by David McCullough
Identifying an appropriate leased property for a research laboratory can be a daunting task. Often decisions must be made quickly due to schedule and operational considerations, as well as the need to secure an available building before a competitor does. It is important to select carefully, as costly design or process modifications may be required, leading to renegotiation of leases and delays in business plans. This is the first of two articles detailing how thorough upfront planning results in faster move-in and start of operations and better long-term efficiencies. Fully understanding your requirements helps to expedite the search process. Below is a list of considerations to keep in mind when searching for a leased facility for your next lab.
Identify a Project Champion.
Appoint a project champion to manage the site/facility selection and evaluation process. Select an individual that possesses appropriate knowledge of your processes that can provide insights regarding not only current operations but will be able to assess building requirements for future operations as well to meet scaled up production requirements. The goal is to identify any “work arounds” that have been developed in response to existing facility conditions and not transfer them to the new facility.
Understand Exactly What You Need.
Searching for a new facility to house laboratory or production elements is best started by creating a Program of Requirements (POR). The POR defines required performance characteristics of each functional area of your laboratory. It is important to anticipate future requirements that could significantly impact building selection such as requirements for receiving and space to support product distribution requirements. The POR is a valuable tool that minimizes the risks associated with selecting a leased facility and helps avoid surprise cost overruns, schedule delays or long-term facility under-performance following occupancy. Consider hiring a specialized architect or lab planner with experience in your specific laboratory requirements to assist in the development of the POR. Do this before you begin your search. If you are planning to have multiple options for purposes of negotiating better lease terms, you will need to test that each property can meet your needs.
Ease of Adaptability.
Leased properties are often selected without sufficiently considering the difficulty of adapting them to laboratory needs. Location may be perfect, but supporting efficient operations is essential. In markets with high lab demand, suitable properties can be scarce and there is pressure to accept lower performance standards. Buildings optimized to maximize advertised leasable office area often are poorly configured for laboratory use and create a number of impediments to efficient use and workflow. Do not select a facility based on total square feet. Instead, consider how well the square footage can be efficiently utilized. Unfortunately, leaders make the mistake of not recognizing that spaces meeting office/desk space requirements often are poorly configured for the more demanding requirements of instrument/equipment space as well as warehouse and distribution requirements.
The Devil is in the Details.
Very few commercial properties are developed with laboratories in mind – even those facilities that advertise themselves as laboratory friendly. That is why it is critically important to investigate and assess a potential facility’s internal infrastructure that could impact operation and efficiencies including:
- Structural bay size – make sure bay width supports appropriate spacing of equipment, benches and anticipated process flows. Columns can be a serious impediment to efficient lab layouts or process flows relying on equipment.
- Material pathways to laboratories – check size and capacity of elevators to upper floors to ensure that equipment and hazardous materials can be delivered.
- Adjacencies – ensure there is adequate separation of access and systems from adjacent tenants in multi-tenant spaces.
- Loading dock size – ensure that the loading dock facilities are sized and can be configured appropriately to support the nature of the operations, including truck size, privacy and security, biosafety or other safety protocols.
- Roof structure – commercial office building roof systems are typically not designed to support the air handling equipment required to support laboratory operations and often need to be structurally reinforced.
- Sensitive equipment requirements – review the building’s structural system for the vibration sensitivity of proposed equipment and operations, including appropriate at-grade space if required.
- MEP considerations – potential for separation of MEP systems to provide containment and/or clean environments.
- Bulk supply capacity – ability to add bulk supplies such as cryogenic liquids if needed adjacent to space.
A pharmaceutical company initially considered a building based on its desirable location near to their headquarters and available square footage. The site was excellent, but ultimately it was rejected due to restrictions on the small, shared loading dock that could not be securely managed and the lack of an adequate elevator. All large equipment would have to be craned into the building over the life of operations and movement of supplies through the elevator would have to be scheduled to avoid conflicts with other users. It was not feasible to install an additional elevator due to the presence of other tenants. Failure to develop a Program of Requirements and facility criteria beyond desirable location and adequate square footage before selecting a site resulted in considerable loss of time before a new site could be located.
Consider another insight.
After a successful small-scale prototyping investment, a tech company needed to quickly find space to scale up their production line. A nearby single-occupant “lab-ready” building met initial estimates of square footage requirements and was desirably located. But the scope of the necessary laboratory resources in terms of sophistication and total area were significantly under-forecasted. After production goals and the scale of the anticipated ramp-up of activities were calculated, the required amount of lab area tripled. Fortunately, the building was large enough to accommodate the laboratory and production operation by locating some office functions elsewhere; however, the cleanroom portion of the program required a complete replacement of the MEP systems. None of the “lab-ready” aspects of the property touted during the initial search were retained. The initial property search was completed without understanding the actual needs of this expanding technology group. The leadership team relied too much on past activities without factoring in the needs to move the production to the next level of testing and development. The project was able to be completed with minimal delays, but not without considerable additional costs, including unanticipated infrastructure improvements and renegotiation of lease arrangements.
Navigating the Search.
The suggestions outlined above will help make the process of finding the right leased property location for your next lab facility successful. One of the most important elements is developing a Program of Requirements before beginning the search process which will be addressed in a follow up article.
David McCullough, AIA, PE, is Principal / Senior Lab Planner with Page. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202 909 4946.