What You Need to Know to Successfully Adapt Existing Offices into Laboratory Spaces
Today, one of the biggest trends Hixson is seeing in lab design is adaptive reuse, a process of converting existing facilities to uses other than their original design. In this case, we are hearing from companies who want to take existing workplace and office facilities and transform them into laboratories.
Multiple reasons are behind this growing trend:
- Talent: Companies want to be more flexible and open lab facilities in areas where the talent pools are located.
- Sustainability: Reusing an existing facility tends to be a more sustainable option than building new.
- Amenities: Offices tend to be located in amenity-rich areas, such as childcare, fitness centers, etc., and those amenities can be a way to attract people to work for your lab.
- Financial: Money is, of course, a part of this equation. Getting into a relatively short, e.g., five or 10-year, lease on a facility…as opposed to having to purpose-build a whole new facility…might make more sense for the financial model of a lab project.
- Speed to market: Moving into an existing building is going to be faster than building a new one and will help get the lab up and running as quickly as possible, particularly in today’s supply chain constrained building environment.
- Remote work: As many companies are moving to/retaining remote work options, there is plenty of office space available, including spaces with competitive prices on a building or on a lease.
While these are reasons why companies are looking to adapt offices into labs, actually doing so isn’t as simple as just putting in new finishes and equipment. Instead, it is important to realize that not all office buildings are well suited for lab projects. As we’ll discuss further below, three key things to consider when looking to adapt existing office space into a laboratory environment:
- The physical construction of the building.
- Existing mechanical and HVAC systems.
- The utilities necessary for a lab space.
THE PHYSICAL CONSTRUCTION OF THE BUILDING
Let’s start with building construction considerations. The way the building shell is physically constructed can have more influence on the cost and/or operational efficiency of a lab project than one might think. When moving a lab into an office building, some of the first realities of the building to consider are the structural column spacing, the floor-to-floor height, and the capacity and stiffness of the building’s structural system.
Columns may be spaced in a manner that worked well for an office space but are not ideal for the lab. Labs are typically planned based on a module consisting of the depth of a bench, the width of the aisle, and then the depth of the next bench or piece of equipment on the other side of that aisle. A typical lab module falls somewhere between 10 ½ to 12 feet. Certainly, specific labs based around specialized equipment may fall outside this range; however, typical lab modules lesser than 10 1/2 feet or greater than 12 feet create too little, or too much aisle space. Column spacing within the prospective building can interfere with ideal lab module spacing.
Another factor to consider, floor-to-floor height, may have even more influence on the suitability of a building for labs than column spacing. Floor-to-floor heights for labs are generally somewhere between 14 and 18 feet. This range allows for a variety of necessary building elements above the ceiling, including piping, ductwork, light fixtures, and the structure of the floor or roof above. As important as the proper space above the ceiling is the height below. Many labs will have upper cabinets, shelves, or benchtop equipment. These high elements require an ideal amount of space above them to allow for proper airflow and light diffusion.
In many cases, buildings designed initially as office space will often have a floor-to-floor heights between 12-14 feet. This is on the lower range of, or even below, an ideal lab height. Labs with greater exhaust ductwork and utility piping requirements than office space will drive the lab’s ceiling height down, often less than the ideal. The low ceiling heights or cramped above-ceiling space can make maintenance difficult, or worse, airflow and lighting sub-standard over the life of that lab.
Structural capacity and/or stiffness of the existing building frame also must be considered. We have found that existing office buildings invariably need to provide additional HVAC equipment to support labs. Placing larger air handlers or additional exhaust fans on the roof typically requires supplemental framing members at the least, and in some cases, wholesale reinforcement of the framing to support the additional rooftop equipment. These modifications can become difficult to execute, particularly if the building needs to remain occupied for other groups or even other tenants. Another important structural consideration is vibration. Placing vibration-sensitive lab equipment on floors above grade levels is inadvisable in most cases, but more so within a building whose structural system was designed for office use only.
Several other building construction elements may influence the suitability of a space for labs. In multi-story or high-rise buildings, the building code severely limits the use of hazardous chemicals on upper floors. Multi-tenant buildings have their own set of considerations as well, e.g., the chain of custody of tests, samples, controlled substances, etc. through common areas like docks can be difficult. Central building equipment that is shared by the building may not be suitable or easily modified for the needs of the lab tenant. Ultimately, the physical construction of the building will highly influence the suitability and certainly the cost of an office to lab adaptation.
MECHANICAL AND HVAC SYSTEMS
Mechanical and HVAC systems also must be considered when evaluating the conversion of an office to a lab. As you can imagine, the HVAC has the potential to have probably one of the largest impacts to such an adaptation. Environmental requirements for a lab space, such as temperature and humidity, ventilation and exhaust requirements, room pressurization, and air filtration are usually much more rigorous than what is needed for a typical office building. Because of this, the HVAC serving the office space is unlikely to be suitable for reuse in a lab. Instead, it will require either the purchase and installation of a new system or significant upgrades, depending on the type of lab and the work being done within it.
Let’s look at each of those environmental requirements in more detail, beginning with the temperature and humidity requirements for the lab. A typical office HVAC system is designed for human comfort, keeping the space between 70 and 75 degrees. Relative humidity is typically not controlled at a specific setpoint, but instead is maintained indirectly with potential large swings depending on the time of the year, and the weather outside. While this is fine for an office setting, the lab may have more stringent and precise temperature and humidity requirements that require a more sophisticated HVAC system.
Increased ventilation rates required for labs are also a factor to consider. A typical office HVAC system is designed to supply air flow at basically one Cubic Foot per Minute (CFM) per square foot. This is equivalent to about six air changes per hour of supply for a typical office space. Generally, 70% to 80% of this air will be recirculated with the remainder being fresh outdoor air coming in. Depending on what’s being done in the lab and the needs of the lab equipment, a lab may require more than twice as many air changes and much more than 20% to 30% of outside air for the lab use. Depending on the activity in the lab, it is even possible that no air recirculation is desired, and the lab needs to bring in 100% outside air. In such cases, the existing HVAC system serving the office will not accommodate that need.
Other than restrooms, janitor closets, and building relief, a typical office does not have a large amount of air being exhausted to the outside…and therefore, not a lot of make-up air capability. Additional exhaust likely will be required to support lab needs such as lab fume hoods – even point-of-use exhaust for equipment such as snorkels or exhaust hard connected directly to specific lab equipment. All of this will require exhaust duct work which was not originally designed into the office. Sufficient ceiling space and potentially floor space will be required to route this additional exhaust ductwork to the exterior of the building. Placement of these new exhaust locations out of the building must also be considered: The location of the exhaust out of the building (including exhaust fans) needs to be coordinated with outdoor air intakes into the building and surrounding buildings to confirm that the exhaust is not recirculated into the building or into surrounding buildings. This may significantly limit where the exhaust can be placed.
Next, pressurization between lab spaces is often critical, either to keep contaminants out of a particular lab, or to keep potential hazards or odors that are in a lab from getting out to the surrounding space. A typical HVAC system serving an office is not sophisticated enough to monitor or maintain pressurization between spaces.
Finally, filtration, like the lab’s temperature and humidity requirements, is really dependent on the lab activities and the lab equipment needs. The filtration for a typical office Air Handling Unit (AHU) or rooftop unit typically uses a two-inch throw-away filter at a Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) of eight. A lab, though, may need as much as a MERV 13 or greater filter. Trying to put in a higher-grade filter into an existing HVAC system designed for a MERV 8 will not be able to deliver the same capacity. Instead, if higher filtration is needed, the HVAC system will most likely require significant upgrades or modifications.
Utilities are another hindrance when determining whether an existing office space can be converted for lab use. One reason: Spaces originally designed for office use will not have sufficient utilities in place for sanitary plumbing, drainage, or fire protection. Two key reasons behind this statement:
- Most offices have sanitary systems designed with Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) or cast iron, which will not stand up to the corrosive waste generated in the lab.
- Drainage points at most offices are located in restrooms, break rooms, or janitor closets. The existing system serves limited areas and might not be appropriate for the lab renovations.
Therefore, upgrades will be required when attempting to transition office space for lab use. For example, to handle corrosive waste, piping will need to be upgraded to Polypropylene (Polypro) Chlorinated Polyvinyl Chloride (CPVC) to provide more chemical resistance. The discharge will then need to go to a neutralization tank. This could be as simple as a point-of-use system under the lab sink; however, if there are multiple labs and a good deal of waste, a larger neutralization tank to catch everything from all the labs may be needed. This would require digging a pit onsite at the location for the tank.
For utility systems, such as deionized and reverse osmosis water, or gases such as oxygen, nitrogen, or CO2, it is important to consider demand and location requirements. The solution, as with other factors already discussed, comes down to available real estate: While water systems may be able to get away with a generator on a bench, package skid systems in a mechanical room routed to the lab will need space for the skids. Gas system needs are similar. These will be delivered in cylinders.
These cylinders could be placed next to the lab benches in cages for smaller demand only required at a certain part of a lab. Larger gas demands though may require all the cylinders to be placed in a storage room, corralled together where they can be piped to all lab locations which need it.
Electrical is another utility system to consider when adapting the office space for lab use. Because the HVAC system will most likely require an upgrade, the electrical service capacity is likely to also require an increase. This translates into upgrades required to the transformer and panel boards. Overall power quality may also be needed, thus requiring upgrades to switchboards and circuits. Lighting also tends to be handled differently in offices versus labs. Office space typically has 20 ft. to 30 ft. candles, while labs require 50 ft. to 70 ft. Lastly, uninterrupted power is not usually needed in an office, but is required for labs. Space for a diesel back-up generator must be allocated.
Last, but not least, the capacity and type of fire protection needs to be assessed. A typical office space will have something like a four-inch water main, with a three-inch riser that serves light hazard criteria. Many labs, though, require greater hazard protection and may even require fire protection that is non-water based, e.g., a sensitive room where there is potential for water damage to occur where it should not. There are two ways to deal with this:
- A pre-action system. This is a dry-pipe riser system where there is no water in the pipes. These usually operate with a double interlock, meaning that a smoke or heat detector activates and the sprinkler pipes. The fuse on the head has to see the heat that a fire would generate before water would go into the dry pipe system and then suppress the room that it is covering.
- A clean agent system. This is an approved gas in a cylinder which will either remove the oxygen or dissipate the heat that a fire could create. Since it is not water-based, it suppresses the fire without subjecting sensitive spaces to water damage.
As mentioned at the outset of this article, many compelling reasons exist why companies may choose to adapt existing offices into lab spaces, not the least of which is the fact that such projects are often faster and more cost-effective. Of course, a number of complexities come with laboratory adaptive reuse projects as well. It is important to work with a highly experienced laboratory design firm to validate the feasibility of a particular project by evaluating possible complications and determining workarounds as early in the design process as possible. Doing so, can put laboratory adaptive reuse projects on the right path to success.
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Director of Client Development