Five Problems Complicating Office-to-Lab Conversions – Solved!
As more and more companies reduce their office footprint, landlords are exploring ways to repurpose office buildings. Labs are an increasingly popular target for conversions, but many landlords hesitate because of several significant obstacles on the engineering front. All of these are surmountable, says Syska associate partner Robert Fagnant, who studied invertebrate zoology at UC San Diego before becoming an engineer. Over the course of his 30-year career, he has designed MEP systems for countless labs. Connections spoke with him to learn more about the problems affecting office-to-lab conversions and how to resolve them.
Problem # 1: Flexibility
It’s hard to design MEP systems that are flexible enough to accommodate different or changing needs. “We don’t necessarily know who’s moving in when an owner is repurposing space on spec,” says Robert, who points out that the needs of a biochemistry lab differ from those of a chemistry lab or a lab conducting biology microscopy, and that an incubator tenant may eventually require more robust R&D facilities.
Engineers can employ modular electrical, plumbing, and piping systems that enable flexibility and quick changes. One of the most promising advances is the smart air valve. With a smart air valve, lab tenants can scale the volume of air needed at any given time. (If you want to learn more about smart air valves, read this blog post by Richard Novak, associate principal at Syska.)
Early communication, where possible, is also essential, says Robert. “Will a lab have 20 people in it all the time seated in benching arrangements or just a few people coming in once in a while? Will there be fume hoods or microscopes? We need to figure out what the probable loads will be for people, heating, and electricity, and that will tell us what kinds of controls we need to consider. If we have this kind of upfront communication, we can eliminate a lot of guesswork.”
Problem # 2: Sustainability
Traditional labs are energy hogs. “They use a lot of water, and a lot of water means a lot of waste,” Robert explains, adding that some of this waste cannot be disposed of in the normal waste stream.
Robert points out that use of water and heating can be adjusted on a need-to-use basis. In the Boston area, lab developers are going a step further: They are using ground-source heat pumps, which use the earth to cool or heat water.
Robert also advocates heat recovery (using waste heat for radiant heating), solar panels, and wind power. Each of these strategies reduces the electrical load, an increasingly important consideration as several jurisdictions across the U.S. are enacting mandates for all-electric buildings or appliances.
Sometimes the strategies can be surprisingly simple. For instance, some labs are starting to use their freezers more efficiently. This effort can be as straightforward as filling up more shelves in fewer freezers or turning up the temperature if the change does not affect a freezer’s contents.
Problem # 3: Commissioning and Validation
Commissioning and validation are much more complex in labs than in other buildings, largely because the processes must take regulatory guidelines from organizations like ASHRAE and OSHA into account. To demonstrate compliance with these guidelines, commissioning teams must provide extensive, detailed documentation.
Automation is simplifying the process. “We can automate the gathering and reporting of equipment data these days,” says Robert. “Yes, testing must be rigorous and carefully documented. But automation reduces human error and the need for labor-intensive, menial tasks.
Problem # 4: Budget and Schedule Challenges
Ever since the pandemic, lead times for deliveries of equipment have increased substantially. And that adds to the existing budgetary challenges that arise in conversions into labs, which often entail unforeseen costs due to hidden issues or triggering of code upgrades, specialized equipment requirements, or coordination of pathways and spaces not appropriately sized for laboratory equipment.
“We can design for procurement, which includes identifying critical MEP equipment with longer lead times and ordering them as early as possible,” says Robert. Communication, again, is critical – ideally without a “middleman” between the owners and the engineers. “For example, I need to know if an occupant will need a 3D printer in a space,” he states. “3D printers create a lot of dust and heat. We’ll need much more exhaust air changes to keep the surrounding air clean.”
Mass spectroscopy lasers are another common piece of equipment in labs. According to Robert: “These lasers are great tools, but if you don’t tell a mechanical engineer that your lab will house one, then the laser will generate a lot of heat and the room could become unbearable in a big hurry."
Education, as mentioned earlier, is equally critical, especially when labs are designed on spec. Robert goes to many conferences to meet people who develop, lead, or work in laboratories. “I meet the people who are building the incubator labs or the spec labs,” he explains. “I ask them what they want and how flexible their labs need to be. And I choose equipment based on their responses. This reduces lead times and prevents unpleasant budgetary surprises.”
Problem #5: Future-Proofing
Scientific discoveries and innovations are advancing rapidly. It’s therefore difficult to design MEP systems that can adapt to up-and-coming technologies like IoT integration, big-data analytics, and artificial intelligence.
More déjà vu: Flexibility and modularity are the overriding objectives. And communication and education help engineers achieve them. “We are assessing future trends by interviewing our lab clients and establishing benchmarking tools to help us determine future needs,” Robert states. As before, he stresses the importance of interacting with scientists to find out what they predict for the future: “Even though we’re not scientists ourselves, we do need to understand how scientists are approaching their work. There are a lot of factors that could have an impact on the systems we design.”
Robert has worked on several adaptive-reuse projects in which office buildings were converted into labs. Here are a few examples, all of which demonstrate that such conversions are far from impossible: