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  • Writer's pictureKaren Fletcher

Lab conversions - a new life for offices

The UK’s growing research science sector holds out a potential new life for the UK’s office buildings. As hybrid working leaves office building owners with a smaller tenant market, the UK’s science sector is booming – and desperately needs to find working space.

The critical importance of our scientific research was highlighted during the pandemic when it achieved rapid delivery of new vaccines. Partly due to this success, in 2021, the UK government published a 10-point UK research and development Roadmap.

The Chancellor announced a record increase in public investment in research and development  – committing to reaching £22 billion per year by 2024 to 2025. The government has also committed to increasing UK investment in R&D to 2.4% of GDP by 2027.

Finding the space for innovation to happen

Significantly, the government recognises the need for suitable facilities for UK scientists and researchers, noting in its Roadmap: “World-class research and dynamic innovation are part of an interconnected system; they depend on talented people and teams working in a supportive and diverse culture across multiple sectors, with access to the right funding, infrastructure, data and connections – locally, nationally, internationally – to do their best work.”

This vision of a science-based future for the UK is already attracting investors. The challenge is that it’s also putting pressure on lab space. There is already a shortage in the UK’s golden triangle of research between London, Oxford and Cambridge.

Savills highlights that the vacancy rates for available fitted laboratory space are below 1% in both Cambridge and London and 7% in Oxford, demonstrating the supply constraints present in the market.

Steven Lang, director of commercial research at Savills, points out that:  “The rental premium for fitted lab space when compared to conventional office space is, on average, 70% higher across Cambridge, Oxford, and London.”


Office to Lab evolution underway

The SectorScope has covered several office-to-lab conversion stories recently. One example is Wates’ appointment to deliver central London’s largest office-to-life sciences conversion. This will see Grade II listed Victoria House revitalised as a life sciences hub. Delivery is due in Autumn 2024.

Scott Brownrigg won planning permission to convert 17 Columbus Court in London’s Docklands into a centre for life sciences.  Once the preserve of bankers and traders, Canary Wharf has seen an influx of science research tenants over the past few years.

As Lambert Smith Hampton research shows, London is seeing hotspots of research and development growing all over the city. The Knowledge Quarter in Kings Cross is bristling with science-focused tenants, including the Francis Crick Institute and the Alan Turing Institute. In July 2023, British Land unveiled its plans to transform Euston Tower (a short walk from Kings Cross) into a life sciences and innovation hub.

So, what does it take to transform the average office building into a cutting-edge space for science and innovation?

In some ways, it is surprisingly straightforward. In the UK, offices can be converted into labs without needing Planning Permission since they now fall under the same 'Use Class’ E. However, planning permission may be required for additional plant and facilities such as risers, chimneys and gas storage.

That said, there are many technical issues to consider when looking at the specialist requirements of science and research occupants. The list below points to some of the issues to consider:

Energy demands – laboratories have high energy requirements. Companies in this sector use demanding instrumentation that must operated for extended periods. Additional requirements may be for refrigeration and fume extraction. Backup power is also vital in an industry where outages can result in lost work. A standard office building may, therefore, require boosted power supplies, which in turn may impact the delivery time of a project.

Ceiling heights – often, laboratory spaces require extra ceiling heights to accommodate increased or specialist ventilation systems (for example, in clean rooms). Lambert Smith Hampton notes that it is common for power and data to be distributed via the ceiling in labs rather than floor voids as in offices. This makes floor-to-ceiling heights an important consideration when undertaking office-to-lab conversions.

Ventilation considerations – as noted, laboratories may have specialist areas which require clean-room type ventilation. However, additional air changes are also required in general laboratory areas. In some cases, recirculation of air (as in offices) is not permitted, so designers must consider how to deliver ventilation with outdoor air while balancing indoor temperatures (and limiting any ingress of pollutants to protect occupant health). These issues highlight the importance of planning for considerable changes to existing office building services systems.

Use of underfloor space and floor loads – heavy equipment may require reinforcement of existing flooring. In addition, some services may need to be underfloor. This can include ventilation and possibly increased drainage in wet labs.

Other factors – the specialist nature of research and development work creates requirements such as reduced vibration and enhanced fire protection. Other considerations might include the provision of specialist gases into the space, for example. Here, understanding client needs is important and applies particularly to a project's fit-out stage.


The changing needs of R&D occupants

Growth is at the heart of companies in the science and research fields. The ideal is to move quickly from the early stages of research to winning new funding and then shift into high-powered manufacturing. As a result, their space needs are continuously changing.

Although the points above focus on ‘laboratories’, these buildings' occupants also need office space and other facilities, including nearby ‘third’ spaces for staff to relax and be social. These are considered highly desirable in an industry where competition for highly qualified and specialist staff can be fierce.

This is one of the reasons we see ‘clustering’ of science-based businesses (as in London). The presence of other companies in the same sector is a good indication that others will follow.

Another point to remember is that not all laboratories look alike. The growth of artificial intelligence (AI) is allowing researchers to model and predict outcomes using computer power. While this won’t replace the need for lab work, it is a growing field in which space requirements are more ‘office like’, so a well-placed office building which may not be suitable for ‘wet lab’ conversion may still attract tenants in the sector if it can be refurbished to a high standard.

The future

With its eyes set on a science-based financial boost for the UK, the government is putting a lot of incentives and funding into this market. For office owners, conversion to lab space could be an option, though not one to be taken lightly. However, given that tenants are paying premium rents for the right space, it may be an investment opportunity that will see more conversions in the next few years and beyond.



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