The demand for lab space and science workplaces is skyrocketing in almost every market, increasing competition among science building developers. The traditional method of designing new science buildings needs to evolve from what the building looks like, to how it needs to be optimized for a tenant. At their best, buildings are more than just containers for people; they are platforms for purposefulness and incredible tenant experiences.
Designing lab buildings comes with unique challenges. Concerns about vibration, ventilation, containment, and specialized equipment going beyond the scope of traditional workplaces. Exact specifications must be met to ensure safe and successful working environments.
The Next Generation of Science Buildings
As part of an ongoing measurable impact research funded by the Gensler Research Institute, Gensler partnered with Buro Happold and KPFF to develop a conceptual framework for the next evolution of science buildings. While this project was researched as a Lab Building, the same attributes can be easily implemented on other types of buildings, such as office workplaces, and hospitality.
We located our concept in Seattle’s Uptown Arts District. The project focused on three goals: (1) Optimize the floor plan for tenant flexibility, (2) Transform the science building product in the market allowing our developer clients to differentiate themselves from their competition, and (3) Prioritize decarbonization. We call this idea NEXT, and it redefines what a lab can be.
Using Mass Timber for Flexibility and Sustainability
The use of mass timber in large building construction has gained a lot of traction in recent years because of its ability to significantly lower the embodied carbon footprint of a project. The tenants benefit from this due to the warmth and connection to biophilic elements, which are more emotionally appealing compared to traditional steel or concrete structures. The Pacific Northwest has an abundance of natural timber resources, making our region primed for leveraging mass timber in more structures, while saving on the cost of transport of materials. Vancouver has a history of cutting-edge mass timber projects, and there are dozens more in the pipeline as mass timber is becoming the standard for flagship buildings in the east of the city.
Mass timber is particularly suited to off-site modular construction, which would allow us to produce the project in a nearby factory and deliver it to the site as a kit-of-parts. This approach would be up to 30% faster and 10% cheaper to construct than a conventional concrete building. With 85% fewer deliveries to the site and a 75% reduction in construction waste, NEXT reduces the embodied carbon by 80% to build compared to a conventional concrete lab building. This amounts to a savings of approximately 5,200 total metric tons of CO2. The cost savings of energy plus the de-carbonization benefits are what developers are looking for to help address climate action, provide a differentiated product to tenants, and emphasize health and wellness for tenants.
We extended the sustainable approach to the building’s operations, as well. NEXT is all-electric and utilizes a heat pump chiller (EL1) system. All-electric systems result in lower building Energy Use Intensity (EUI) and can achieve zero carbon emissions on a clean grid. As a result, NEXT produces 50% less greenhouse gas emissions and uses 30% less energy annually than a conventional lab building. With clean energy grids and strong sustainability standards already in practice in British Columbia and Ontario, it would allow us to take full advantage of designing an “all electric” building from day one.
Rethinking The Lab Layout
The lab layout is determined by the lab bench module. Optimizing for that was the driver of a structural grid. That led us to create the most flexible grid for our tenants at 33 X 33 feet. This optimizes lab bench layouts on an 11-foot module in either the north/south or east/west direction and allows a tenant to determine which orientation is best for them. Another concern for a mass timber structural grid is the vibration of the floor plate which must be reduced to minimize the disruption of sensitive equipment and experiments. As a result, we teamed up with our engineering partner, KPFF, to address the vibration issues. Together we achieved a vibration of 6,000 MIPS – a standard for most lab buildings. To further optimize the floor plan for a tenant, we relocated the building core from the center to the side of the building. Placing a core in the middle of a building is like putting a fireplace in the middle of your living room. It bifurcates and separates tenants. This move our tenants more lease depth and allows flexibility with their layouts.
A Focus on Health and Wellness
Science workplace tenants are looking for spaces that can promote the health and wellbeing of their employees and of the communities in which they’re located. With a multitude of operable windows, the workplace portion of the floor will have abundant access to fresh air. The Pacific Northwest is optimal for natural ventilation due to our climate allowing the workplace to be naturally ventilated for 34% of total occupied hours. This yields energy savings of up to 30% compared to a conventional lab building.
The NEXT science building also enables each floor to have direct access to outdoor spaces throughout the building. According to the Gensler US Workplace Survey, science workers ranked outdoor space as their #1 most desired workplace amenity. Additionally, we took the most under-utilized component of the building — a fire stair — and transformed it into a tenant amenity. This was accomplished by shifting the stair to the perimeter, which floods it with daylight and amenable views. This stair now becomes an interconnecting stair for the entire building and addresses wellness opportunities for tenants. With access control technology, this stair can also be utilized as a stair for a multi-floor tenant — eliminating the need to build their own internal stairs, reducing unnecessary construction, and bringing the space to market sooner.
Connecting to the Community
Lastly, we wanted to show how a science building could connect to its local community. The ground floor is designed to hold a multipurpose arts and entertainment venue, as well as a restaurant incubator to diversify the culinary arts in the city. The multipurpose venue was created in partnership with the Seattle’s Uptown Arts and Cultural Coalition (UACC) to provide flexible spaces for young musicians, art education, theater, and performance space. The restaurant incubator gives minority entrepreneurs the opportunity to launch their businesses, while a shared kitchen space allows for multiple food venues to enhance the neighborhood food scene. These efforts will create more cultural diversity within the Uptown District.
Ultimately, NEXT is a platform that allows tenants and developers to reimagine what a science building can be. It’s our call to action to shift from the past to a more resilient, sustainable, and inclusive future for lab buildings.
Principal and Global Science Practice Area Leader, Gensler
Chad Yoshinobu is a Design Principal and Global Sciences Practice Area Leader for Gensler. He believes in the aggregation of diverse design lenses from life sciences, office buildings, tech workplace, and hospitality to reinvent what we do for our clients. Over the course of his 25+ years as an industry expert, Chad has shaped a diverse range of environments from life science campuses and buildings to office towers, hotels, food + beverage, retail, and the interiors of technology and life science companies.