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Short-Term Solutions for Research University Lab Space Shortages

Stop-gap solutions allow PIs to get the ball rolling while waiting for more permanent lab assignments

by Mark A. Sullivan, AIA, LEED AP
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Medical research science at universities continues to see robust growth. According to the National Science Foundation, R&D expenditures by institutions of higher education in the U.S. topped $83 billion in fiscal year 2019, with life sciences accounting for over $48 billion, nearly 60 percent of that total. In 2020 total expenditures by research universities grew to over $86 billion, more than $49 billion for life sciences—representing a decrease in year-over-year growth that is pretty easy to chalk up to the pandemic and related lockdowns on campuses nationwide (5.3 percent in 2019 versus 3.3 percent in 2020).

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This being the case, why do universities regularly place new faculty with exciting new research projects on wait-lists for lab space? Facilities and real estate consultants who work in the higher education realm will be familiar with this dilemma from conversations with science department administrators, campus facilities directors and other institutional leaders. Equity-stake agreements, licensing, merchandizing, and other types of financial arrangements often result in revenue that exceeds initial investments by more than eight percent. Yet research universities regularly face shortages of operational wet labs, resulting in new PIs waiting up to eight months or more.

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There is no upside: delays in research project starts only create delays in the cycle of discovery and breakthrough science, and make it possible for teams with competing research to gain the advantage of a head start. Forward motion is critical to obtaining the rewards that keep a research university funded, and the results that make it competitive.

Research universities need short-term solutions that will help new teams get to work right away. New construction is expensive and typically takes too long to keep up with the rate of growth in both engineering and the life sciences. Depending on an institution’s location, its facilities portfolio, and the demands of the types of research needing to be placed, an aggressive, creative approach involving experienced consultants such as architects and lab equipment specialists can produce stop-gap solutions that allow a PI to get the ball rolling while waiting for a more permanent lab assignment.

On-campus options

For some limited number of universities there may be available space on campus that can be adapted for scientific research use. The major obstacle is the facility’s infrastructure—i.e., whether it is robust enough to support ventilation, power and data requirements. But location is also a concern.

Avoid the core. Buildings in the central campus quad are often the oldest ones on campus, sometimes historic, making them hard to update for non-academic and non-residential purposes without major interventions. Also, these buildings are usually fully utilized, with students relying on them for well-defined uses often as old as the institution itself. The best opportunities are most likely found on the campus periphery, where buildings may be underutilized or have a more fungible mission.

Find cost-effective space. Since life sciences and chemistry labs need to vent air from fume hoods over wet benches, facilities on the campus fringe are ideal because of the distance from dense concentrations of the student and faculty population. The next most important criterium is whether it will be cost-effective to adapt them for research. Underutilized buildings that have kitchens or similarly infrastructure-intensive programs are often good targets, because they offer a head-start in meeting ventilation requirements. Likewise, spaces with high ceilings will more easily accommodate specialized equipment and allow for easier installation of ductwork and other infrastructure. There are also a number of manufacturers producing modular laboratory inserts that make adapting spaces easier.

Consider pre-fab. The cost-benefit analysis for getting research projects on track being promising, some universities may consider building on vacant land when repurposing existing facilities is not an option. Architects can work with science departments and facilities teams to produce cost-effective solutions for robust, free-standing flexible-use labs employing pre-fabricated construction technology. Solutions of this kind are effective enough to be commonplace, and have even been integrated into larger projects like Yale’s latest science building by Pelli Clarke Pelli. They also offer predictable outcomes, making investments in this approach a reasonably safe bet.

Looking off-campus

The potential return on investment may compel some decisionmakers to consider leasing lab space in commercial properties in surrounding areas. However, even in municipalities that are considered research science hubs the options may be limited or in too high demand to be reasonably priced. For those who still want to shrink their backlogs and waitlists and get PIs settled into working wet labs, it may be time to get creative.

Shell space. Some commercial properties have space that offers little more than walls and a ceiling, literally just the shell. These can be very affordable rentals and offer an opportunity to build lab interiors to suit—or install modular labs, which will speed up the process. Not every space of this kind occupies a building in a jurisdiction that allows life science or chemistry uses, and of course the infrastructure needs to be robust enough to support research.

Office rentals. Many cities and towns nationwide have low-rise office properties, probably built in the 1980s, that are now underperforming or even empty. Owners of these properties may be very interested in the prospect of eliminating vacancies and open to discussing how the building could be gutted and renovated to serve as spec lab space, especially if the university science department is likely to become a long-term tenant. The downside is that labs will certainly need better infrastructure than an office building will have, which means upgrades will be needed. Another possible impediment: ceiling heights in office buildings may be impractically low for lab applications.

Shopping centers. While “main street” corridors in town centers have the same challenge as campus cores—too close to lots of people—shopping centers in drivable locations are another story. That aging strip mall with multiple vacancies may represent an opportunity for quick conversion to use for life science research, depending on ceiling heights and other factors. Large shopping malls present opportunities, also. While the distance to campus may be greater than desired, a former department store venue in a dying mall will have tons of available square footage, high ceilings, and centralized HVAC. Malls nationwide are already seeing healthcare providers move in, which indicates the cost to adapt is approachable and suggests potential synergies.

Some specialized research may have to wait for a dedicated lab facility. Consider an animal research project involving a mosquito population as the subject—the research will likely require a sealed environment to preserve project and data integrity. But conventional wet lab research projects should get off the wait list as soon as possible.

Whatever approach the university decides to take, the key is to move quickly and get new research projects and their PIs moving in the direction of breakthroughs. To accelerate the process, it’s critical to engage experienced consultants and designers who have a track record of bringing building owners, university leaders, approval-granting authorities and other stakeholders together to find those win-win solutions.

Mark A. Sullivan, AIA, LEED AP, has over 30 years of experience in commercial, institutional, residential, hospitality, and government projects. With JZA+D since 2013, he previously worked with Michael Graves & Associates and Hillier Architecture. Design and project management work includes multiple renovations and on-the-boards projects at Princeton University, the Mitchell Physics Buildings at Texas A&M University, Sprint World Headquarters Campus in Overland Park, Kansas, and the SmithKline Beecham World Master Plan, among many. Mark spoke on “Addressing the Lab Space Shortage at Research Universities” at Lab Manager’s 2023 Academic Lab Management Digital Summit.