How to Meet the Demand for Lab Space Through Office Conversions

Across the United States there is a growing demand for lab space which, in the last six months, has been heightened significantly by the ongoing global pandemic. In many markets this demand has exceeded the current inventory of available lab space, leading to the trend of building owners and developers exploring the option of converting existing commercial/office buildings to provide a much-needed solution.

As one of the largest life sciences builders in the United States, and as a vertically integrated construction management and commercial development firm, Skanska is often asked about the biggest differences between lab and office buildings and what factors must be considered when studying the feasibility of such a conversion. When answering this question, there are three key factors to consider:

Column spacing, floor-to-floor height and depth of structure

The current trend in lab design is to utilize modules that are approximately 11 feet long. Three modules are placed end to end within a 33-foot column bay. In lab buildings we generally do not want to see column spacing greater than 33 feet as we must be cognizant of the vibration criteria required for the use of benchtop microscopes and lasers. The greater the span, the greater the vibration within the structure. Many lab buildings also have a deeper structural framing system at every floor level to stiffen the structure and reduce vibration when compared to a typical office building. This does not mean office buildings cannot be utilized for lab space; it just means that based on the type of work being performed in the lab, localized stiffening of the structure may be required. 

In addition, the floor-to-floor height in lab buildings is generally greater than the floor-to-floor height in office buildings. It is ideal to have 30 to 36 inches of space in your ceiling cavity for a lab space - especially if the lab will be utilizing fume hoods.

Increased space for mechanical systems

Typical office buildings also tend to have much smaller mechanical systems than lab buildings. These systems occupy less space within the building and usually include dedicated mechanical rooms, the space above ceilings and the vertical shafts throughout the building. Lab buildings will require much more mechanical space to house all of the necessary specialized equipment. One key difference to note is that tenants of lab buildings often pay rent on the space that occupies mechanical equipment within the building which is typically not customary in office buildings.

Furthermore, lab buildings generally employ an HVAC system that uses 100 percent outside air and exhausts all air out of the building once it has passed through the space. Modern lab buildings also have heat recovery systems to capture the heat from the exhaust air before it leaves the building to help temper the incoming outside air to save energy. In comparison, office buildings recirculate much of the air within the building, and most have far less air changes per hour versus lab buildings.

Increased electrical requirements and emergency power

Due to the addition and increased size of the mechanical and lab equipment required for a lab building, there is a significant increase in the energy consumed by this building type. The existing electrical infrastructure feeding an office building considering a conversion to lab may be inadequate and need to be replaced or supplemented. In addition, many office buildings have an emergency power system that is sized to provide power to safety systems and emergency lighting only. Most lab tenants will require an emergency power system that will keep all of their equipment and critical experiments powered and unharmed during the loss of normal power. Adding a large emergency generator to the roof of a mid-rise or high-rise building in an urban area could be more challenging than in a suburban location with low-rise buildings where there is usually plenty of space on the roof or adjacent to the building at ground level.

Key Takeaways

We recognize that converting an office building to lab is not a one size fits all process. There are countless different scenarios and types of lab spaces that have unique, specified requirements. Working with a partner like Skanska early on to understand the complexities and key conversion points of a given building will help reduce stress and the potential for errors (which can be cost and time draining). Armed with this crucial knowledge around the key attributes of their buildings, developers can then market their spaces to maximize the potential of their facilities and attract the clients they hope to secure in any market.

Last updated: 10/1/2020