Science in Action: Visualizing and Designing New Biotech Labs
Laboratory architects have introduced innovative ideas to the biotech marketplace as the next generation of research and researchers continues to mature.
Today’s workplaces have been strongly influenced by the trend to provide modern comforts to employees. For example, architects are adapting plans to accommodate increased access to daylight, more flexible spaces that encourage idea sharing, and a variety of environments that can accommodate different personalities in the workplace.
Some of these trends are finding their way into the biotech workplace—enhancing the work environments of the front office and lab space at the back—while maintaining regulatory compliance.
Of the many design innovations architects are bringing to biotech offices and labs, one of the most impactful is the ability to provide transparency between non-classifi ed spaces (offices, corridors) and research and product manufacturing. By bringing researchers and scientists forward to the “front of the house” and making them visible, venture capitalists, investors and regulators can observe work being done and witness breakthroughs occuring. Glass walls around research spaces can also be a positive solution for giving regulators and auditors access to observe laboratory operations—without the need for them to gown up every time they want to inspect or review highly secure spaces where research is underway.
It’s not a perfect analogy, but in many ways, this change in biotech company work spaces mirrors changes in restaurant design, where today, more high-end eateries make chefs and their crews visible for patrons. Diners take pleasure and inspiration in seeing where their meals come from, who is preparing them and how.
We see that same sense of excitement from biotech stakeholders who today can visit a prospective portfolio company and witness researchers and technicians harvesting cultures, working with raw materials and using automated technologies. It’s one thing for a company executive to tell investors about progress on a new autoimmune disease treatment: it’s more powerful when the CEO can tour guests through a facility showing what researchers may be looking at in real time through the lens of a microscope. This is science in action.
The stakes are very high when it comes to transparency and allowing access to sensitive information. It has to be done carefully and is not for every biotech or pharmaceutical company. There are limits, of course, to how much companies can safely expose to public view, particularly in this era of heightened concerns about intellectual property protection.
Maximizing real estate spend
Another trend driving innovation in biotech space design is the steadily increasing cost of real estate, particularly in the research hubs where the best talent and the best companies want to be, such as Boston, New York, Seattle and San Francisco. Whether it’s renovating an old urban structure or building new, biotech companies are looking to architects to help manage and maximize their real estate investment.
Utilizing Smart Facility Design principles, architects can maximize workflow and create environments that are economically and environmentally sustainable. One leading example is the transition from stick-built, drywall-and-stud construction to modular environments, where prefabricated structures are created offsite and assembled quickly at their destination. For example, creating a modular cleanroom in a controlled shop, testing its systems and pre-commissioning it before bringing it to the site for installation provides cost and scheduling efficiencies. It allows builders to adhere to timelines, and bring in painters and floor installers as modular rooms arrive. Studies by Research and Markets project that modular construction for pharmaceutical and biotechnology facilities will grow by an annualized rate of about 9 percent between now and 2030—doubling every eight years on average. More than 80 percent of this modular construction will go to serve biologics manufacturing, 5 percent for other manufacturing, and 12 percent for research and development spaces. R&M predicts that 65 percent of modular/prefabricated construction for biotech/pharma will be to create new facilities, the other 35 percent expansions of existing sites.
In addition to modular construction, real estate spends are being maximized by designs that incorporate adaptable and multi-use spaces. Instead of creating rooms and areas that are dedicated to a sole function, many companies are opting for spaces that can serve multiple purposes.
Multiple spaces for multiple personalities
When it comes to office space, it’s no secret that there’s an ongoing debate about open floor plans versus traditional office layouts. However, it’s important that amidst the trend to attract millennial talent with open floor plans and foosball, architects do not lose sight of the unique culture of each biotech company they design for. Design needs to account for the many types of personalities in an organization. Some executives and scientists perform better in quiet space with doors that can close. Others prefer flexible spaces for spontaneous collaboration, and still others want to gather in a “corporate living room” to have an informal conversation. Ultimately, architects should look to the company founders for inspiration and to ensure the culture they created and seek is captured in any new design. A workspace that caters to many different personality types will help invigorate and retain talent.
What I’ve learned as an architect is: one size does not fit all. It’s critically important before we even begin to draw schematics that we do the work to understand the culture of the companies and organizations we are building for. The workplace has to work for all workers, in all generations, and for both extroverts and introverts. An obsessive insistence on an open workplace makes no more sense than does an obsessive insistence on making sure every employee has an office with a door that closes. The reality is, we need a mix of both, and almost all people working in a biotech environment will want and need both public and private spaces at different times in their work week.
The pace and promise of innovation in biotechnology have never been as exciting and challenging as they are now. For architects and designers, it’s a great time to work with biotech laboratories and researchers as they move toward the next generation of research.