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Purpose-Built Lab versus Renovation: How to Decide

Five key factors to determine if building a new space or converting an existing one is the right choice for your lab


Liz Chen is a lab planner at HGA's San Diego office and specializes in transforming underutilized vacant offices or corporate campuses into life science uses via her creative asset repurposing...

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Labs are where scientific discoveries are made and the future of medicine is tested and developed. The exponential demand for highly functional and artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled lab spaces compounded by the post-pandemic effect across the country—either transformed from the existing blueprints or new ground-ups—will have profound impacts on our nation’s strategic life science ecosystem.

This article devotes to unfolding three essential questions in office-lab conversion and lab planning:      

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  1. Which is the right one for you: Ground-up, purposely built lab versus repurposed lab for life science use?  
  2. How do you select the right design team to create a state-of-the-art lab to accelerate your R&D breakthrough? 
  3. What should you anticipate when working with the design team you chose?
    Figure 1. Comparative analysis of two distinctive life science real estate assets
     Comparative analysis of two distinctive life science real estate assets
    Credit: HGA Knowledge Archive: Lab Planning and Programming. Edited by Liz Chen

Ground-up versus repurposed

What are the favorable attributes in converting an existing space into life science uses? The following are the distinctive advantages/ disadvantages and underlying uncertainties. 

Schedule. Both ground-up and repurposed labs follow a standardized design-(bid)-build process from team assembly, planning, design, and build. Lab repurposing often has a faster turnaround time: around 12-18 months to bring the defined functionality to action. In contrast, ground-up labs in general take around 18-36 months, sometimes longer. The difference results from the fact that the physical building has already existed, which by default would encounter fewer construction activities.

Cost. Repurposed labs typically save 50 percent or more of the construction cost since site utilities, architecture and structure, and MEP systems have already been installed, unless a mandatory upgrade is unavoidable. 

Location. It is common to see a virtuous dependency between site selection and access to the talent pool. Life science companies have access to a pool of talents from renowned universities and institutions. Scientific researchers benefit from close collaboration. From corporate strategy and investment perspectives, it is sensible to repurpose an existing space located within the cluster than hunt for buildable land for a ground-up lab.

Tenant-occupied while constructing. The five main construction phases include planning and design, pre-construction, procurement, construction, and post-construction. In the construction phase, if the existing building is (partially) occupied by tenants, a delay is likely to occur due to workaround. It is common to experience this scenario in the conversion process. 

Documentation. Unclear, unreliable, obsolete, or unavailable documentation of the existing, as-built status often translates into a bottleneck and delay while analyzing the constructability as these documents comprise fundamental information. Existing offices constructed before the 1990s usually have hand-written drawings. Fade, blur, smear, and clerical errors can mislead the design team’s judgment of the conversion feasibility. 

Evaluating these pros and cons will help streamline your decision-making process and identify what inconveniences and challenges are manageable for your team, and what is non-negotiable.

Selecting the right team

Once you’ve made the decision between new build versus repurposed space, the next decision is sourcing the right partners to bring the vision to life. A well-seasoned and disciplined team is imperative to fulfill growing business needs and create efficient lab space to empower research and scientific breakthroughs. Major considerations that can decide a project’s success and efficiency include: 

User-centric (tenant-centric) mindset. The design team exhibits a user-centric mind through actions and keen awareness of user requirements, test-fit iterations, and create a responsive mechanism to meet the user’s needs. The team should maintain close collaboration with the end users from the project delivery to handover. Once again, shareholder engagement and consensus development are incremental steps to pave for project success. 

Technical expertise. The expertise includes:

a) the preliminary ability to decipher conversion feasibility and constructability to meticulously customize scientific use. The nuisance is relatively intricate and time consuming as thousands of tabs and equipment descriptions are in a spreadsheet, all with unique attributes and compatibilities. 

b) interdisciplinary knowledge in architecture, building code, life science, lab, healthcare, high-tech, sustainability, MEP engineering, a combination of STEM, construction, computational rendering, data visualization, project management (cost, schedule, scope, risk, quality, communication, resource, stakeholders, leadership, etc.), market dynamics, social impact, writing, etc. 

c) Creative design thinking is indispensable to fulfill craftsmanship lab design, programming, and repurposing.

Integrated design approach. The design team is the gatekeeper to incorporate client-specific design and sustainable standards, review the drawings and specifications for adherence to code compliance and reference standard, and apply lean six sigma and best practices for desirable outcomes. Meanwhile, the team should consistently manage and monitor project checklists and benchmark deliverables to ensure the construction outputs match the defined design. 

What to expect when working with a lab design team    

Seven stages of deliverables in lab planning and programming.
Seven stages of deliverables in lab planning and programming.
Credit: HGA Knowledge Archive: Lab Planning and Programming. Edited by Liz Chen

During the lab design process, lab managers should anticipate the following progress in these stages led by the design team. In the meantime, lab managers should inform, suggest, review, and approve the set of design drawings and documents prepared by the team.

Programming and pre-design. Shareholders attend the kick-off meeting to confirm goals and vision, lab planning and programming requirements, sustainability, budget, schedule, and scope. The team should perform site analysis, present feasibility and constructability analysis, and develop Detailed Project Program, room criteria, and adjacencies.

Conceptual design. The team solidifies the design objective and approach, develops massing studies and design concepts, conducts initial goal-setting sustainability workshop and energy-saving goals, performs preliminary agency review, conducts preliminary cost analysis, and prepares Basis of Design and concept design.

Schematic design. The team develops the preferred design option selected at the end of the conceptual design phase and gathers the final decision on major design components with the project owner.

A well-seasoned and disciplined team is imperative to fulfill growing business needs and create efficient lab space to empower research and scientific breakthroughs.

Design development. The project team further develops design drawings. Project architects, lab planners, general contractors (GC), and associated consultants review the design of various building systems and confirm the satisfaction of user requirements. The team engages with the GC to optimize constructability and manage construction costs. 

Construction documents. The team produces the construction documents on drawings and specifications to obtain permits for construction and ensure the satisfaction of project objectives. The team also performs a quality control function and Guaranteed Maximum Price with the GC.

Bidding/permits. The team provides bidding support with the GC while managing and monitoring the permitting process.

Construction administration. The team provides construction administration services, such as reviewing shop drawings, answering Request for Information, performing periodic construction observations to ensure the built conditions match the design, and finally consulting with the end user for project handover and completion.

In essence, the article invites lab managers to pay attention to three preliminary aspects: selection of life science real estate, selection of lab planning and design partner, and the process of working together to ensure project success. Meanwhile, lab managers should factor in other critical elements that are attributed to project viability and success. Other elements include but are not limited to value engineering, quality assurance, strategies of identifying long lead items to avoid supply shortage or work layover, and conditionally reusing and recycling existing materials.