Leading a Lab Renovation

Leading a Lab Renovation

By Kerrie Julian, RA, LEED AP, CDT

This year will be one in which the life sciences market will moderate due to economic factors, even as it remains resilient, according to a December 2022 report by CBRE. New construction is forecast in the three top-tier markets: the San Francisco Bay Area, San Diego, and Boston-Cambridge. As part of the normalization process, the report cites that there will most likely be demand for multi-tenanted lab/R&D space in smaller geographic markets, and larger life sciences companies may be in acquisition or partnership mode with small but promising firms.

This bodes well for the industry and economy, spurring construction projects ranging from small-scale renovations of existing lab space to relocations driven by the need for increased square footage or a more customized environment. Because laboratory construction is expensive—a fit-out in an existing building in one of the top three U.S. life sciences markets can range from $300 to $650 per square foot versus $110 to $315 for typical office space—understanding how the process works will save time and money while realizing a finished product that accomplishes most, if not all, project objectives.

Existing Lab Renovation vs. New Space Fit-Out

Whether planning for renovations to your current leased space or considering new space at another location, the process is similar but not exactly the same. Here’s why.

Renovating or expanding in the same building in some ways may be simpler in that the building systems are known; a precedent has already been set for your lab equipment, layout, and ancillary space; and site search and lease negotiations are not required unless the expansion is into another area of the same building.  Factors to consider when planning this type of project include confirming that the program plan is code compliant; phasing the renovation so that the existing lab can remain safely operational during construction; verifying that new equipment will fit; and determining whether upgrades to existing mechanical, electrical, plumbing (MEP) and lab utility infrastructure are necessary to accommodate new equipment.

Aside from location, cost, and amenity considerations, a life sciences company looking for new space must also evaluate such factors as the availability of space on the lowest floors of a high-rise building for optimization of control areas; construction type classification; sprinkler and/or fire suppression systems; and the ability to comply with all applicable federal, state, and local laws, regulations, and ordinances. The new space search will ideally incorporate careful review of existing conditions such as floor-to-floor heights, sufficient building systems, and proof that the floors are rated to allow for separate control areas.  When the floors aren’t rated—this includes the gap often found at the perimeter of the building where the slab meets the building facade—there are alternatives. One is to upgrade the floors to create a two-hour rating. Another is to fill the perimeter gap with an approved fire safing assembly. Lastly to create a rated storage area on the first floor of the building. The latter, which takes advantage of the higher capacity of chemicals permitted to be stored at lower levels, allows chemicals to be transported to the lab when needed. Whatever the approach for control area strategy for the building, it should be clearly documented in your lease and discussed during lease negotiations. If you are planning to take more space than you currently need to sublease, be aware that your company is now the landlord, the control area strategy needs to be confirmed with your sub-tenant, and that if your science grows faster than originally anticipated, the space may not be available for you to reclaim due to contractual leases.

A Technical Process

Renovating an existing lab or fitting out space in a new location is a highly technical process that will synthesize key input from the life sciences end users and stakeholders to facilitate a functional design that is responsive to their immediate and future science needs. No matter what the renovation scenario is, the first step in the process is to determine how much and what type of space is needed, keeping in mind that it is the size of equipment, equivalent linear feet (ELF) of bench and types and amounts of chemicals to be used and stored are what will drive the design program.

During the pre-design phase known as programming, the architect or lab planner works with the client to establish the project goals and vision to better understand the proposed use of the space while analyzing the client’s program components—square footage, head count, equipment, adjacencies, furnishings, etc.—to determine if sufficient space has been allocated for each function. At this stage, all components and their interrelationships and adjacencies are verified, and program requirements such as major pieces of equipment, chemical usage, and control area strategy are confirmed. The client should be prepared to answer dozens of questions leading to this outcome, some general and some very specific. Examples include:

  1. How many employees should the space accommodate, now and in the future?
  2. What biosafety level will your lab require?
  3. What gases and/or utilities do you anticipate using in this lab?
  4. Do you prefer fixed casework or movable benches?
  5. What type of support spaces are required?
  6. What spaces or departments need to be adjacent or any that need to be segregated?
  7. Provide a list of the chemicals you plan to use in the lab with classifications and amounts.
  8. Provide a list of existing and proposed equipment for this project, including dimensions.

At the conclusion of programming, the architect or lab planner will produce a programming report summarizing their findings, with practical recommendations for optimum lab layouts. The report will include basic information such as total headcount, growth projections, and square footage requirements.  Also included will be a description of how the workspace should function, what equipment and furnishings will be retained from the existing workplace, if applicable, and/or replaced with new, and what should be avoided.

The next steps after programming are visioning and a preliminary layout, or test fit. The test fit takes all of the information gleaned during programming and translates it into graphic form. This provides the basis for the schematic design phase, which introduces early design concepts, floor plans, lighting plans, and incorporates an equipment matrix for coordination with mechanical and electrical loads and any required process utilities. It is not uncommon to perform a preliminary cost estimate near the end of this phase.

The design development phase crystallizes favored concepts established during schematic design and finalizes choices involving lighting, finishes, and color. It is at this point that a more accurate cost check can be performed, and the construction manager can prioritize long lead items for early purchase. With the recent supply chain issues, these may include rooftop mechanical equipment, generators, electrical panels or switchgears, lighting, cold rooms, and casework. The last two phases are construction documentation, which produces the final documents and specifications that will be submitted to the city or town for the construction permit, and construction administration, which is oversight of construction to make sure that the design is implemented as intended.

Perhaps the most challenging part of the renovation process is the relocation itself—no one enjoys packing and moving under any circumstances, and especially not when the transport of glassware, samples, reagents, instruments, and sensitive equipment are at stake. This is a job for a laboratory relocation specialist that will manage all facets of your move, including packing and unpacking, decommissioning equipment, establishing IT connections, security, and performing required compliance procedures, among other services. Specialized moving companies that have experience in laboratory moves and relocations are needed. They have the required electrical support to move freezers on their trucks and understand the sensitivity needed in a lab move. Some equipment, such as mass spectrometers and confocal microscopes need to be disassembled, crated, moved, and reassembled by the manufacturer to maintain warranties. Because transport of sensitive equipment can affect settings and performance, calibration and validation once reassembled are critical to the science readiness of the new lab. This needs to be managed appropriately and scheduled well in advance of the actual move.


There may be opportunities to accelerate the project schedule. This is most successfully done when the project team is aligned in their understanding of the client’s goals for the project. When the client is able to internally identify their goals and prioritize the design, the design team can leverage that information and incorporate it into the program for the space, focusing during programming on a finer level of detail that can save time in later phases.

Also, having access to accurate existing condition drawings for the building, including mechanical, electrical, plumbing, fire protection, and structural, provides the design team with more information about the base building and its existing infrastructure. This information is critical for lab and GMP design. The ability for the design team to include more information in drawings allows the contractor pricing the drawings to provide accurate pricing quicker than if there were unknowns during the design phase.

No matter what its size, scope, or location, a laboratory renovation is a highly specialized project and process that requires dedicated in-house and external teams to see it through to successful completion. Our best advice to all lab managers is twofold: plan ahead, and always incorporate maximum flexibility into the design, because no one truly knows what the future will hold.