• 5 min read

Navigating lab shortages in the UK life sciences sector through office-to-lab conversions

Explore human-centric design strategies for successful office to lab conversion.

Two female scientists walking down the corridor of an AIS designed office-to-lab conversion.

Securing suitable lab space for vital research remains a persistent and significant challenge within the Life sciences industry. Despite the remarkable investment surge in 2021, positioning the industry for exponential growth, the shortage of lab space poses a threat to its advancement. The issue of office to lab conversion further complicates the quest for available research facilities.

In the UK, nearly half of the larger life science companies will need to expand their lab space within five years, but both large corporations and start-ups are finding it difficult to locate appropriate lab space for essential research. 

As a result, the life sciences sector is moving to office refurbishments to create optimised office to lab conversions, or otherwise known as ‘lab-enabled spaces.’ Feasibility is essential here, as spaces must adhere to compliance and safety regulations, whilst also catering to design factors that make a lab functional. 

Given that lab shortages could act as a major hindrance to the sector, the need to repurpose work environments into lab-enabled spaces has never been greater. Expanding the life science industry into further areas of the UK should also be championed, so we can ensure continuous growth of the sector. 

We’ve taken a closer look at how the life sciences sector is moving to office refurbishments and lab conversions to create efficient ‘lab-enabled’ office to lab conversions.

Factors causing laboratory shortages

Rising Costs

One prominent struggle within the Life Science sector is finding affordable, available lab space. Demand is pushing prices higher, and with little readily available, lab space is costly. Given the critical shortage of properties, landlords are now also opting for high-quality tenants with good reputations, as well as longer tenures. This leaves new-to-market businesses with potentially huge innovative scientific breakthroughs at a significant disadvantage. 

An evolving sector in high demand

Not only is there a growing demand for production at a much faster rate, but the pressure the pandemic put on the industry has significantly ramped up the need for lab spaces. The pandemic undoubtedly caused a shift in focus which for many subsequently pushed funding towards disease and life-saving processes. Despite this, the number of laboratory facilities has not increased to accommodate such growth.

Lab-enabled spaces: an innovation solution

With organisations struggling to locate appropriate work environments, the shortage of suitable space has created a need to deliver state-of-the-art solutions. The Life Science industry has embraced a regeneration approach, turning available sites into optimized, lab-enabled spaces. 

With a number of companies now moving towards hybrid working models, a number of organisations have been able to decrease their footprint and across the UK commercial office real estate is now in surplus in some key locations. This has presented a great opportunity for businesses to work with lab designers to expand the accommodation available for the Life sciences sector. Developing ‘lab-enabled’ spaces within new, highly accessible locations, will in turn attract talent and ensure continuous growth.

Innovation has met with lab design to repurpose environments into elevated, office to lab conversion. Along with conventional office conversion, lab designers and real estate professionals are working with businesses to help navigate retail and warehouse units on the market to find ideal properties for lab workspaces.

Tips for creating office to lab conversions

Although an excellent solution to lab shortages, ‘lab-enabled’ spaces are not achieved with ease. The process is complex and requires considerable upgrades to meet Life Science regulations and compliance standards. 

The prevailing structural differences between traditional office and lab environments mean it is important to decipher whether conversions are feasible.  We’ve put together some key considerations for planning and office-to-lab conversion. 

MEP engineering and modifications

Lab environments require modifications to mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) frameworks. With standard labs using double the amount of electricity – around 25-29 watts per square foot – in comparison to traditional office space, almost all labs will require a standby power generator.

Building upgrades usually need to include additional appropriate ventilation and airflow systems to increase the amount of fresh and exhaust air, an essential requirement for any lab conditions. Plumbing amenities to allow for increased water and sewage services, along will speciality gases, may also need to be considered. 

Structural capacity 

Essential MEP alterations consequently require the structural capacity of the building to be accounted for. With innovation design floor-to-floor heights needs to be between 12-14 feet overall to accommodate essential lab design features such as air ducts for additional ventilation. 

Structural design must account for load capacity increase due to heavy, vibration-sensitive equipment. With 100-200 PSF needed for a lab environment, double the PSF needed in an office space, floor modifications must be considered. Other structural aspects include space for loading docks, freight lifts, sufficient building insulation and window placement within the building. 

Zoning and coding compliance 

Recognising local zoning compliance is vital. The feasibility of any structural changes may require additional applications for approval before new designs are permitted. Project planning must also incorporate additional safety measures that align with code compliance, including additional fire safety measures. These approvals have both time and cost implications and it’s important to factor these into your overall project budget and timeline. 

Inside the ceiling of an office to lab conversion project by AIS complex MEP works.

Laboratory support spaces

It’s important to also factor in space for any accompanying structural alterations, such as contrasting hybrid working requirements. With automation and digitalisation allowing more and more processes to be conducted without human intervention, many researchers can now conduct work that doesn’t physically require being in a lab, reinforcing the need for additional, non-laboratory spaces within the workplace. In today’s ever connected world, it’s important these spaces are kitted with appropriate technology to enable seamless connectivity throughout your space, and with external project partners. This will ensure employees are productive and engaged at all points throughout their space. 

Further “levelling up” of the life sciences sector

As well as office to lab conversions, permission to create flexible, expansive, and premium science hubs in the wider UK has already been granted. Future ambitions demonstrate plans to expand business in the London area, as well as increase the available space in cities such as Bristol, Birmingham and Manchester to name a few. 

New builds ranging up to 600,000 sq ft will supplement accessibility for researchers across the UK. As continuous growth is a large focal point, recruitment is a key indicative stage in business development. Life sciences R&D predominantly resides in specific areas, which makes attracting the next generation of researchers difficult. With 71% of life science companies planning to expand their workforce, to attract the right candidates, laboratory space must expand outside the radius of the ‘golden circle.’

Grow your business in a life sciences lab that suits you, whether it is office refurbishments, new builds or office-to-lab conversions, AIS can help. Get in touch.

Research and Insights