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How Architects Are Innovating Life Science Buildings

Researchers in protective suits at work in a laboratory

Hufton + Crow Photography

The life sciences sector has grown exponentially over the last decade. Research centers and labs have collected billions of dollars in investments for new projects, new employees, and new equipment.

What’s been lacking until now is the lab and office space necessary to keep the sector moving forward. How are architects innovating in the field of life science buildings?

Adapting Existing Spaces

There is a growing need for life sciences buildings, and a lack of new construction spaces makes it more challenging to keep up with demand. In many cases, architects have turned their focus from new construction to adapting existing buildings into the perfect environment for life sciences labs.

In Pittsburgh, a former 1915 Ford assembly plant where the company assembled Model Ts is in the process of being reworked into a massive life sciences facility. Dubbed The Assembly, the building itself is six stories, covering more than 335,000 square feet.

The crane shed, where engineers could retrieve manufacturing material from train cars, will become a collaboration space that houses an open-air atrium. The goal here is to move away from lab space owned by the occupying company and create collaborative spaces where researchers can work alongside university partners.

Optimizing Workflows

It is up to the eventual tenant to decide where each piece of equipment will live in a lab space, but architects can help create spaces that optimize workflows. They can design spaces that offer plenty of electrical outlets, water pipes, or whatever the eventual tenant will need.

This way, they have all the necessary tools to design their lab in a way that helps them optimize their workflows without having to hop from one side of the room to the other.

 Interior of a research lab

Creating Efficient Workspaces

There is always the temptation to design these spaces to be more aesthetically pleasing than functional. Workbenches, especially those built into the lab structure, may not be the fanciest design. Their rectangular tops are quite dull, but excitement isn’t the goal here – efficiency and functionality are.

Worker comfort and function are again critical here. Premiere laboratory design should center the needs of researchers who may stand and work for several hours. Flooring optimized for shock absorption and comfort can ease weariness, natural light can help with productivity, and good airflow and HVAC systems can keep temperature comfortable.

Creating efficient workspaces, even in existing structures, makes it easier for researchers to finish their experiments without worrying about the struggles of working inside what amounts to a living art project

Simplicity and Adaptability

They say that even the best plan never survives contact with the enemy, and that phrase also applies to life science lab architecture. The lab might look perfect on paper, but they’ll immediately start changing things to suit their needs as soon as the tenants move in.

Adaptable and straightforward lab designs are the best way for architects to create spaces that researchers can realistically use and enjoy. This change can also make the areas accessible to different life science branches without significant renovations.

Creating Community Clusters

Gone are the days of researchers sequestering themselves in private labs, working away in secret. Life science lab clusters are beginning to gain popularity as researchers desire a more collaborative experience.

Like the ones in Boston and San Francisco, some of the biggest clusters play massive roles in drug development. The Assembly in Pittsburgh, mentioned above, hopes to be the foundation for another massive life science community cluster. This desire for a scientific community shapes how architects need to look at life science centers moving forward.

 Researchers in protective suits at work

Improving Existing Superstructure

Reworking existing structures and turning them into life science labs is a great way to repurpose unused spaces. Still, it is essential to analyze and, if necessary, improve the existing superstructure of the building.

Everyone loves the idea of vaulting ceilings or windows to provide natural light. Still, if the building can’t support the weight – literal or figurative – of the new tenants and their requirements, then it defeats the purpose of the structure in the first place.

Exploring Material Handling

Material handling is a large part of the operation of a life sciences laboratory – and it’s a feature that many buildings aren’t designed to handle. Labs need the tools to accept chemical deliveries and remove waste safely and efficiently. 

Architects can and should incorporate these features into new construction and existing space renovations to ensure researchers can carry out their daily tasks without putting themselves or others at risk.

Supporting Life Science Building Design Moving Forward

The life sciences sector will likely continue to grow tremendously in the coming years. Architects today should focus on creating new and exciting innovations they can use to keep the industry moving forward.


Author: Evelyn Long is the editor-in-chief of Renovated. Her work focuses on interior and architectural design and has been published by Build Magazine, the National Association of REALTORS and other online publications.