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Lab design strategies for renovations and adaptive reuse


Lab design strategies for renovations and adaptive reuse

HOK | August 25, 2021

New scientific opportunities are creating demand for more and better laboratory space. For academic and teaching institutions, this demand often leads to renovating and expanding existing research labs to accommodate new practices and technology.

For private organizations, demand has many companies exploring ways to convert existing office buildings and underutilized lab spaces into hubs for scientific research. The same is true in the public sector, where governments and health agencies seek opportunities to modernize and expand their research capabilities as quickly and inexpensively as possible.

A renovated lab can cost half as much as a similar brand-new building. Converting an existing building into lab space (adaptive reuse) can also be faster and less expensive than ground-up projects. Renovations and adaptive reuse have the additional benefit of being more environmentally friendly, as these projects generally do not require replacing carbon-heavy concrete and steel structural systems.

Still, lab renovations and conversions are not without their own challenges. Institutions considering a modernization or adaptive reuse of an existing lab facility should weigh the following factors before committing to a project.


1. Understanding the Existing Facility 

Lack of quality design or construction documents is a common challenge in renovation and conversion projects. Gathering a good understanding of existing conditions of the facility—its floor-to-floor height, floor loading, structural system design and age, mechanical and system conditions—is a must before embarking on renovation projects.

The age and condition of existing materials may trigger the need for abatement and remediation, which can add to expense and time for the project. Starting with a feasibility study or facility conditions assessment study will help ensure the success of the project.


2. Risk of the Unknown 

Laser scanning, testing and historical research can help project teams anticipate most—but not all—the construction challenges that will reveal themselves during a lab renovation or adaptive reuse conversion. Even with a thorough feasibility study, organizations should anticipate surprises once demolition and construction begin. They should build contingencies for solving those challenges into the project scope and budget.


3. Code Compliance

An existing building, particularly one built decades ago, is probably not in line with current life safety, energy and accessibility codes. Updating an existing building to meet these new codes may not always be economically feasible.

Additionally, institutions must consider how a renovation or conversion might trigger code-mandated upgrades in parts of the building that are not part of the lab space. For example, the expansion of a lab may also require additional amenity spaces and restrooms to be upgraded for code compliance.


4. MEP Infrastructure

Lab buildings can require far more mechanical, electrical and plumbing infrastructure than what is found in other building types. Updating an existing facility for new lab space may require cutting holes in the floor to support additional ventilation shaft space and installing new rooftop air handlers.

Project teams should pay particular attention to rooftop load capacity and floor-to-floor ceiling height to ensure a building has the structural integrity and space to support additional ventilation equipment and ductwork. Other MEP considerations for renovated or converted lab space can include backup power (generators) to ensure tests continue during power outages and installing gas lines and additional plumbing to support multiple research needs.


5. Specialized Spaces

Beyond MEP considerations, a lab renovation or adaptive reuse may need other infrastructure improvements. Organizations may begin by analyzing floor movement within the existing building, as lab equipment often requires strict vibration control.

Labs may also require positive or negative air flow that can be difficult to achieve if an existing facility is not tightly sealed. Column-to-column dimension is another factor to consider, particularly when it comes to the arrangement of lab modules that are typically 10.5 to 11 feet long. More complex labs may also require clean construction protocols that add costs and environmental monitoring systems to ensure operational safety.

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