Research methods in the life sciences are developing at an unprecedented rate, so how can our buildings keep up with these developments? And how are the latest design approaches reflected in construction costs? Alinea, with NBBJ and Arup, present a multidisciplinary discussion


Source: Daniel Imade / Arup

The Francis Crick Institute, engineered by Arup, is the largest biomedical research centre under one roof in Europe

01 / Introduction

From bioengineering to the advancement of healthcare and translational research, we are living in an extraordinary time. 

By 2023, experts anticipate the economy will create an additional 142,000 new jobs in science, research and engineering. All sciences, and particularly the applied sciences, are experiencing massive growth, and the design and development of spaces must anticipate these needs. The way scientists work is changing, and so must their environments, which include cutting-edge buildings – from venture-backed collaborative labs to virtual research communities – that encourage multidisciplinary co-operation and outreach to the wider community. 

02 / Key drivers

Funding as a catalyst 

Government funding and private funding initiatives drive the health and life sciences sector today. Worth more than £70bn, it is now one of the fastest-growing sectors in the UK. Growth in science and technology jobs is outpacing all other sectors by as much as 50%, and the sector now provides employment for about 241,000 people. The UK government has pledged to raise investment in R&D to 2.4% of GDP by 2027, with a goal of £80bn between 2018 and 2028, as reported at the Life Sciences Council meeting. Furthermore, the May 2018 life sciences sector deal has set out plans for the Health Research Authority to expedite approvals for clinical trials.

In tandem with this growth, academic institutions and private companies have developed new, multifaceted funding models to provide greater flexibility and development potential. Over the past 10-15 years, these funding models have become more closely aligned with the way scientists operate. Scientists formerly had limited access to a range of commercial models for concept development and tended to work within either a large private company, a government institute or a university. The new generation of scientists have the support to act as market-savvy scientific entrepreneurs who partner with industry leaders, high-tech labs and investors to redefine how scientific work is carried out. 

Attracting talent

Industry institutions need to attract and retain the best minds in the industry, as highlighted in the recent Bidwells/Creative Places survey. While the UK’s demand for highly skilled researchers, technologists, scientists and engineers is growing, the talent supply is falling short, despite an increase in undergraduate and postgraduate students studying computer science and technology, as reported by the Higher Education Statistics Agency. 

The Open University found 91% of organisations struggled to find skilled talent in the last 12 months. This creates a knock-on effect for companies and institutions trying to source suitably qualified candidates.  

High workspace expectations

With such optimism and expansion in the sector, combined with the challenges of talent supply, it is critical to provide world-class workplaces in the right location. More than one-third of knowledge-based workers work outside a traditional office setting, and the design of academic and science workplaces goes beyond just offices and cubicles: these spaces must support collaboration and focus as well as embody the vision, values and culture of the research organisation.

It is now expected that the best workplace strategies will include a range of open collaborative spaces, sheltered huddle spaces for focused work, and in-between areas like a cafe or lounge, as well as lecture theatres and specialist areas. All of these spaces need to be considered in establishing project budgets. 

Workspace expectations are also high in relation to health and wellbeing. For example, state-of-the-art laboratories try to maximise daylight and views. The Helmholtz Diabetes Centre in Germany is one recent scheme where the building was designed with the wellness of its users in mind: laboratories weave around a central courtyard, which leads up to a rooftop garden, creating well-lit interiors and maintaining a strong visual connection to write-up areas. 

Francis Crick Institute

As the largest biomedical research centre under one roof in Europe, the Francis Crick Institute (pictured opposite) in London is an inspirational project. It brings together scientists from across disciplines to tackle the pressing health concerns of the 21st century. 

Arup’s engineering design team created an elegant response to the complex requirements of modern science in this building, harmonising various demands and ensuring efficiencies throughout the engineering design process. 

By supporting collaboration, training future science leaders and seeking to improve health and wellbeing, the Francis Crick Insitute – a partnership between a number of charities, trusts and universities – aims to boost UK science and health and help drive the UK economy. 

The Crick building demonstrates how changes in the nature of work are influencing lab design. As described in a new Arup report, The Future of Labs, science labs and research facilities will become technology enabled, with flexible spaces allowing for collaborative, data-centric research.

Read more about the Francis Crick Institute

03 / Life science spaces and how these are changing

The biggest design impacts on life science spaces today require advanced technology and processes, from rationalising spatial requirements to boosting efficiencies. In the last 10 years, laboratory designs have shifted away from the traditional wet lab and separate office relationship to include a larger proportion of dry lab spaces and engagement areas. 

Clinical work is still an essential part of these institutions’ missions, as are contract research organisations (CRO) services, which provide outsourced specialist research. While greater collaboration is happening between physical, biological, and biomedical sciences, life sciences have less demanding equipment and specialist zones (with the exception of high-containment and cleanroom areas, which are expensive to build and run, and are heavily legislated).

One example is the polymerase chain reaction technique developed in the 1980s, which allowed single copy DNA segments to be multiplied and analysed. In the early 2000s, this process required separate rooms to maintain clean samples. Now scientists working in places such as the Jenner Building at the Pirbright Institute (see overleaf) can use this technique in a general lab space. 

The financial commitment needed to maintain complex controlled environments and equipment requires highly optimised and efficient buildings. Some organisations now lean towards shared spaces and equipment. Lab benches are booked rather than assigned permanently for particular research, with lab concierges designating space and arranging just-in-time apparatus deliveries, while scientists and specialist technicians can pool their complex analytical equipment. 

For instance, at the James Black Centre, London, two separate research units – the Cardiology Research Group at King’s College London and the Neurological Research Group of the Institute of Psychiatry at the Maudsley Hospital – have been brought together under one roof. The result is greater efficiency and new opportunities for collaboration in advanced biomolecular laboratories.

Future flexibility

A significant proportion of laboratory space is now non-traditional, from heavily serviced chemical labs to data analysis areas and collaboration spaces. New methods and rapidly changing technological advances are dramatically impacting life science spaces. The need to respond quickly and innovatively to the latest user needs requires a flexible approach to delivering these high-performance spaces. 

Despite ongoing demand for highly specialised spaces, research facility design can be based on generic, flexible configurations to allow a wide range of multidisciplinary scientific activities. Considering flexibility of the building at the outset of the structural design allows grids, floor loadings and floor heights to efficiently incorporate allowances for future tenant and usage changes, as well as refurbishment. This results in the provision of highly adaptable spaces, which can respond to changes in demand with a focus on technology infrastructure and digital connectivity. 

The most successful future-proofed environments provide long-term adaptability without overdesigning and overspending. For example, blocks of flexible research space can alternate between wet and dry labs alongside neighbouring blocks of fixed office space, which have significantly less servicing requirements. 

Given the rate of changing technology, it is more critical than ever to assess the costs and benefits of flexible designs in order to better anticipate a client’s future needs as much as their current ones. The relationship between the trust/developer/investor and the end user will also help determine the level of flexibility appropriate to embed into the design. Understanding these relationships, and particularly the client brief, is essential in getting the design and costs right.

Life science spaces
AccommodationService zone category requirementDescription

Offices / dry lab / light workshop


General light electronics, software and component engineering; mix of office and benchtop activities requiring no additional ventilation

Flexible – offices / wet lab


Containment level CL1/CL2 open bench research, general analytical, general instrumentation with local extract to benches, secondary support areas

Cleanrooms / Containment rooms

Very high

For work up to containment levels CL3/CL4, built-in cleanroom, highly monitored ventilation control

The combination of high costs and low returns means the commercial market alone will not be able to provide enough accommodation for the sector. Similarly, the NHS and hospital trusts will also struggle to meet demand. But thanks to increased government funding and greater awareness – through the government’s 2017 life sciences sector deal (and the subsequent 2018 deal) along with publicly backed initiatives and partnerships such as the Francis Crick Institute (see previous page) and private UK and foreign direct investments – we are seeing a wider range of new delivery models. 

NHS and hospital trusts are currently reviewing their portfolios to identify surplus land. This appraisal runs in parallel with ongoing analysis for opportunities to drive revenue from existing estates. These studies hope to reduce capital expenditure and find methods of generating revenue, therefore diverting expenditure to areas in more urgent need of investment. This also includes options for private developments and how they might be applicable to the trusts. 

David Lewis, partner at NBBJ – the architect behind the new Jenner Building at the Pirbright Institute research centre – has described how this surplus land can be transformed: “Instead of selling off surplus land for residential use and reducing the NHS estate, there is potential to create health ‘eco-systems’ in our cities – healthcare quarters with hospitals acting as anchor tenants surrounded by layers of research and wellness services, step-down care, commercial tenants and public social spaces. These aspirations chime with the concept for a ‘health return’ from public assets, land and buildings to promote health and wellbeing.” 

The private sector is similarly reviewing its role in the expanding life sciences market, and developers are taking advantage of this growing demand. In the US, co-working lab space provider Alexandria LaunchLabs offers flexible laboratory and office spaces in New York and Massachusetts using a business model similar to co-working office space companies such as WeWork. Start-up life science businesses can lease ready-to-use spaces of various sizes, with shared equipment and amenity space as well as access to start-up capital. Similar enterprises are now emerging within the UK and are expected to grow. 

Public-private partnerships between universities, research institutions and the private sector are also booming. Greater collaboration between universities and life science development corporations is driving policy decisions for teaching missions and the research undertaken at universities, allied institutions and private enterprises while directly influencing the types of research facilities emerging. 

For example, the QMB Innovation Centre – a partnership between Queen Mary University of London and the London Development Agency – combines leaseable laboratory and office space for biomedical and pharmaceutical start-up companies with academic and administrative space for the university.


Source: Richard Chivers

The new Jenner Building, a government health facility at the Pirbright Institute in Surrey, has been designed by architect NBBJ to maximise efficiency in energy use and work patterns

05 / Changing places

The UK’s biotechnology and life science clusters are internationally recognised for developing some of the most ground-breaking scientific research. In recent years they have expanded across the UK, reflecting the upwards global trend for R&D investment, in particular within city-based science quarters – often with neighbouring universities and NHS or other healthcare sites. 

The Oxford-London-Cambridge “golden triangle”, acknowledged in the government’s life sciences industrial strategy for leading the UK’s growth of life sciences, is a good example of how healthcare, research and commercial developments can benefit from being co-located. 

As well as profiting from the synergies between healthcare, research and education, these new city-centre hubs are thriving due to the wider advantages provided within urban locations, such as transportation links, good broadband infrastructure and access to financial and legal services. These research-driven campus environments also present the opportunity to enhance community interaction by creating high-quality places, buildings and public spaces, often improving and enriching connections to surrounding neighbourhoods. These notions of placemaking, connectivity and openness must be considered when designing and costing buildings and the public realm in which they are situated.  

London’s life sciences sector is largely based on partnerships with universities and teaching hospitals such as Imperial College London, University College London and King’s College London. As a consequence, a number of knowledge, life sciences and technology clusters are emerging across the city: King’s Cross and Euston (tech companies and life sciences), White City (medical and media), Sutton (cancer research) and Whitechapel (NHS medical ), among others. According to research undertaken by Cushman & Wakefield, these four clusters will gain more than 2 million ft2 of lab space in the next five to 10 years. 

Cost model life science buildings figure 1

Figure 1: The golden triangle of UK life sciences locations, and clusters emerging within London

London clusters: (a) White City – medical and media (developing) (b) King’s Cross and Euston – tech companies and life sciences (developing) (c) Whitechapel – NHS medical (potential) (d) Stratford – sciences and cultural (developing) (e) Southbank – medical (developing) (f) Sutton – cancer research (potential)

06 / Efficient buildings

Just as there is a growing expectation for scientific success as research accelerates, so too is there increasing pressure to monitor the ongoing costs involved in running these highly serviced and complex environments. Engaging with specialists and users helps building design teams to improve functionality, increase efficiencies, and create more sustainable buildings. For example, heat emitted by electrical equipment such as “freezer parks” can be reclaimed to heat other areas of a building. 

The design process itself can be made increasingly efficient by using a data-driven approach. Smart tools are allowing designers to determine the ideal spatial relationships at the onset of the design process. Design computation allows clients, designers and consultants to explore numerous variables simultaneously – and to review the impact on space requirements and costs in real-time. 

These tools, combined with the closer integration of architecture with structural and building services design, are challenging traditional laboratory design concepts, allowing teams to create more efficient buildings that add value while minimising cost implications. 

For example, the building form and structural grid should be considered at the outset, so that the structure’s inherent properties, such as variations in stiffness across a floorplate, can be used to maximum benefit. By matching these properties of efficient building design and space planning with the intended laboratory performance requirements, the design will inherently increase the user’s perception of space and light and enhance the modern working environment – and may even increase the opportunity for “accidental discoveries” or “chance encounters” through greater visual connectivity and informal collaborative spaces.

As with any building project, understanding the client brief from the early stages helps to inform decisions around servicing strategies. Energy-efficient options such as the use of recirculating fume extract systems for certain activities and variable-volume make-up air as required to maintain air quality can reduce the space and energy requirements associated with traditional systems. These targeted measures can significantly improve the efficiency of the building in net-to-gross terms, as well as in floor-to-floor dimensions. 

Localised upgrade strategies – such as separate plant on each floor of a building – can provide adaptability while limiting initial capital investment and maximising building space efficiency.

The Jenner Building

Architect NBBJ designed the Jenner Building (pictured above) at the Pirbright Institute to be efficient in terms of both energy use and working methods. The design’s primary focus was to bring together 100 scientists from three different UK facilities into a purpose-designed and adaptable new home. The building facilitates world-class research to prevent the spread of agricultural diseases.

The design of the laboratories and office spaces supports quiet, concentrated solo work alongside space for group collaboration. It also aims to minimise internal travel distances and offer adaptable spaces and services that will flex with the institute’s growing diverse range of research programmes. Its materials, meanwhile, were chosen to relate to the local vernacular and the Surrey landscape. 

07 / Design approach

The trends and themes described above have some specific implications on the design of lab spaces, as designers rise to the challenge of meeting the future needs of the fast-growing and constantly evolving science sector.

Facade design may need to respond to the increasing desire for “science on show” while fulfilling high building performance requirements. Adjacencies of different relevant functions must be captured and connectivity provided, along with encouraging the “chance encounter”. 

Space provision for the building in operation must be worked through with appropriate areas for loading bays, storage and facilities management incorporated into the design. 

Provision of flexible space will offer the potential for future conversion and allow users to flex between wet and dry lab space. Testing the layouts for potential usage options at an early stage allows the team to make a considered economic provision for central plant, with strategies for locally flexing the provision as usage proportions change. 

Overprovision of services does not benefit the scheme economically or strategically, adversely affecting floor heights, plant sizes and capital cost. 

The location of plant needs careful consideration to permit use of vibration-sensitive equipment associated with life science. Early identification of zones where low vibration can be easily safeguarded helps define equipment zones and influences plant locations. Providing sufficient distance between fume extract requirements and intake locations adds further constraints. Defining an economic but agile strategy early in the project allows the optimum solution to be achieved for services, structure and architecture.

The structural solution needs to respond to floor-loading requirements to keep the building’s use flexible over its lifespan and to meet localised vibration criteria requirements. The structural layout could be developed to set a rational grid that responds to design efficiencies, while at the same time creating swing space for laboratory or office planning modules.

08 / About the cost model

The cost model is based on the following:

  • A standalone, eight-storey plus half-basement new-build laboratory building in central London housing a combination of biology, chemistry and digital labs with adjacent offices and write-up space. The building is designed with inherent flexibility to enable the relative proportions of laboratory and office space to flex over the life of the building. The laboratory space comprises one-third dry labs and two-thirds wet labs to containment level two, CL2.
  • For the purposes of setting a notional budget, the cost model assumes a shell and core construction by a developer ready for occupation and fit-out by a single tenant. The shell and core includes the substructure, superstructure, facade, and the arrival/lift lobby/WC/back-of-house fit-out together with central plant and distribution for core MEP services. All other fit-out is included in the ranges shown for tenant fit-out.
  • The shell and core includes a raft foundation with secant pile basement perimeter wall, in-situ concrete ground and upper floor slabs, in situ concrete frame to cater for loadings and vibration requirements, curtain wall facade, reinforced concrete roof slab to cater for rooftop plant.
  • The MEP element of the cost model is based on a central air plant services strategy with typical cooling, heating and ventilation loads. The shell and core includes plant, equipment and system distribution to occupied areas to facilitate the extension of the fit-out requirements by the tenant. The shell and core cost model includes drainage, central hot and cold water supplies, modular condenser boilers, space heating, air treatment, ventilation, electrical and protective systems. Special life science implications are limited to notional shell and core allowances for limited laboratory area MEP services infrastructure. Medical gases and compressed air systems are included as an allowance subject to specialist design and costing.   
  • The majority of the mechanical plant is on the roof, restricting use of the basement to water storage and main electrical plant. Rooftop mechanical plant gives the advantage of fresh air intake at high level and immediate access to heat rejection air. 
  • The fit-out ranges allow for wall, floor, ceiling finishes, raised access floors where appropriate, fixed furniture and fittings, including benching, fume cupboards, cold rooms. Loose furniture and special equipment is excluded. Services include fit-out of space with enhancements for dedicated ventilation, gases and water for laboratory environment.
  • All rates are base date Q1 2019
  • Exclusions from this cost model include fees, VAT, demolitions, site clearance, external works, incoming utilities, section 106/278, CIL payments and the like.


  • Vibration sensitive laboratories: 462m²
  • Laboratories: 6,040m²
  • Office/hub space/meeting suite/cafe fit-out: 4,077m²
  • Lift lobbies/reception areas: 836m²
  • Plant, WCs, circulation, back-of-house: 3,955m²
  • Total GIA: 15,370m²