Revolutionising Science Spaces: The Role of the Architect and Engineer

Bruce Nepp, Lab Design Specialist and Director at Buro Happold, discusses the changing landscape of scientific infrastructure and how architects and engineers can play a role in supporting the scientific discoveries of tomorrow.


Bruce Nepp

is a Lab Design Specialist and Director at Buro Happold

The life sciences, biosciences and pharmaceutical industries in the UK are all experiencing remarkable growth, supported by the Government’s emphasis on the knowledge economy. In parallel, companies are increasingly looking to take space in urban settings, especially in London, in a bid to recruit and retain the best and brightest scientists.

Against this backdrop, and as the pandemic and Brexit continue to reshape the priorities of property developers, underutilised office buildings are being turned into specialised spaces catering for the science sector. Developers are also now looking to create brand-new specialised buildings attracted by the higher rents life sciences spaces can achieve.

This challenge for developers has fuelled an innovative push towards converting prime locations into cutting-edge laboratories and life sciences ecosystems. It’s also where architects and engineers will play a role in facilitating the scientific discoveries of the future by delivering the scientific infrastructure needed.

Repurposing existing buildings for laboratories may only be part of the story, but it is not without its challenges, especially given the intricate technical requirements of modern scientific setups. Architects, technical consultants and engineers must collaborate closely throughout the design process to ensure that repurposed spaces meet the highest standards demanded by cutting-edge scientific research. The Apex Building for Tribeca Developments at Camden, a project we worked on as a lab design team, stands as an early example of this, promising to create room for life sciences start-ups from what was once office space.

Layout is also a key factor in any laboratory, with clever design needed to fit workspace and large scientific infrastructure efficiently. There are also MEP considerations, as laboratories are generally much more energy intensive than offices. They can also require changes, for instance, to ventilation if hazardous chemicals are being used. When compared to offices, labs also require enhanced logistics and health and safety considerations, including specialist extraction systems.

Sustainability considerations are also high on the agenda, with designers seeking to tune the structural and MEP requirements for the most energy- or water-intensive aspects of lab work.

What’s more, developers are no longer just looking to retrofit offices; they are also looking toward purpose-built structures within these burgeoning urban science clusters. These purpose-built structures not only cater to young spin-out companies but also offer a platform for collaboration between larger pharmaceutical companies and agile biotechs, together fostering a vibrant ecosystem.

Urban zones, such as King’s Cross, Whitechapel, Southwark and Canary Wharf, are all witnessing the emergence of specialised laboratory clusters. The construction of 1 North Quay at Canary Wharf, Europe’s largest vertical commercial laboratory building, underscores the gravity of this shift.

Demand for laboratory space is at an all-time high, and the solutions being proposed require cutting-edge sustainable design and engineering solutions. As lab design consultants, our work allows us to create solutions to these challenges.

It’s an area that not many young architects and engineers consider. However, I’d personally encourage anyone reading this who feel they may be interested in working in this area to get involved.

With demand for laboratory space always needed, and given life sciences’ status as one of the UK economy’s leading industries, there’s a real opportunity to influence future design and engineering and build a successful career in a fast-growing and rapidly-changing life sciences sector.

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