Making Life Sciences Work in Commercial Spaces

This article is included in the Great Things: Issue 4 edition of the DPR Newsletter.

piping in a life sciences facility
Courtesy of Amy Edwards, New Image Studio

Repurposing vacant commercial spaces—ranging from warehouses to offices—to suit the needs for pharmaceutical research and development (R&D) or production seems like a win-win for property owners and life sciences organizations. Commercial facilities, though, often need specific and sometimes significant upgrades to accommodate life sciences firms.

“It’s similar to how warehouse spaces need a lot of upgrades to house data centers,” said Dave Ross, one of DPR Construction’s life sciences experts. “It’s tempting to think these facilities are plug-and-play, but both life sciences firms and commercial owners need to consider some things to affordably make these facilities a great match for pharma.”

Life sciences customers should consider how much work is needed to get a former commercial space ready for the intensive systems of their manufacturing and research facilities. Similarly, commercial property owners should look at their assets and determine if it makes sense to upgrade spaces to make them more attractive to life sciences buyers.

interior life sciences facility
High bay tilt-up buildings typically work better for converting to cGMP manufacturing space. Courtesy of Amy Edwards, New Image Studio

Research vs. Manufacturing

How the space will be used—whether for manufacturing or research—needs to be determined upfront.

“Typical commercial office buildings are generally not well suited for conversion into biotech cGMP manufacturing facilities. They typically work better for R&D conversion.” said DPR’s Scott Strom, also a life sciences expert. “Conversely, high bay tilt-up buildings typically work better for cGMP manufacturing. They can also work for an R&D lab, but not as efficiently.”

Strom recommends an ordered assessment of existing building conversion potential. First, consider the bones of the building and site considerations.

“This is the first essential hurdle to clear, where the buildings floor to floor height, structural loading, type of construction, fire rating, and space availability for larger MEP systems are assessed,” added Strom. “If they do not meet the more robust requirements of a lab or manufacturing program, the building is typically not a good candidate. Work-arounds do exist, however they often lead to a building being viewed as a Class B or C option in the market.”

Second, look for any second-generation space benefits to the building in question. Among many considerations are if the current HVAC system is sufficient for the office portion of a Life Sciences facility, or if existing primary electric infrastructure can be maintained and expanded.

How’s the Floor?

Height and number of floors is another critical factor. For manufacturing, an existing building with a larger footprint and only a couple of floors is typically best. For R&D, low to mid-rise solutions are easier to convert than high-rise buildings. Life Sciences buildings require high air flow and large ductwork so taller floor-to-floor heights are preferred.

“No one likes an empty asset, but if an owner or a pharmaceutical firm does the back-of-the-envelope math, the wrong floor-to-floor height might not make sense for either of their purposes,” said Ross.

Even with proper floor-to-floor height, floor fire ratings must often be upgraded to accommodate higher chemical inventories required for either R&D or manufacturing requirements, maintaining fire barrier separation of exhaust systems serving each chemical control area creates many challenges.

But it is possible to work around those challenges with the right team in place when design begins.

virtual model of office spaces
On a recent life sciences conversion project, shown in this trade coordination model, DPR encountered a challenge with overhead congestion between the first level ceiling and the second level structural steel. The project team had to get creative to work around the limited overhead space and structural load limitations.

How’s the Roof?

For almost all life sciences uses, the building roof structure’s ability to hold a higher live load is important.

“Many existing commercial-use spaces have simple roof designs,” Ross said. “A life sciences manufacturer might need to put a dozen air handlers and exhaust fans on the roof. We had one customer spend more money on roof structure upgrades than on process pipe, for instance.”

It is recommended that property owners invest in a structural analysis early on in their due diligence. Upgrading the roof can have a domino effect on many of the rest of the structure’s lateral force resisting design elements.

Service Yard Space

Many buildings do not provide sufficient areas for bulk gas tank deliveries, emergency generators, and other needed systems.

“At the very least, anything the owner of an asset can do to facilitate this is going to be in an advantageous position for life sciences customers,” Ross said. But the considerations extend to the end user, too.

“Recently, in Florida, a life sciences customer realized that, until they really settled on what they were producing in the building, they didn’t really know if they had enough space outside the building,” Ross said. “Size is what people usually look at, but suitability is the bigger issue. Every site is different. Sometimes you can solve it by building above rather than beside, but more space can mean more flexibility.”

“Ultimately, there are a lot of ways to make these conversions work,” Ross said. “It’s more that all parties need to go in with their eyes open, work closely with design and construction partners even before the papers are signed and even educate commercial owners on how to make their assets more attractive to potential buyers or tenants.”