March 3, 2005

Form follows function, even for biotech

  • The one-size-fits-all approach will no longer cut it

     Third places
    Photos by John Durant
    ‘Third places’ — gathering areas away from private offices or laboratories — allow scientists, shown here in a $74 million Gladstone Institutes building in San Francisco, to collaborate.

    While medical and technological advances are causing continual flux within the biotechnology industry, the designs of the facilities in which scientists and researchers perform their work have remained relatively unchanged. Only in recent years — as biotech has expanded in the Puget Sound region — have such buildings in our area begun to blossom, bringing with them design elements that speak specifically to the nuances of the industry.

    Biotech companies have historically made do with retrofitted warehouses or renovated office buildings to house their laboratories and research space, opting to funnel the bulk of their resources into the study of their science. Regions in which the biotech industry is now being recognized for its market potential — San Francisco, San Diego and Cambridge, Mass., for example — have recognized the benefits tailored biotech space can provide. Seattle — with a growing biotech hotbed in the South Lake Union area — is beginning to do the same.

    With new construction comes the opportunity to design to the trade; to essentially start from scratch and create a facility that not only accommodates equipment but encourages efficiency, fosters creativity and improves the quality of life for its inhabitants and the surrounding community. Flexibility for landlords and tenants is vital in a market that changes rapidly as science evolves. But whenever quality of life is enhanced — with amenities such as cafes, retail, and childcare — employees are more likely to become ingrained in the company's culture, as well as in the community.

    Moving forward

    The evolution of science, combined with a growing understanding of biotech design, is changing the way scientists and technicians work. While corporate office design has undergone several transformational cycles, from enclosed rabbit warrens to open plan landscape, hot-desking and home-working, laboratory design has yet to complete one cycle.

    In biotech's infancy, "wet" lab space with an office for the principal investigator was the norm. As the use of computing systems grew, so did the need for "dry" lab space. Here, technicians create mathematical models and virtual testing systems — without a beaker or microscope in sight. The availability of electronic information is key, requiring robust technology infrastructure. And in an industry fueled by great minds, attracting and retaining top employees is of utmost importance. These days, it takes more than a gold watch or an extra day's pay to keep the best employees from heading to greener pastures. A holistic approach to the design of biotech facilities is becoming a necessary practice.

    Three-pronged approach:

  • Create a "smart" shell. Biotech facilities have specific functionality requirements. Designing an empty building to be lab-capable takes a great deal of foresight and knowledge about the industry. All biotech companies are trying to be the first to market with their products. The less time they have to spend tweaking ductwork and rearranging lab space, the more quickly and efficiently a new product can be introduced.

    Biotech-specific designs include intense flooring stabilization to greatly minimize vibrations that could affect sensitive instruments. The typical measurement of velocity allowed in an office building — that is, the measurement of a floor's vibration characteristics — is 32,000 microinches per second. In a biotech facility, it's a mere 2,000 microinches per second.

    The mechanical requirements of a biotech building are also much more demanding than that of a typical commercial building. With air circulation needs twice that of an office building, a biotech facility requires larger air shafts and space for exhaust and intake fans. Without planning ahead, the space needed for such infrastructure could easily interrupt the natural flow of work.

  • Communicate your culture. The lead scientist at a new biotech lab in Arizona was adamant that a specific space be designed to showcase his vintage espresso machine. At Seattle's Zymogenetics, company leaders incorporated their appreciation of fine art into the design of the firm's new facility. And those leading the development of Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute Genome Campus extension in Cambridgeshire, England, found it important to maintain the campus' connection to the surrounding community by preserving view corridors, retaining much of the natural landscape and building a soccer field that could be shared by employees and neighbors.

    Biotech firms are realizing that the bottom line increasingly hinges on the caliber of their staff. Owners are asking architects to design attractive and fun places to work to help lure talented employees. Along with the most efficient and advanced equipment, new biotech facilities often feature on-campus athletic facilities, carefully designed landscaping, artistic installations and stunning views.

     dry lab
    The evolution of science has changed the way scientists and technicians work. New biotech architecture includes considerable ‘dry’ lab space where technicians can create virtual testing systems electronically. NBBJ designed this building for the J. David Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco.

    Once employees have been hired, they need reasons to stay. Understanding how scientists best work is key to designing effective spaces. "Third places" — informal gathering areas on common ground — allow biotech workers space to freely discuss projects and exchange ideas. The opportunity to collaborate on neutral territory is key to opening communication. It is within these interactions that the culture of the company is born.

  • Create an environment of well-being. Any new development has a commitment to the health and well-being of its future inhabitants and the surrounding community, and biotech facilities are no exception. Sustainable building design and construction is not just a trendy idea, it is a way to create lasting and high-performing facilities. Orienting the building to deflect heat, specifying efficient fume hoods, using locally produced materials and installing low-VOC-emitting finish materials are all ways of ensuring that a new building continues to give back to the environment in years to come.

    There are still relatively few developers pursuing biotech projects. Alexandria Real Estate Equities and Slough Estates are leading the way in the Mission Bay area of San Francisco — a targeted location due to its proximity to the University of California's brain power, and a kind of prototype for South Lake Union with the University of Washington as a neighbor.

    As the Puget Sound region's biotech hub continues to grow, it's certain to evolve into an area highly respected for its talented workforce and cutting-edge studies. With facilities specifically designed to foster such talent and encourage scientific discovery, one could expect nothing less.

    Bradley D. Leathley is a principal and Mark A. Whiteley is a senior associate at Seattle architecture firm NBBJ, specializing in the design of biotech facilities throughout the world.

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