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6 Questions to Ask about a Laboratory Conversion

By Brian M. Konczak

Director of Science + Technology

Laboratory space

When clients ask us whether they can turn an existing office space into a laboratory, we always tell them the same thing:

It depends.

The truth is that we can’t offer a straight answer—whether an office space can quickly and affordably be converted into laboratory space depends on several variables. Recognizing the growing opportunities in the Denver market for these conversions, our Science + Technology team has developed a test-fit process aimed at readily identifying strong candidates for this type of conversion.

While there are dozens of considerations folded into our test-fit process, we focus here on six key questions.

What kind of science will happen in this laboratory?

This is the essential question—the question whose answers inform everything else. Beyond simply identifying the sciences that a client anticipates happening in this space, we need to discuss the relevant processes followed by the client’s investigators and technicians as well as the equipment required in the space.

Beginning with the what, we start with the end in mind. Laboratories are typically categorized into “wet” and “dry” labs, with “dry” labs being defined as those where hazardous materials are not utilized. Wet labs typically require a higher level of complexity and systems coordination to accommodate the science within. Additionally, understanding the scale of science will drive the possible design solutions. Large animal research labs versus nanotechnology labs, for instance, are drastically different in the way we approach the design.

Understanding what science is being done solves half of the equation. The other half is understanding the how. Working with lab managers, we confirm all the steps throughout each laboratory process. The sequence of process and what is being done at each step allows us to determine the appropriate programmatic adjacencies and the most efficient layout for the occupants as well as the science.

Outside of the laboratory, there are also process implications for the building and site, such as shipping and loading capacity. Shipping and receiving is a significant operation for some clients, so ensuring the proper truck access as well as the ability to move bulk materials or equipment through the building may be critical.

Do you have a detailed program or room data sheets?

The more specific we can get, the better. At the test-fit stage, we are not finalizing the program, but we are exploring how specific requirements may or may not be served by an existing space. The more we know about a client’s specific needs, the more easily we can identify limitations of an existing space for laboratory conversion. Environmental criteria, bench quantities and types, structural and vibration criteria, electrical power and lighting requirements, plumbing and process systems, and equipment needs within the space are examples of information we gain early in the preliminary design process.

What needs to happen with the HVAC system?

To support the science happening in nearly any laboratory environment, we are going to need to more airflow than the typical HVAC system can handle. For office-to-laboratory conversions, it’s not unusual to fully replace the mechanical system to meet those increased demands. Both wet and dry laboratory environments make greater demands on a building’s HVAC systems than the typical office space, with enhanced requirements for air-change rates, precise temperature and humidity controls, differential pressurization, and exhaust.

While we’re talking about full replacement, a related issue with whether the building and/or the site can accommodate the required HVAC system. Does the roof have the space and structure for an additional (or larger) RTU? Is there a service yard on site where the equipment could otherwise be located? Another consideration for many laboratory environments is the need for an exhaust system—this requirement entails access up to the roof from the laboratory space.

Will we need to upgrade any services?

The need for service upgrades depends on the science. It’s common for clients to upgrade a building’s electrical or water services when converting a space from office to laboratory use. The additional cost associated with these upgrades is something we observe to clients as part of our test-fit process.

Can we fit everything we need into the floor-to-floor height?

One thing that you cannot adjust in an existing building is the floor-to-floor height. The mechanical system required by most laboratory environments involves a significant amount of ductwork and coordination below the ceiling. We need to make sure that we can accommodate the mechanical system, adjusting soffit and ceiling heights, while not sacrificing too much head room.

Are there any industry standards or certifications that need to be considered?

Our clients often follow guidelines and standards either by adoption or requirement. Labs may need to address biocontainment to protect scientists as well as the science itself. Biosafety Level (BSL) classifications have four levels to design to, based on protection required within a space. Facilities may also require a higher level of air cleanliness. Cleanrooms have nine different ISO Classifications based on the necessity of size and quantities of particles in the air that need to be filtered out. Life sciences laboratories may also need to comply with certain design guidelines as well as onsite validation to attain FDA Certification. Federal institutional funding can also impact design requirements. Clients who receive government funding are required to follow, the continually updated, Design Requirements Manual, that is published by the NIH as a standard to design buildings and facilities to.