Regal Leftwich
Regal Leftwich
November 2, 2021

The Expanding Lab: Considerations When Repurposing Space to Bolster Research Capabilities

Regal Leftwich
Regal Leftwich

Many institutions operating during the pandemic have two types of space: essential research labs in continuous operation and office and/or conference space that is now underutilized from a labor force that now has the option to work remotely. With an urgent need to increase lab space all over the country, the logical question is: can we convert non-lab space into lab space?

All cutting-edge lab facilities will have a variety of spaces geared to attract and retain top-tier talent and to support the scientific endeavor: open lab, lab support, computational, open office, write-up areas, enclosed offices, conference rooms, huddle space, break, collaboration and interaction areas. As part of the planning process, an analysis should be performed to identify non-lab space for possible conversion into wet lab space based on usage.

Collaboration spaces such as this might now be under-utilized due to the pandemic as the workforce turns to remote collaboration.  In this example, in-lab collaboration space can be easily converted to additional bench space. 

Once space is identified as a possible candidate for lab conversion, there are many considerations that can drive the determination if the space is suitable for conversion. Below are some of the factors that a design team should consider when analyzing the suitability for a space to function as new lab space.

Physical Constraints – A design team should look at the area, column spacing, floor-to-floor height to ensure there is proper space to accommodate lab and lab support areas. This includes making sure there are proper clearances for personnel and equipment movement to and within the space. Consideration for flow is critical, not just within the space, but to the space itself. For example, logistics for deliveries and access to loading docks should be considered.

Laboratories require consideration for features such as finishes, robust utilities, increased ceiling height, and a specialized supply and exhaust air system.

Structural Slab – One of the hardest conditions to overcome is a “bouncy” structural system. Scientific equipment and processes are susceptible to vibration and care must be taken when selecting a structure not originally intended for research-grade stability. There is some research that could be conducted with vibration isolation equipment, but others, such as high-resolution imaging, cannot be resolved without major modifications to the existing structure.

Life Safety and Fire Protection – Existing space that was designed for office use may not have been constructed to the robust levels that labs handling hazardous materials demand. Additional fire rating between different spaces may be necessary, likely involving construction in areas that are not normally visible, such as in shafts or plenum areas. Chemical quantity levels allowed in labs are determined by the type of fire protection and the number of control areas. The higher the suite is located in a building, generally there is a smaller, acceptable amount of chemicals allowed.

Exterior Envelope – Many older buildings may have vapor or air infiltration issues along the exterior walls. It is important to evaluate the construction on the perimeter walls to ensure proper containment is being maintained without much additional work needed.

Air Distribution – A laboratory air distribution system needs to be separated from a recirculated type, like office air. If the area to expand is adjacent to existing laboratories, it may be possible to tie into the existing system based on existing capacity and fan sizes. If there are no existing laboratory air ducts serving the floor or the building, additional capacity will need to be added to air handling units and exhaust fans. Additional shaft space may be required, which can be problematic in a building with limited space or pretensioned slab construction.

Office space adjacent to existing lab space is a logical candidate to consider for expansion. 

Electrical Capacity – Labs inherently have higher electrical loads for laboratory equipment. Many lab systems require backup power for life safety reasons, not including any emergency backup that would be required for scientific equipment, such as refrigerators and freezers. Existing panels may need to be upsized and additional generators and/or battery capacity considered.

Plumbing – Special requirements for laboratory plumbing should be required for specialty gases and vacuum. Even something as simple as hot and cold water for sinks and safety stations and be problematic if the building does not have additional capacity. This frequently occurs in office buildings that have systems sized only to handle the anticipated water needs of core restrooms.

To meet the growing demand for lab space there is a trend to convert underutilized office space into research suites. However, there are many items to consider when determining the suitability of converting a space into labs and it is recommended to discuss with an experienced laboratory designer and engineer who can help identify items that may be costly to address during construction.