How to turn office or industrial space into a life sciences facility

To reach scientific goals faster and more effectively, scaling biotechs get resourceful—and creative

Famous satirist Jonathan Swift once wrote that, sooner or later, “everything old is new again.” In today’s dynamic life sciences sector—where companies are scaling up to bring life-saving therapies to patients—that statement rings true. With the evolving supply and demand paradigm of dedicated life sciences real estate, converting existing commercial buildings or non-life sciences spaces into labs and manufacturing facilities can be a successful approach for companies in need of more or specialized space.

Companies exploring this option should keep in mind that transforming an office or industrial building into a life sciences facility is a critical infrastructure decision, so it’s important to plan ahead—as the old adage goes, ‘measure twice; cut once.’

What to look for in a potential conversion

When determining whether a particular building is a candidate to become a life sciences facility, you’ll need to ensure its electrical system can support the additional capacity needed to run your lab or manufacturing operation. The building also needs to be served by a municipal water system, not a septic system or well water. Beyond these basic infrastructure requirements, the list of necessary attributes depends on whether you plan to use a space for R&D or manufacturing.

For lab space, there are specifications and foundational items to look out for:

  • Ceiling height: This should be a minimum of 13 feet from floor to joist.
  • Rooftop strength: Many offices and other commercial buildings are not equipped to bear the HVAC loads needed for labs, so you may need to reinforce the roof with a steel structure.
  • Floor strength: Many buildings that were not constructed to accommodate labs can’t support heavy lab equipment, so you’ll likely need to install thick floor slabs to protect against damage when moving equipment.
  • Floor plates: Buildings with larger floor plates make better lab spaces. Lab modules are built to an 11-foot scale, so a 44-foot floor plate (or another multiple of 11) is preferable. 
  • Loading docks: These need to be clean and unobstructed.
  • Building systems: You’ll need a functioning freight elevator with easy access to loading areas, as well as the ability to add shaft space between floors if needed.
  • Zoning: While most office buildings are already located in zones where research is permitted, most are not zoned for research that involves live animals.
  • Access to talent: Buildings located in or near the edge of an established life sciences cluster will support recruitment efforts and the collaborative work of scientists.

For life sciences manufacturing facilities, many of the same requirements apply, but with some important adjustments:

  • Loading: Manufacturing facilities generally require heavier loading capacity than labs. You’ll need least four loading zones or docks—two clean and two dirty.
  • Ceiling height: This should be a minimum of 16 to 18 feet from floor to joist, and sometimes up to 32 feet to accommodate all equipment under one roof.
  • Zoning: Manufacturing facilities have different zoning requirements than labs, so you’ll need to make sure your building sits in the correct zone.
Timeline and costs to anticipate

Life sciences companies move fast—especially when they’re young and growing. Converting existing space to meet your needs may help you achieve your goals more quickly and cost less than new construction. And while many life sciences building conversions have a proven track record of success, they require a substantial investment of resources—so be sure your growth strategy and the market demand can support the project.

The timeline for a building conversion varies according to individual building attributes and company needs, but in general, life sciences firms should expect to spend about 18 months from the start to completion. That includes design, the permitting process, the base building conversion and the buildout of lab and office space.

It’s also important to watch for elements that can delay a conversion project. For example, procuring an HVAC unit could take up to 60 weeks. If you need to buy a new unit, make sure to order it as soon as possible to keep your project on schedule. Likewise, in some municipalities, you may face a lengthy process for permitting or adding additional electrical capacity to a building.

The total cost to convert a building into a life sciences facility depends on several factors, the first and foremost being how well the original property meets your needs. A building where the necessary infrastructure already exists will cost less to convert than one that requires major changes like upsizing water mains or bringing in gas lines. Whether you’re working in a union or non-union construction market can also significantly affect your labor costs and total budget.

An experienced partner can help

A team with experience converting commercial buildings to life sciences facilities in your market can make all the difference in getting you to your growth goals faster. From in-depth knowledge of local zoning and building codes, to relationships with accomplished architects and engineers, JLL’s resources and expertise can help you achieve your goals and support your growing business.

Contact an expert here to learn more.