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Exterior of the Stieff Silver Foundry Building
The existing 1924 Stieff Silver Foundry Building, which was retrofitted into a sophisticated materials characterization and processing lab facility for Johns Hopkins University's Whiting School of Engineering in Baltimore.
Credit: Page Southern Page, Inc.

Lab Retrofits Breathe New Life into Unique Spaces

Turning an interesting building into a laboratory comes with challenges but can save time and money

MaryBeth DiDonna

MaryBeth DiDonna is managing editor, events for Lab Manager. She organizes and moderates the webinars and virtual conferences for Lab Manager as well as other LMG brands, enabling industry...

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The growth of the life sciences industry means that available space for new labs can be scarce. One solution is to use existing buildings for labs, which saves time and resources and preserves existing sites with cultural or aesthetic value. A common strategy is to convert former office space into laboratories, such as the Elm City Bioscience Center, a project that transformed an underutilized office building into a biotech hub in downtown New Haven, CT.

However, historical sites and unique buildings have also found new life as research space. An example is the Materials Characterization and Processing Facility at Johns Hopkins University’s Whiting School of Engineering in Baltimore, MD. The school met with design architect/lab planner Page Southerland Page, Inc. in 2018 to discuss retrofitting the Stieff Silver Building, constructed in 1924 as a foundry for the Stieff Silver Company and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The lab, officially occupied in December 2022, is poised to become the most sophisticated facility in the mid-Atlantic for the processing and characterization of materials. The project earned Honorable Mention—Innovation in Lab Manager’s 2023 Design Excellence Awards.  

Unique retrofits offer an attractive solution to lab users and project teams who may not have the time, budget, or desire to develop an entirely new building. Plus they provide an interesting backstory for a lab—and maybe a cool look! But this solution doesn’t work in all situations. Learn more about how to determine if a unique site can be retrofitted as a lab and the challenges that may arise along the way. 

Getting started on a retrofit project

Before beginning a retrofit project, project teams first need to determine if their unique site is even suitable for a lab retrofit. The building needs to be evaluated for its potential to support lab activities. Labs, on average, require far more energy and water than other facilities—therefore, it’s important to consider whether a unique retrofit candidate already has (or can be outfitted with) the structural features and specifications required by the labs it will eventually house. Access to power must be taken into account, along with the strength of the floors to support heavy lab equipment. One of the main factors that project teams look for is the space to accommodate large lab equipment and overhead services. “Typically, floor-to-floor height is an early indicator of the limitations that may be faced for systems that need to be installed above the visible ceiling, such as fresh air/dedicated exhaust systems,” says Alana Konefal, AIA, associate principal with Svigals + Partners in New Haven, CT, who also mentions that elevator sizes and delivery locations are important factors to consider. “The building’s location also is considered early on, as the site must be attractive to appropriate tenants, ‘the right fit’ for the neighborhood, and of course, comply with zoning regulations and other regulatory requirements,” adds Konefal. 

Fred Hutch building
The Steam Plant on Seattle's Lake Union housed the Union Seattle Light and Power public utility from 1914 to 1987, and served as a biotech/pharma company's headquarters until 2016. Today it houses the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center.
Credit: Doug J. Scott

Lab managers and facility owners who are interested in establishing a lab in a unique building should start their project by consulting with an architect or lab planner (or both) who are already well-versed in renovation and retrofit projects. “An architectural lab planner is usually a good starting point because they usually can connect them with the engineers,” says Katie Courtney, AIA, LEED AP, associate vice president with CannonDesign in Boston, MA. A mechanical engineer is also a wise choice, she says, because “The engineering trades usually have a good handle on mechanical, electrical, and plumbing. If they're experienced in doing lab renovations, they can give you the base requirements.” 

Konefal agrees. “The hybrid—architectural lab planner—is the best partner for a lab or facility manager to discuss the project needs with first. It’s important for the design team to be aware of such intricacies of lab design and to have the expertise to understand how such needs will coordinate with the building and remain in compliance with building codes, while creating a space that allows for efficient workflow to support highly intricate research in a safe and inspiring environment,” she says. 

“The right architects should ideally have an interdisciplinary team of design skill and technical capability. Experience in renovation and repositioning of various building types is a must since each construction type and vintage has a unique set of challenges,” says Alvaro Ribeiro, AIA, senior architect with Margulies Perruzzi in Boston, MA. “For example, the lightweight steel joist floor loading and less-than-stellar floor-to-floor height of a 1980s office building will have characteristics that need different solutions to overcome than, say, a two-way waffle slab, 1920s-era commercial building with an inherently stronger structure. Ideally, choosing a team with proven experience in a building with similar construction to the project under consideration is essential.”

Those looking to establish a lab facility in a non-lab building can find their project team through several resources, says Courtney. She suggests researching experts who speak at trade conferences and relying on word of mouth from researchers in similar fields. However, she adds that an architect’s experience in renovations, as well as in the specific research or scientific field in question, is generally the most valuable method.  

“What you want to know more about when you're looking for an architect is what kind of research and labs they have worked on, because the [...] types of research can be so different,” says Courtney. “I think it's more important to be working with somebody who's experienced in renovations versus new buildings and the type of science that you're working in. Because if you're experienced in renovations, you're kind of looking for the same things, whether it's a unique retrofit or it's a lab building already.” 

Making plans with lab management

When lab managers and facility owners meet with a project team to discuss a unique retrofit, all parties need to come to the table prepared with vital information. The design team needs to understand the specific type of work that will be conducted in the labs, how many staff members need to be accommodated, and what kinds of chemicals and equipment will be present. For a retrofit project, it’s also important to supply details about the history of the space. “Another simple but almost always overlooked task is recordkeeping of as-built drawings of past projects. This information is critical to the design team and, if available, can save significant time in the schedule. Recreating this information from extensive field surveys is inefficient and time-consuming,” says Ribeiro. 

Interior of Elm City Bioscence Center lab
The Elm City Bioscience Center, formerly an underutilized office building in downtown New Haven, CT, now stands as a biotech hub with more than 100,000 square feet of potential space for start-up biotech companies, including those at BSL-1 and BSL-2 levels.
Credit: Woodruff Brown Photography, courtesy Svigals + Partners

Lab managers often consult their staff when planning a new or renovated lab to make sure that everyone has what they need. However, time, budget, and practicality can all determine what makes it into the final plan. It’s important to involve team members who can give a realistic cost estimate. “Working with a construction manager who can provide valuable insight to costs is vital. Budget and/or schedule are two big drivers for any project. However, if the proposed scope does not fit within the budget, compromises in scope become easier to identify. This give-and-take between scope and budget is valuable feedback that clients need to drive major design decisions,” says Ribeiro. 

There are many things to consider before committing to retrofitting a non-laboratory building into a modern, complex research facility. It can be an intimidating task, but explore your imagination before dismissing an interesting project. “Don't necessarily limit yourself,” Courtney says. “I think that there are a lot more creative things we can do. They're doing things now with heavy timber. We've even put lab buildings in terracotta tiles … which is very challenging … but you can do it. Test it out—you'd be surprised what you can use and where you can put it.”