all the lab users as well as the design and construction manager in order to get all parties that will affect the outcome working together,” he says, noting that considerations to be discussed include the extent of the renovations; the duration of the project; the complexity required for the upgrades; the lab equipment to be moved, relocated, stored, and/or revalidated; how this will affect current lab operations/business goals; and the cost impact for both scenarios. From there, the project team and lab management can determine whether it’s most beneficial to move into a new facility or to renovate the existing facility. If a renovation is the best route, then it can also be determined if lab staff can safely stay put while the renovation takes place.

“What’s the extent of the renovation…are you just moving some lab benches around? Are you moving some fume hoods? Are you actually taking walls down and ceilings? Understanding the extent is really important because it drives the complexity of the design team and it drives the complexity of what has to go in place to protect current operations,” says Sayles. “Duration is important as well—understanding how long will that certain section of the lab be down. Somehow, in some way, shape, or form, their lab operation may be impacted, so knowing that is important too, to let them know that. Like, ‘OK, you’re going to be down for six months to put in eight benches,’ and they’ll know that that’s not going to work. That might make them decide, ‘OK, I’ll just move my entire operation someplace else’ or ‘I’ll lease temporary lab space someplace else.’”

Tufts University’s Biology Collaborative Cluster lab required an occupied renovation, a project undertaken by Columbia Construction.
Richard Mandelkorn

Timing is everything when renovating an occupied lab, according to Sayles. Some companies are able to temporarily stop work during a project, but for others it’s vital that the work continues uninterrupted. “The key advantages to keeping an operation up and running while modifications are happening…it’s all about their business goals,” says Sayles, citing the example of medical and healthcare companies. “All these companies are in the market to make a profit and obviously to help human beings—it has to be a balance of both.”

Moving lab operations to an entirely new facility can be a tricky undertaking, says Sayles, especially when the new site is unknown to the lab staff. “The cost for moving an entire operation to a new location can be complicated, costly, and sometimes even risky. Many times, the full extent of the cost required for the move is not fully realized, producing more risk. The cost of renovating an existing lab can be less expensive depending on the complexity of the scope of work. It is easier to identify the total cost of work for a renovation as the existing space is available for review.”

Trust your partners in the lab design process

The best way to understand budget and timeline is for lab managers to get early feedback from design/build professionals, says Sayles. “Engage with a design firm and/or a construction manager (CM) early in the discussions in order to determine budget and schedule. Be sure to vet out and engage with a qualified lab design or construction professional to provide the most accurate information. Most times, the CM or design firm will offer up budget and schedule and estimates [at] little or no cost,” he says, adding, “It’s free money—why would you not consult with a professional? It’s absolutely the smartest way to do it.” He continues, “If the lab is to remain in operation during the renovations, engaging with a construction manager is critical to define logistics and work-around plans to renovate and continue lab operations.”

Related Article: Ventilation Concerns When Renovating the Occupied Lab

Project teams can use a RACI matrix to define each team member’s role and help others understand what their colleagues are responsible for in an occupied lab renovation project.
Columbia Construction

Once the lab management team knows who they’ll be working with to renovate their facility, a sit-down meeting (whether in-person or virtual) should be planned right away. “Identify early on the roles and responsibilities of each player on the lab and project team. Engage both teams in a project goals kickoff meeting, so everyone knows the desired result, identify what is important and what is not important for the project,” says Sayles. “Lab operations will be shared with the project team so that all parties have a roadmap of what the current operations entail. Understanding the lab operation constraints allows the project team to prepare work-around plans to keep operations up and running. This kickoff meeting helps to develop a relationship between the two teams and ultimately makes the project a success.”

Sayles adds that his team uses a RACI matrix (RACI stands for responsible, accountable, consulted, and informed) to help everyone understand the roles of their fellow team members during the design and construction phases of a lab project. The RACI matrix is a chart of important activities or decisions that the team anticipates for a project, and it outlines roles and responsibilities of each team member for the activity. The goal of the RACI matrix is to prevent any ambiguity in the decision-making process.

Lab managers should come to this kickoff meeting prepared with the necessary information for the project team to effectively do their jobs. When talking to their lab staff about their “wish list” items for a renovation, it’s important for a lab manager to keep expectations reasonable, and properly communicate these requests to the design/build team to come up with a plan that’s truly feasible. The lab manager also needs to be ready to provide the required completion dates and the budget to the project team, along with a thorough understanding of the current status of the lab’s design plan so that appropriate modifications can be planned. There also needs to be a list of any specialty equipment that will be installed as part of the renovation, along with product-specific cut sheets, design criteria, and the lead times of such equipment.

“The lab manager should openly discuss the reason for the proposed renovations from a business standpoint, so the project team approaches the project [in] a more efficient manner. Understanding the end game is critical to reduce inefficiencies,” says Sayles. “The reason being is that some companies only want to spend money to get a business ready to be sold; others may better function in a limited space.”

A good, solid team with a lab manager that understands their operations and understands the interface between the design team and the construction manager, says Sayles, is vital to a successful lab renovation project. He cautions against the “try it yourself at home” approach and instead stresses that lab management needs to communicate with qualified professionals to get the job done right. “Lab people are great at science, and we’re great at construction, and neither of us are great at both,” he laughs, “so we should work together to make it happen.”