Designing our Future: Creating Adaptable and Sustainable Life Sciences Buildings

| June 26, 2017

by Nancy Greenwald

Why life sciences facilities are important

Life sciences includes a wide range of socially and economically important activity focused on biological processes. Research and development takes place in a variety of settings. Academia is a vital source of life sciences research and innovation, but it is not the only path. Life Ssciences R&D is conducted by a variety of private companies, organizations, and institutions focusing on research, development, technology transfer, and commercialization in the fields of biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, biomedical technologies, life systems technologies, nutraceuticals, cosmeceuticals, agriculture, food processing and safety, and biomedical devices.

Life sciences is a significant contributor to the economic power of the United States.[i] Both public and private investment in life sciences R&D remains strong and has continued to grow in 2017.[ii] Our ability to create, distribute, and exploit knowledge is a major source of competitive advantage, wealth creation, and improvements in the quality of life. The importance if the industry to our economy requires us to create facilities that support its needs.

How building design and construction helps address current challenges in life sciences

The challenges that face the industry include global competition, the rising cost and space demands of R&D facilities, increasing regulation, the need to attract and retain top talent,[iii] and the need to mitigate risk by creating opportunities for collaboration.[iv] The industry needs to adapt and change strategies in a rapidly changing environment. Building design and construction is critically important to each of these objectives.

Recruiting and retaining top talent means creating modern buildings that create a sense of community and provide attractive work space and public areas, as well as offer amenities such as a café and childcare facilities. Incorporating collaborative work and community spaces as well as state-of-the-art online communication technologies allows researchers to share information and ideas both formally and informally. Multidisciplinary teams require spaces that let them take advantage of the convergence of advances in molecular biology, information technology, and robotics. Adaptability and flexibility for use and change over time is another hallmark of a world-class life sciences facility. These needs overlay the complex and specialized requirements of safety, containment, security, operational agility, performance, sustainability, and quality.

Case studies from Centerbrook Architects & Planners

In recent years, Construction Institute member Centerbrook Architects & Planners has designed several of the projects that are part of Connecticut’s effort to become a national leader in the field of biosciences and medicine. These include the UConn Health Academic Building and the Outpatient Pavilion. Centerbrook also designed the $135 million LEED Gold Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine research facility in collaboration with Tsoi/Kobus & Associates of Cambridge, Massachusetts. “The only constant in laboratory design is change,” explains Centerbrook Principal Jim Childress. “With few exceptions, virtually every laboratory is liable to be repurposed in the near term. We have to plan for that, including innovations that can’t be envisioned today.”

Southern Connecticut State University / image courtesy ©NRiley Centerbrook Architects

The nearly 104,000sf Academic Science & Laboratory Building at Southern State Connecticut University has been certified LEED Gold. Laboratories are voracious consumers of energy and water. Centerbrook’s design resulted in a building that saves the university 34% on its energy consumption and reduces water use by 20%. The building houses teaching and research laboratories for cancer research and molecular biology, among other disciplines. Scientific displays and instrumentation are visible from within and outside the building, which has assumed a symbolic role for the sciences on campus. Centerbrook Principal Jefferson B. Riley, FAIA, explains, “Through a holistic sustainable design approach, we were able to provide students, faculty, and staff with a healthy and uplifting environment in which to learn and work.”

[i] Enterpreneurship and Job Creation in the U.S. Life Sciences Sector, June, 2014.,

[ii] 2016 Global R&D Funding Forecast,,

[iii] JLL Life Sciences Outlook, United States, 2016,

[iv] Deloitte Life Sciences Industry Outlook 2017,


Nancy Greenwald

Nancy Greenwald is the executive director for the Construction Institute in Hartford, Conn.

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