Considerations for Typical Life Sciences Speculative Multistory Buildings for Lab Tenants

Considerations for Typical Life Sciences Speculative Multistory Buildings for Lab Tenants


Life sciences is a complex but burgeoning field. In 2019, it attracted 93% greater capital investment than the year before, and the Covid-19 pandemic only accelerated demand further. Developers specializing in this field garner higher rents and recession-resilient, long-term leases. Expect this to continue, as some reports indicate submarkets in states like California showing near zero percent vacancy and escalating rents as high as 25% year over year. The rapid growth trend isn’t limited to the West Coast, either. On the East Coast, there has been a significant increase in biotech companies coming to North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park lured by the draw of a talented workforce and cheaper land. The Triangle is listed fourth, behind Boston, San Francisco, and San Diego in Newmark’s 2021 Biotech Cluster Rankings.

However, running a life science project in an FDA-regulated environment presents myriad challenges. Success is tied to designing spaces suitable for specific life sciences applications. In addition, tenants often seek to minimize improvements, if possible, to reduce timeline to occupancy. With these and other realities in place, keep the following considerations in mind when developing and leasing space to a life science company for lab operations.

General Building Considerations

  • Multistory structures – If possible, keep buildings below five stories. Structures taller than four stories may be subject to chemical handling code restrictions.
  • Use of space – Areas are usually designed around 60% scientific/labs and 40% “other.” The latter includes offices, amenities, warehouse, storage, circulation, and utilities.
  • Clear height – Minimum 16-FT clear height between floors. In a typical lab, ceiling heights are at least 10 FT above the finished floor.
  • Exterior walls – Plan for full-height, low-E glazing along the entry facade. Maximize daylight on the other sides of the building.
  • Back-of-house elements – One side of the building should be back-of-house. Include an equipment yard sufficient to accommodate:
    • Shipping/receiving
    • Lab gas tank farms
    • Multiple generator areas
    • Fuel tanks and fueling capabilities
    • Boilers, chillers, and cooling towers
    • Dumpsters and chemical waste storage trailers
  • Loading docks – Include at least two loading docks with doors and shelters. Design a full-size, truck-height dock featuring a 35,000-lb dock leveler and another dock with a drive-in door. Reduce pest access with dock seals and locks.
  • Elevators – Create at least two separate elevator areas. One for people use, the other dedicated to freight. If possible, provide two freight elevators. One maximizes the efficiency of deliveries. The other allows for removal of both waste and hazardous materials.
  • Parking – For parking, plan on at least 2.5 spaces per 1,000 SF.

Critical HVAC Needs

Life sciences labs require robust HVAC systems with significant air exchange capabilities. Appeal to prospective tenants with these features:

  • Address MEP needs – Account for mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) requirements common to labs. Specify dedicated vertical shafts in the building’s core. Route specialty piping from systems sources.
  • Heavy equipment provisions – Locate heavy equipment and piping systems/sources on the ground floor. This is usually in or near the back of the house.
  • Roof fortification – Labs require HVAC systems capable of handling heavier loads. Plan for a minimum of 100 PSF per floor. Fortify a centralized roof area to accommodate the equipment. Specify hangers for ductwork, piping, conduits, etc.
  • HVAC air handlers – Protect rooftop HVAC air handlers with screening. Or, place them within a penthouse or mezzanine above the serviced areas. Consult local codes for HVAC screening requirements.
  • Electrical and cooling loads – The types of lab equipment and their densities vary. Anticipate increased electrical and cooling loads in lab areas. Typical electrical system sizing is 10-15 W/SF. Typical HVAC cooling system sizing is 150 to 195 SF/ton. Size HVAC equipment to deliver 10 to 12 air changes per hour using 100% outside air. Air re-circulation is acceptable for office spaces, non-classified support areas, and BSL-1 level areas.
  • HVAC zones – In general, zone labs separately. Provide dedicated temperature and humidity sensors for each. Zone labs together only if personnel and materials will move between the spaces. In that scenario, ensure common pressurization between adjacent areas.
  • Lab exhaust – Design ventilation systems so all lab exhaust is manifolded to a high plume exhaust fan. Specify N+1 resiliency. Provide independent exhaust systems to handle problematic emissions. For example, corrosive, flammable, or toxic materials governed by stringent standards.
Lab exhaust for problematic emissions picture

Additional Infrastructure Considerations

  • Standby power – Make generous provisions for standby/emergency power. Meet at least 50% of peak demand. 100% of peak demand is ideal. Provide a centralized uninterruptible power supply (UPS). It must provide 10-minute coverage for all lab equipment and data-driven electrical loads.
  • Backup generator – Provide the connections and wiring needed to support a rented backup generator. This unit must be capable of providing full building service. Also, include a high-performance grounding grid for sensitive equipment and controls.
  • Water mains – Extend water mains to support back-of-house utilities like USP purified water.
  • Wastewater – Extend wastewater systems to support extra underground connections. Wastewater permitting compliance often requires at least one monitoring manhole at the back-of-house. Manhole requirements vary per building configuration/operations. A life science tenant may also need a wastewater pH neutralization system.
  • Fire protection – Provide full coverage wet pipe fire protection (FP) systems. An addressable fire alarm system is a must.
  • Roofing – Specify 60-mil thermoplastic polyolefin (TPO) single-ply membrane roofing. Provide no less than R-20 insulation. R-30 insulation is better.
  • HVAC rooftop maintenance – Consider repairs, preventative maintenance, and filter changes. Include full-size stairs for proper roof access.
Half-height wall for lab tours
Photo courtesy of Clark Nexsen

If Lessor Provides Interior Finishes

There are also considerations when the owner/developer completes certain interior finishes.

  • Half-height corridor walls – Provide half-height storefront glazing along lab corridors. This makes it possible to see into lab areas.
  • Walk-in coolers/freezers – Specify a dedicated area for walk-in coolers/freezers. Anticipate the need for banks of -20° C and -80° C free-standing freezers. Install high-density, dedicated electric circuits with generator backup. Include remote monitoring capability for every freezer and cooler. Provide at least one data drop for each.
  • LED lighting  Use LED lighting throughout the building. Lighting systems should include both multi-mode switching and occupancy sensors.
  • Safety Considerations – Every lab must have emergency showers with combination eye washes. Install at least two sinks per lab. This makes it possible to separate clean and dirty workflows.
Key Takeaways

Every building project for lab tenants is unique. You may be developing a new greenfield facility, a reused lab building, or a repurposed non-lab building. The nature of each building will influence the design process. You might choose to dial back some of these requirements as you balance capital requirements with life sciences appeal and desired ROI.

The experts at 35 North are ready to help you maximize your budget and prepare your property for greatest impact to attract your next life science tenant. Contact us to learn more about our capabilities by reviewing our areas of expertise. We also invite you to browse our portfolio of projects.

35 North Director of Project Management Services Pablo Hernandez

Pablo Hernandez is the director of project management services for 35 North. He brings 25 years of practice in engineering, project management, and site operations in the compliance-focused life sciences industry.

Additional Contributing Authors: Christian Matthews, vice president of life sciences, Evans General Contractors.

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