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From Drab To Lab: How Building Owners Can Create Modern Lab Spaces


Life sciences companies have been on the hunt for lab space in the San Francisco Bay Area for years.

While one way to meet this demand has been to construct new lab buildings, the Bay Area also embraced another method: converting previously existing office spaces into life sciences facilities. A CBRE report found that between Q1 and Q4 2021, the region had a 266% rise in office-to-lab conversions, the second-highest percentage of life sciences conversions in the nation.

Despite supply chain issues causing project delays and hiking up the price of materials, 88-year-old Bay Area construction company Rossi Builders has been doing whatever it takes to keep up with this life sciences conversion boom. It is inherent for the company, since it has been doing this work for decades. Craig Rossi, president and third-generation owner of Rossi Builders, and Chris Barrango, executive vice president and former construction site superintendent, both have two decades of experience converting spaces into labs.

Barrango said that Bay Area labs have undergone significant changes compared to two decades ago, including in their design and infrastructure.

"We used to see landlords do full lab build-outs on spec, which included lab islands, umbilicals, fume hoods and all finishes," Barrango said. "The structure of the deals has evolved where the landlord builds out the infrastructure and the tenant builds out the space to their specific needs."

He said that there are several challenges to converting office and industrial spaces for lab use that go beyond traditional renovations. For one thing, the work often requires extensive structural work to accommodate the new equipment that would need to be placed on a roof, a mezzanine or on the site. Another challenge is that older buildings may not meet the power needs of modern labs, requiring a power upgrade that can take as long as 14 months, he said.

"Backup generators need to be considered as well, since many tenants have experiments that can't go down if the power goes out. However, finding a location for these generators can be a challenge due to the size or fueling requirements," Barrango said. “Additionally, the equipment itself has an eight-to-12-month lead time, depending on size. Also, many times the city can push back on generator location, as they are reluctant to allow reduced parking or landscape areas."

He added that lab conversions also require the installation of specialized air ducts throughout the building.

"These sizable ducts are different from office shafts because they're huge, and thus take a ton of space, which you need to plan for," Barrango said.

Rossi said that often the floor-to-ceiling space of office buildings isn't sufficient to fit the larger ducts needed for labs.

"The amount of HVAC equipment to service these spaces is tremendous, and sometimes with these older buildings, the amount of structural work to handle that load is so great that we look for alternatives," Rossi said. "We think about, 'Can we put some of it into the back of the building or loading docks?' Rather than having to strengthen the structure, we are always looking for functional solutions that can help save costs."

Barrango also said that multistory lab buildings should have an elevator that has room to fit large equipment because a passenger elevator typically won't work. They need to have a freight elevator that can handle large lab equipment.

Because of Barrango's previous experience as a superintendent, he is able to pass along his knowledge to clients about what will and won't work within a converted lab space. He added that an essential part of the building process is the relationships the company has been able to form.

"Building labs takes trust, and we have, over many years, developed client relationships where we earned their trust," Barrango said. "There are a lot of construction companies trying to get into the lab space right now, but we have found that the experienced lab clients have been around long enough so as to not get seduced by a price that is too good to be true. For projects to be successful, a high level of trust needs to have been established."

Rossi said that lab conversions require a commercial construction company that knows the industry and understands what landlords and tenants need in their buildings.

"What makes Rossi different from other Bay Area construction companies is the knowledge, experience and empathy we have," Rossi said. “We are more than just builders. We are partners, all the way through."

This article was produced in collaboration between Studio B and Rossi Builders. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.

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