When we picture typical laboratories or research facilities, the image tends to be of large, pristine white buildings set in rolling hills, or dedicated ‘knowledge parks’, usually located some distance from a town, near a handy motorway exit. But a range of converging trends are beginning to challenge this practice, bringing a new generation of scientific buildings right into the heart of our towns and cities. It’s a slightly surprising story of creative post-pandemic repurposing, of considerable commercial opportunity and a way to drive effective recruitment.

As a 2021 Urban Land Institute report on the life sciences property market makes clear, location is an increasingly key factor for scientific businesses and organisations. A new generation of researchers and scientists have emerged, who wish to live the same urban lives as their peers, meaning the era of the out of town science park is dwindling in appeal. Tech firms have been wrestling with this same challenge, perhaps for longer, leading to vibrant tech clusters in city centre locations, like London’s King’s Cross Knowledge Quarter (dominated by Google’s new HQ) or Berlin’s Silicon Allee.

Inspiration starts with environment

The theory is that these new hubs of highly skilled, highly motivated and collaborative people, make sense located near investors, social opportunities, access to government and that the city itself adds prestige and brand value. What is true here of ‘tech’, is equally true of the science sector. Arup contributed to the Francis Crick Institute, which opened in 2016 and which has led to a host of science companies located around its campus in the Kings Cross Knowledge Quarter.

Universities and research institutions are now increasingly looking to urban locations to accommodate and attract global talent. Scientists and researchers are looking for roles in more central locations with access to amenities, travel links and affordable accommodation. So, how can science sector bodies embrace this new urbanism?

So if we know the idea will attract talent, ensure a growing and thriving community of experts, isn’t the main barrier – urban development costs – still in the way? While it’s true that the land under most major cities is a country’s most expensive, other recent trends present an opportunity. With bricks and mortar retailers retreating from town and city centres, out-competed by ecommerce giants, and the post-pandemic phase encouraging developers and landlords to think creatively about how their estates might be used in future, there is an opening for new uses and new ideas.

Retrofit – reuse that drives sustainability

Retrofitting existing buildings is becoming more physically viable and commercially attractive. It addresses the embodied carbon issues inherent in building new, and is a way for organisations to ‘walk the walk’ on their wider climate commitments. In the UK, all buildings must be net zero carbon by 2050 and at the same time it is estimated by the UK Green Buildings Council that 80% of 2050’s building stock already exists. That means meeting embodied carbon targets through repurposing buildings wherever we can. While not every building will be suitable for repurposing to scientific or laboratory uses, those that are (and which are located close to an existing life science or academic research hub) should be considered for conversion for science.

Conversion in practice

Bringing science into the existing fabric of a city presents challenges, but not insurmountable ones. It’s a puzzle that involves overcoming technical, engineering and planning constraints, backed by insights into life science trends. Successful retrofit assessments require resolution of issues within a dedicated multidisciplinary framework.

  1. 1

    Evaluation and assessment

    The process begins with an evaluation of the likely tenant profile, including the number of people that will use the facility, the division between offices and laboratories and a potential mix of laboratory types (wet, dry, digital) on a typical floor. Historically, the laboratory sector has used an informal set of criteria for design, including elements like typical air change rate, additional services and split between office and laboratory spaces. We are currently exploring ways to carry out classification of the different levels of possible facility for different tenancy types (small, medium or large).

  2. 2

    Define operations in practice

    Operating a life science facility is completely different from operating an office. There is an additional requirement for specific deliveries (gasses, cryogenics, etc.), waste removal and associated delivery routes throughout the building. The requirement for external delivery access point and a goods / dedicate lift is critical to safe operations. Early identification of the limits of an office to pass this type of inspection will be a crucial consideration to enable the repurposing of a structure.

  3. 3

    Design and implement relevant buildings services

    Space for services is often one of the most challenging aspects of repurposing an office into a science facility. Higher air change rates give rise to an increased demand on the heating and cooling systems. Specific laboratory services including fume hood extract systems and gas storage might result in previously lettable space being given over to plant and equipment. While shopping centres and retail units benefit from additional space to accommodate these services, it may prove more challenging for traditional office environments.

Sites ripe for change

Many developed cities are discovering traditional real estate assumptions no longer hold true, from the waning popularity of large mid-price hotels in the era of AirBnB to the continuing troubles facing major retail chains. For those looking at science conversion opportunities, shopping centres and retail units often look the most promising, whereas offices can prove more challenging but still have great potential. In reality, different solutions can be applied even within the most challenging constraints, and these solutions are closely related to the type and size of tenants and level of service provision that is targeted for a specific building.

There are of course a huge range of structural factors to consider, and understanding building performance will be another crucial aspect to enabling a building’s use for science work. The vibration performance of the existing structure may need enhancing for specific operations and previously installed systems are unlikely to withstand the performance demands that life sciences impose to guarantee safety, quality and operability. Validating the performance of the structure and installed services is key to inform suitability for science conversion, to address ongoing issues and reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions. An integrated design will need to be worked out – there are no off-the-shelf solutions for this challenge.

A place for new ideas

If you look with fresh eyes, you’ll see the signs of endless building conversion in almost every street of your city – churches become housing, pubs become offices, public conveniences become trendy bars – cities are always a petri-dish for new building uses and new ideas. So with a renewed love for city life evident in so many countries, and with a growing commitment to reuse as much of our already-built environment as we can, it’s an exciting time to bring science back into the city.