Why flexible space is a major breakthrough in lab design

In the race to get new drugs from the research stages to pharmacy shelves, next generation lab space can be the catalyst for success.

April 03, 2018

Previously, reconfiguring pharmaceutical or biotech labs to develop new or improved remedies was time-consuming and expensive, but now that’s changing as life sciences companies increasingly eschew conventional lab design in favor of flexible spaces to keep up with the pace of innovation.

It’s part of a wider shift to shorten research and development (R&D) timelines and reduce costs as shifting research priorities force life sciences companies to rethink their established ways of working, according to JLL’s Journey to the Next Gen Lab report. Their challenge is considerable, given that return on R&D investment for large biopharmaceutical firms has declined significantly, from 10.1 percent in 2010 to 3.2 percent in 2017.

Every company’s game plan will be different, but speed and efficiency are key to get therapies to market faster than ever. And that means lab reconfigurations have to happen faster than ever, too.

“Cost pressures and the need to shorten the product pipeline are changing the definition of a desirable laboratory facility,” says Roger Humphrey, Executive Managing Director and leader of JLL’s Life Sciences group. “In addition to state-of-the-art equipment and technology, and amenities that will appeal to top talent, modern lab space needs to be dynamic and built to accommodate change.”

A close-up on flexible lab space

In a flexible lab space, scientists can get faster results, in large part because they can initiate new studies faster without having to wait for major renovations. More flexible design can also help companies navigate the current shortage of suitable lab space in many U.S. markets. As an added benefit, when lab spaces can be re-arranged on demand, they support more engagement and collaboration between researchers, and make a facility more appealing to talent.

“Changes in design and configuration are allowing scientists to transform lab spaces to meet their needs and easily move heavy equipment,” says Humphrey. “It’s in the interest of both life sciences companies and their employees to be able to quickly shift layouts and support faster timelines of discovery.”

Flexible design elements can include placing electrical cords on retractable coils hung from the ceiling to enable ease of movement; placing technical infrastructure behind a façade to open up the space for the researchers using it; and adding thick floor slabs in corridors that allow heavy equipment to be moved multiple times without damaging the floor.

Space configuration is changing too, with a shift from dedicated lab benches and offices to unassigned spaces that can be claimed on an as-needed basis, and labs on lower floors for easier in-and-out access in off hours to facilitate flexible working patterns.

Forward-looking developers are already beginning to incorporate flexible features, creating laboratories with plug-and-play research equipment, moveable workbenches and multiple access points for utilities to accommodate different kinds of research.

Boston’s iSQ Seaport, for example, has 35,000 square feet of highly flexible floor plates in development. Designed to accommodate 60 percent lab and 40 percent office space, the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system is specifically structured to include additional shaft space for tenant expansion and exhaust risers.

New York City’s plan for a $100 million Applied Life Sciences Hub is also prizing? flexibility. It is looking for expansion space to be built into the hub, specifically to accommodate growth-stage life sciences companies through customizable wet labs and associated office space.

Agile lab space is here to stay

Looking ahead, there’s another key reason life sciences organizations should build for change: the “smart lab” of tomorrow. Advances in the Internet of Things (IoT) are already being applied in the lab, from smart safety goggles and self-cleaning lab benches to sensor-powered sample freezers—though they have yet to become widely available.

“The possibilities of advancing lab technology are virtually limitless, which makes the case for flexible design even stronger,” says Humphrey. “Future-looking labs need to accommodate the latest tech-enabled tools that help scientists to be nimble and innovative. Flexible space is all about giving life sciences companies the edge in a highly competitive market.”

As science continues to push boundaries at a faster rate than ever before, the space where new discoveries are made has never been more important. And ensuring that both today’s and tomorrow’s labs can be easily adapted to meet changing R&D needs means more people in the wider world could benefit from faster drug development processes.

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