by Tom Quinlan
More and more Boston property owners are converting office space into lab space for life science companies. Life science companies are also expanding existing labs. Both take careful planning and there are any number of considerations. While expanding an existing lab can be less formidable than converting space previously used for another purpose (e.g. office space), it requires the same level of planning and thought.
As the general contractor (GC), you want to have a complete understanding of the space. What is its primary function? How many people will use the space over the course of a day? How does foot traffic flow within the lab and outside the lab? This understanding comes through initial communication with the facility manager and the lab manager, preferably as part of the same conversation so everybody is on the same page. That discussion should include such things as:
- Existing mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP)
- Construction of new MEP
- Proper voltage for electrical
- Water systems – potable, non-potable, Ro/DI and separation of wastewater
- Air changes/makeup air – separation of house air from lab air systems; pressurization requirements, negative or positive
- Special lab equipment infrastructure requirements
- Wall construction or lab space containment
- TAB negative and positive air pressure
- Fire department – control zones
Labs are different from a prep standpoint, too. Many of the things you find in your traditional office can be ordered and in your possession in a reasonable amount of time. Such things as fume hoods, lab tables, etc. can take 8-10 weeks for delivery. Labs also must comply with local, state and federal bylaws and requirements. Coordinating with local officials on that, including the paperwork and inspections, can vary.
For organizations that receive state or federal grants or funds, there are also building and documentation requirements that need to be met. Some municipalities, Cambridge and Boston in particular, have tons of experience with the creation and expansion of lab space. The paperwork generally goes smoothly. Other towns and municipalities may not have the same level of experience and there could be a learning curve. You have to take these things into consideration as part of the planning and as part of the discussion with the lab manager and facility manager.
Foot traffic within the building is also a key consideration. How will construction impact workers, lab and otherwise? With a lab, safety is always a consideration. Given that we are still technically in a pandemic, COVID protocols (e.g. masks, washing stations, and ventilation) will also need to be incorporated. As with every renovation, communication between the project team and building management is paramount. Daily briefings and e-mail updates are a must.
Many of the lab projects our firm has done have been in the educational sector at colleges like MIT, BU, and BC. Those projects often occur during summer break as fewer people are around, leaving a small window to get the job done. With life science companies, there is no summer break. The window can be as tight or tighter and the company will still be running full tilt while you work. That’s why a planning window of three months before work begins is critical to generate a great end product and a smooth construction experience.
Tom Quinlan is the president of South Coast Improvement Company.