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February 29, 2024

Trends transforming life-science building design

  • Taking an integrated approach to facility planning allows designers to consider the full biotech life cycle from early advances to expansion and maturity.


    Imagine a future where cancer patients receive personalized treatments tailored to their genetic makeup. Not only is this possible today, but it’s just one of several biotech breakthroughs stemming from recent giant leaps in science. To maintain their ability to innovate in the search for tomorrow’s cures, drugmakers are updating their facilities across the drug product delivery pipeline — from research to market delivery.

    The key is for facilities to support their changing priorities at each stage in a company’s growth. To maintain productivity during these transitions, design teams can adopt an integrated facility planning approach that considers the full product life cycle.


    Advancements in genetics, immunology and cell biology are unlocking new possibilities for targeted, personalized therapies. These treatments are shifting production from traditional large-scale batches to smaller, patient-tailored offerings.

    This momentum toward individualized medicine requires more flexible manufacturing facilities. These U.S. Food and Drug Administration-validated drug manufacturing facilities are also called CGMP (Current Good Manufacturing Practices) facilities. Manufacturing technology like automation and robotics are improving production speed, precision and consistency. This technology, coupled with scientific advancements, has led to highly promising patient outcomes.


    Photos copyright Bruce Damonte [enlarge]
    Planning and phasing allow 10x Genomics to accommodate growth at its Pleasanton site.

    In early stages, startups minimize space by occupying flexible spaces that emphasize movability and collaboration. Startups often emerge from an academic environment before expanding into speculative lab leases or research incubators.

    Space needs change often, so lay out your labs with open plans and modular benches that provide flexibility for quick iteration and refinement of different therapies. Give users adaptable multi-use spaces that maximize functionality. Define specialty equipment rooms only when it’s essential. Boost interaction through open office designs and shared common spaces that accommodate expansion for evolving staffing needs.

    When research yields promising results, startups may seek financing to pilot test products at a small scale. Not only does this increase demand for office and collaboration spaces, but research facility needs also grow. These needs might include a pilot plant to test small batches and conduct early clinical trials. In these spaces, diagram personnel and material flows, identify gowning requirements, and define air lock configurations and airflow cascades to mitigate contamination risks. Also consider flows to adjacent support spaces like prep rooms, quality labs, utility and storage rooms.

    At a confidential company’s pilot facility in Gaithersburg, Md., researchers are pioneering groundbreaking new medicines. To support the company’s Phase 1 and 2 clinical trials on this campus, HOK designed a cell therapy suite meeting U.S. and E.U. regulations, and an antibody drug conjugate (ADC) pilot manufacturing facility.


    As life science companies transition from R&D to commercialization, their manufacturing facilities must scale up production capacity. This requires major capital investments that may exceed available funding and delay their growth plans — even if product development stays on schedule.

    An imminent FDA approval of a drug can thrust an organization into high gear. Its facility needs suddenly expand to include large-scale production and warehousing, often requiring significant capital infusions. At this stage, companies may go public, seek private investment or partner with larger corporations to expand.

    10x Genomics’ research labs are located together with clean room manufacturing.

    To support this growth to large-scale production and commercialization, create a master plan that evaluates factors like utility infrastructure, transportation access, expansion planning and environmental risks. Then plan the facility for phases. Allow for expansion off of a shared central supply or return corridor.

    This approach maintains operation of existing cell therapy suites and provides shared use of the consumable warehouse and existing entry points. Facility resiliency during climate events or equipment failure is important. Identify single points of failure to ensure the site can sustain long-term operations while enabling optimal functionality through every stage of development.

    10x Genomics’ new lab and office building in Pleasanton, Calif., integrates research labs, cold storage, warehouse facilities and cleanroom space that enable in-house production of consumable biologic products. This is the first phase of a three-building “science village.” Emphasizing flexibility and scalability, the design accommodates the evolving requirements of modern biotechnology, and can adapt to 10x Genomics’ growth.


    We have already described how designers of cGMP facilities must address elements like manufacturing scale, growth stage and flexibility. Along with these considerations, the most successful cGMP facilities prioritize one aspect above all else — the people who work there.

    Craft a human-centered design process which:

    Reflects the clients’ mission and culture

    Incorporates sustainability

    Promotes equity and community


    Collaborate with your clients to understand their ethos and values, then translate them into the design of their facilities. As products and teams scale, consider how new spaces will support the organization’s culture.

    One past client of mine established a custom of taking puzzle breaks to reset its team’s focus. As this organization grew, our design team honored this tradition by ensuring its facilities always included puzzle tables. Design customized spaces that resonate with each organization. This aids in employee engagement and retention while helping new employees connect with the company’s unique culture.

    For more insights into trends in scientific workplace design, refer to HOK’s article, “Trends in the Scientific Workplace: The Shape of Labs to Come.”


    With their high energy and water demands, research and manufacturing facilities offer significant opportunities for integrating sustainable design strategies. Air flow in clean room environments and pure water systems are both energy drivers in pilot and cGMP facilities. Closed-process single-use systems can significantly reduce clean room air flow requirements and the associated power consumption and eliminate on-site cleaning and sterilization requirements, which further reduces the facility carbon footprint. A single-use strategy combined with new reduced-energy options for water sterilization make carbon-free manufacturing sites a possibility.

    For AstraZeneca’s lab and office facility in South San Francisco, our team designed a research facility that fits the company’s culture while creating a highly collaborative research environment. Designed with a focus on sustainability, the project earned LEED Platinum certification.

    Scientific innovation is driving the development of more targeted, personalized therapies. As startups transition into global enterprises, their facilities must support changing priorities at each stage. Using a human-centered design approach focused on understanding our clients’ mission and culture, we translate what we learn into spaces tailored to their specific needs, always balancing customization with standardization. By combining strategic modular planning with deep technical expertise, we create facilities that are ready for the future.

    Dan Seng is a practice leader of science and technology at HOK.

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