The evolution of hybrid working has led to under-utilised offices, with landlords wanting to put the space to use. With life sciences also rapidly growing since the pandemic, the sector needs laboratories to support all stages of the life science value-chain including R&D, regulatory, pharmacovigilance, supply chain plus, sales and marketing.
Despite the continuing transformation and growth of life sciences, there is only a limited amount of real estate for laboratory space available. The demand for laboratory space across the ‘Golden Triangle’, formed of Oxford, Cambridge and London, currently far outweighs the supply. The vacancy rates for laboratory spaces are less than 1% in Cambridge and London, and 7% in Oxford*, which acts as a hindrance to the growing industry.
These two issues have been noticed and in a bid to solve them both, office to lab conversions seem to be a possible solution. They are growing in popularity, with British Land unveiling their plan earlier this year to transform Euston Tower in London into a life science hub.
Converting an office into a laboratory
There are several considerations that must be taken into account, due to certain specifications needed for labs that may not be provided by office spaces.
Maintaining a laboratory
Labs often need up to twice the electricity capacity as traditional offices. It’s important to bear in mind that increasing a power supply can be difficult and may take a prolonged period of time. Also, labs will require a backup power supply to ensure there is constant power for projects in case of an outage.
An office’s HVAC capability will also likely need upgrading. Laboratories typically have more air changes per hour than office buildings, and tend to have systems that use 100% outside air, whereas office buildings tend to recirculate air. Higher levels of air filtration can be needed, and there are also often cleanrooms within lab spaces. Cleanrooms maintain a very low concentration of airborne particulates and so there are tight regulations which office systems may not be able to offer.
Structure: how to set up a laboratory
Laboratories tend to need a greater floor-to-floor height than offices, due to the type and size of equipment used. This could be an issue as some larger-scale equipment may require additional headroom, meaning that raised ceilings may be necessary. Furthermore, it is important to take into account floor loading, as some of the equipment used in labs can exceed the floor loads that offices tend to be designed to take. Therefore, increased structural load bearings may be needed.
The necessary alterations that may need to be made have become more achievable due to recent changes in the law, meaning that both offices and labs now fall under Use Class E and so planning permission is not needed for conversion. However, planning permission may still be needed for some of the many alterations required, for example risers as mentioned above.
Talent acquisition and retention
Aside from the main lab space, wellbeing facilities are also important. Scientists work in controlled environments, so amenities such as showers, breakout areas and roof terraces will be highly sought after. Due to the fact that it is an ever-growing industry, labs will be keen to attract talented employees and the increasing competition therefore means that lab spaces must be of a high standard. Many office buildings may already provide the appropriate amenities, therefore making it an appealing space for laboratories.
The next steps
Converting an office into a fully functioning laboratory is a complex process but provides an opportunity for life science developers to create flexible and adaptable research spaces that supports maturing technologies and scientific breakthroughs. There is also a financial benefit to converting vacant or cheaper offices into labs.
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