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Soaring Demand, Soaring Costs, Soaring Competition: New Life Sciences Labs Reach For The Sky

When tenants begin working on the upper floors of 10 World Trade in Boston’s Seaport District — a forthcoming 17-story high-rise that just broke ground earlier this month — they’ll look out over the city through the tinted glass that reacts and dims based on the position of the sun and the time of day.

It’s not just a high-tech amenity. For many of the scientists and researchers who will be conducting tests in the upper reaches of the new tower, the sun shading is essential to protecting experiments from getting spoiled by excess sunlight. 

For architect Victor Vizgaitis of Sasaki Associates, the firm that designed the building for developer BGI, creating lab space more than 100 feet in the air carried a host of technical and regulatory challenges. But in a market where demand for space shows little sign of slowing, and most importantly, sought-after talent prefers urban locations, the push to go vertical is undeniable.

“Scientists and researchers and lab workers are also humans, and the ability to be in the middle of everything, and part of the action, is just as important to them as any office worker,” he said. 

A rendering of 10 World Trade, a forthcoming high-rise in Boston’s Seaport District with upper-level lab space.

High-rise labs aren’t brand-new, especially in Boston. But in recent weeks, 10 World Trade, set to include 555K SF of lab space, has been joined by a number of announcements of new tower projects that include significant lab space, such as a £500M ($656M) lab-led tower block in London and an 11-story, $400M  lab project in Philadelphia between Drexel University and Gattuso Development Partners, the largest dedicated lab space in the city. 

“Clients are seeing the value, and know the costs, and want to be where the talent is,” said architect Russ Drinker, director of West Coast science and technology for Flad Architects, a firm that’s done a series of lab high-rises in South San Francisco for clients like BioMed Realty.

“If they could build a single-story building in the middle of Oklahoma and all the talent showed up, that’s what they’d do.”

Drinker sees the vertical push as part and parcel of the recent explosion in biosciences, with technologies like mRNA and Crispr creating an explosion not just in science and learning, but in new startups that require space.

His firm is currently working on “millions of square feet” of such high-rise lab space in the San Francisco and San Diego markets.  

That explosion in science means that the way labs are built has to change as well, said Jay Longo, principal at SCB, whose firm has high-rise lab projects in Boston and Chicago, like 400 North Elizabeth in Chicago’s Fulton Market. The previous, multiyear arc of discovery lent itself to custom-built lab spaces of just a few stories in suburban locations.

Now, the flood of firms and startup cash means companies don’t have the luxury of time and customization, and urban high-rise towers that can fit multiple tenants offer the scale and speed needed. 

As land becomes more scarce, and the drive to locate new startups near the nexus of innovation centers and key markets like Boston and San Diego continues, it only makes sense developers would attempt increasingly denser, taller buildings, with a nod toward a more urban, collaborative work environment.

Newmark Research Director Liz Berthelette is seeing a lot of taller buildings in the Boston market earmarked for conversions, and more ground-up structures planned for markets like Fenway and the Seaport. 

“I think from an economics perspective, you’ll see more attempts at high-rise labs,” said Perkins&Will’s New York-based Science and Technology principal Matthew Malone.

Repositioning and renovations will provide plenty of opportunities for developers and designers. 

None of the architects could deliver a clear cost estimate as to the premium that comes with building a high-rise lab space versus a more traditional one- or two-story structure. Part of the challenge in providing a clear estimate is the technical and regulatory difficulties, and quirks, of creating different high-rises in different jurisdictions. 

“Like hospitals, labs used to be a few stories, and the idea of taking a patient up an elevator was considered dangerous,” SCB principal Longo said. “The fire code challenge of putting labs above the eighth floor is very similar to putting an oncology space above the 19th floor.” 

The SCB-designed 400 North Elizabeth lab project in Chicago’s Fulton Market.

By definition of the International Building Code, high-rises are 75 feet or taller, roughly five floors. Lab space gets tricky the higher one goes due to a number of factors, including the need to vent and circulate exhaust via complicated HVAC systems, the need to provide power and physical support to an array of heavy lab equipment, and the taller ceiling heights needed to fit said gear along with fume hoods and exhaust pipes.

But when it comes to multistory structures and increasingly higher lab floors, chemicals, and the rules around safety access for firefighters and safety personnel to get to those chemicals in case of an accident, become a driving factor. 

“What’s making a difference today in terms of design is the ability to better analyze and validate designs,” Newmark Head of Workplace Strategy for Life Sciences Mike Lee said. “We’re also seeing increased pressure for labs to be more sustainable in terms of the amount of energy being consumed.”

Labs on the first three floors are typically governed by what the IBC defines as B occupancy, what many would expect a typical lab space to look like. After that, labs are defined by what’s called H, or hazardous occupancy, where any space using chemicals is very restricted and reinforced to protect the surrounding floor and building from spills and accidents.

The higher it goes, the more expensive such arrangements become.

Malone said that it typically gets prohibitive to add labs after the sixth floor, since code limits for chemicals make it harder to justify the trouble of adding lab space. To further complicate matters, cities like New York and Chicago have their own codes or don’t follow recent IBC codes, and states like California have their own types of lab designations.

In fact, the University of California San Francisco successfully lobbied the state legislature in 2008 to pass a regulation allowing academic institutions to put labs on higher floors. 

The design of 10 World Trade followed this regulatory and technical road map, Vizgaitis said. Initially a standard office tower, the designers cut a floor to allow higher ceiling heights for lab work and redid all the mechanical systems to make all the floors at least lab-ready, so they could convert anything that wasn’t already a lab space if tenant demand made it feasible.

Currently, the blueprints call for lab space up to the 11th floor, though there could be space up to the 16th. The top floor is set to include a fitness center and jogging track, an amenity touted by the developer as a significant selling point.

When analyzing the feasibility of such high-rise lab projects, Vizgaitis notes that it is important to understand that there isn’t one kind of lab and that the definition of such spaces is evolving. Increasing digital research, and even virtual lab environments, mean that labs without all the chemicals that complicate construction are increasingly in high demand, and fit well on the upper floors of such developments.

The sky is technically the limit; the higher lab space goes, the fewer chemicals that can be stored, and the more complicated mechanical systems and exhaust become. Technically, architects could add a mechanical floor in the middle of occupiable floors just to handle exhaust.

But the higher research space gets, the more it adds to the structural costs of the overall building, with more and more equipment eating away at floor space and earning potential. And unlike office space, labs on higher floors don’t automatically command a cost premium from tenants. 

Drinker sees the market evolving. In the Bay Area where his firm focuses, it is a competitive market with lots of square footage coming online in the next few years, so tenants will have plenty of options between towers and more typical low-slung, suburban lab spaces. 

There’s also a bit of a pandemic reordering of work, Malone said, which will push more labs to less urban, more remote locations in suburbs and surrounding areas, perhaps dampening the enthusiasm for more towers. 

“For biotech firms that desire to be close to each other, there’s a pretty good reason to put life science in the sky if it facilitates innovation,” Newmark’s Lee said.