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Maturing Life Sciences Industry Seeks More Refined, Mixed-Use Spaces

A new $330M development taking shape inside a former 1915 Ford Motor plant in Pittsburgh aims to be a center of innovation and new industry, which in 2021 means building space for the life sciences.

The repurposing of the 335K SF industrial site, where Model T automobiles were once assembled, seeks to turn industrial space into an innovation center. The six-story crane shed where raw materials were moved from railcars will become an open-air atrium and collaboration space.

The Assembly, a forthcoming life sciences hub in development in Pittsburgh

The Assembly, set to open early next year in the Bloomfield/Shadyside neighborhood, showcases how the design of life sciences spaces is maturing along with the industry and favoring more mixed-use developments, often at a larger scale.

As the industry continues to boom — Cushman & Wakefield predicts $90B in investment in 2021, up from $70B in 2020, and a Newmark report from January expected 36M SF of new life sciences construction to be delivered in the top 14 U.S. markets this year alone — there is heightened competition to attract top tenants, despite a shortage of lab space. 

Wexford Science & Technology Executive Vice President of Development Joseph Reagan Jr., who is leading the development of The Assembly, said the industry is moving decisively away from owner-occupied research facilities and into urban space where life sciences companies are more closely collaborating with university partners (facing economic uncertainties), with infill or adaptive reuse projects, often on the edge of campus.

“We’re bringing industry to campus,” Reagan said. “We need to be the stepping stone, commercializing innovation on campus and being a place where their new businesses can grow and thrive.”

The Crane Shed at The Assembly, a six-story collaboration hub within the larger development.

A number of designers who specialize in creating lab space told Bisnow the continued push from the suburban business park model to high-rise urban spaces and campus clusters is resulting in more demand for high-end amenities and office space.

“The exterior of spaces is becoming much more important,” said Perkins & Will principal Kay Kornovich, a Seattle-based architect who specializes in life sciences projects. “Views, balconies, amenities; if you can, each tenant wants their own unique outdoor space within the campus cluster.” 

The fundamentals of lab space aren’t changing, but more and more companies are maturing and their real estate needs are evolving. The science can’t be flexible, but the workspace can be. 

“Generally, we seek to simplify the lab and make it as adaptable as possible, since as companies cycle out of spaces, you want it to be adaptable for the next client. That part is straightforward,” Gensler senior associate Paul Wilhelms said. “There’s a lot more innovation in the office, where you express the individual character of tenants and their desire to be different. These are mission-driven folks who want their space to express that.” 

Kornovich compared the prevalence of these kinds of designs to the way Amazon and other tech buildings recently took over Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood. Most of the new towers and office space featured ground-level retail and amenities, with the lower floors of buildings connecting commercial space to the larger urban landscape, “inviting the public in” and helping the building become part of that campus or city, she said.

APEX, an under-development life sciences project in San Diego

She points to the Clark Center at Stanford, designed by Foster + Partners and completed in 2003, as an influential early model for this kind of development, which relied on exterior circulation, wide, curving walls, and glass-lined lab and office space as means to spark collaboration and innovation.

Recent projects Perkins & Will have designed include the Center for Novel Therapeutics in San Diego, which features outdoor circulation and pop-out meeting rooms that hang over the structure’s large, central atrium. APEX, a ground-up, spec life sciences development with a glass facade that is set to deliver next year, offers similar connections to the surrounding landscape.

In Long Island City in Queens, King Street Properties' Innolabs development repurposed an existing building, grafting amenity space onto what will be more than 267K rentable SF of lab space. The design of the space features adaptable lab and workspace for tenants, but also the kind of ground-level multipurpose space meant to connect to the wider community — a large lounge and an event space for events and presentations that help “situate the building as a center and focal point [of] the New York City life sciences market,” said Matt Malone, Perkins & Will's science and technology principal, a project architect.

The overall shortage of graduation space in the market, and the expectation that growing companies will cycle out of the spaces, means labs are typically designed with a more stripped-down “garage aesthetic” in mind, Malone said. These post-incubator startups, often with Series A funding, now need space for administrative assistants and legal departments, the staff that come with a growing business.

“You’re talking about an individualized space for an individualized tenant,” he said. 

Malone said he sees increased potential for more elaborate mixed-use facilities, especially as life sciences projects are increasingly seen as economic anchors for urban centers seeking new jobs and development. In Houston, for example, large-scale developments like TMC3 and Levit Green, by Hines and 2L, will be large-scale, master-planned sites with residential and retail.

In Winston-Salem, the expanding Innovation Quarter, another Wexford development, will have extensive residential development in its just-announced Phase 2, as will upcoming projects in Philadelphia such as uCity Square.

Historically, Malone points to the Janelia Farms Research Center at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Virginia, designed by architect Rafael Viñoly and built in 2006, featuring short- and long-term residential housing amid a series of glass and concrete research facilities, as a big influence. Recently, Perkins & Will designed the Daphne Cockwell Health Sciences Complex for Toronto’s Ryerson University, a vertical campus project that features a campus residence, life sciences facilities and a green roof, which showcases the mix of facilities Malone believes we will see more of in life sciences development.