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Life Sciences Players Reckoning With Sustainability Challenges

Life sciences developers, enjoying seemingly endless demand for their space, are vying for ways to stand apart from their peers, and sustainability bona fides are emerging as a significant factor. 

SmartLabs' Jillian McLaughlin, SMMA's Adrian Walters, Wise Construction's Andrew Lynch and Bulfinch Cos.' Michael Wilcox speak Dec. 7, 2021, in Cambridge at a Bisnow event.

Amid the life sciences boom, tenants, landlords and city officials are having to weigh whether buildings can be grandfathered into emissions requirements or if more disruptive measures are called for, veterans of the Cambridge life sciences boom said. 

“The idea of a 24/7 lab with full energy usage, I think that is going to have to change,” SMMA Director of Life Sciences Studio Adrian Walters said Tuesday in Cambridge at Bisnow’s Future of Cambridge Office and Lab event. “A lot of companies and operators will have to revise that sort of methodology to meet with a more sustainable outlook.”

The commercial real estate industry is already reckoning with climate change, tying investment choices to sustainability performance and falling in line with increasing municipal greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets. Across the Charles River, Boston expanded its emissions reduction targets to buildings 20K SF and larger; the state is navigating its own path toward net-zero carbon emissions. 

Approximately 6% of the buildings covered by Cambridge’s current greenhouse gas emissions law account for 70% of the city’s emissions, Cambridge Day reported. Cambridge City councilors are in the midst of a push for net-zero emissions requirements for new construction, and city officials are already putting sustainability into their approvals of new projects.

The Vicinity Energy plant in Cambridge

As one example, BioMed Realty wouldn’t have received approval to construct its 500K SF 585 Third St. life sciences project if it relied on gas power rather than steam power, BioMed Realty Director and Head of Leasing Alex Mancuso said. That is in addition to internal company goals and guidelines set by BioMed's owner.

“From Blackstone, there are specific goals we’re meeting in our portfolio, and [BioMed] are doing the same,” Mancuso said of the developer’s owner’s sustainability mandates. “It’s a critical part of what you deliver now; not only from how attractive your project is but also how much it costs to run it.”

The 585 Third St. project will rely on district energy, or steam power, from Vicinity Energy, the large plant at the southern edge of Kendall Square. The national energy firm’s Kendall Square plant, along with a downtown Boston facility and a smaller site in Back Bay, uses emission-free steam to heat commercial real estate properties like office towers and labs. Steam can also be used by life sciences workers to sterilize equipment and maintain temperatures in labs.

The company is mulling electrification of its gas-powered Kendall Square facility with industrial-scale heat pumps and electric boilers that developers are utilizing on a smaller scale at their own rising developments.

Cambridge Innovation Center's Tim Rowe, Vicinity Energy's Allison Porter, DPR Construction's Mike Forth, BioMed Realty's Alex Mancuso and AHA Consulting Engineers' Thomas Joyner speaking Dec. 7, 2021, in Cambridge at a Bisnow event.

“Avoiding procurement on the boilers is an advantage,” Vicinity Energy Director Allison Porter said. “Instead, you can end up with a much smaller footprint. We’ve certainly had some supply chain issues, but most equipment has been readily available.” 

The net-zero push is much more challenging at office-to-lab conversion projects, where the buildings require more intensive infrastructure, mechanical, electrical and plumbing upgrades, as well as roof space for mechanical systems. 

The number of office-to-lab conversions in Cambridge pales in comparison to Boston and the region at large, which counts millions of SF combined among redevelopment plays. Mancuso described the challenges at BioMed’s office conversion project at 321 Harrison St., where at least one lease opportunity was hindered by tight rooftop space that prevented mechanical system installments enabling more lab work within the building. 

“In terms of a green new deal and tighter energy regulations, a lot of that is going to come down to operational plans,” Wise Construction Project Executive Andrew Lynch said. “Hours of use, in addition to more efficient equipment. I think a lot of operational usage plans are going to be enacted; you’ll start seeing that more and more.”