Adaptive Reuse for Life Science Facilities

Sep 27 2023

By: Barry Hill, AIA

& Yi Luo, RA, NCARB


Emerging opportunities for advancement in the life sciences and technology industry are creating increased demand for innovative laboratory space across the country and specifically in innovation “hot pockets” such as Austin, Raleigh/Durham, and San Francisco.

The rise in demand has many companies exploring new ways to convert existing buildings and underutilized spaces into hubs for scientific research and development.

The process of repurposing an existing building or structure for new use is known as adaptive reuse. There are numerous “perks” to renovating an existing space into a lab as opposed to new construction. Converting an existing building into a lab can be faster, less expensive, and more environmentally friendly than building a new lab from the ground-up.  

Just like any other project, adaptive reuse for life science facilities come with their own unique set of challenges and opportunities. Converting an empty space into a life science and research facility is far different than creating spaces for offices and other commercial space. It is crucial for real estate developers and companies to find an experienced architecture firm to help guide them during this important undertaking to ensure that the properties they select are suitable life science conversion candidates.  

“As a designer, the challenges that these types of projects present are what make life science conversions so interesting. When you’ve worked in this sector of design for a while, you learn a sort of formula to these projects, yet every project is still unique.”
Barry Hill, AIA, MHAworks Life Science & Technology Studio Director

Qualities to Look for in a Life Science Conversion Site

  • Loading Docks – Products and equipment are constantly shipped to and from lab sites and having space to support the loading/unloading of materials is key. Being sure that the loading dock, corridors, and service elevators can support large equipment and hazardous materials while also remaining separate from typical office functions ensures the safety of users and the surrounding environment. 
  • Clear Height Below Structure – Developers should seek buildings at least 17 feet of clear floor–to–floor height for extensive exhaust and HVAC ductwork.  
  • Rooftops – Roof structures for life science buildings need to have the strength to carry heavy HVAC (Heating, Ventilating, and Air Conditioning) units. Airflow is an essential element of safe lab design, and finding a building with supplemental framing and the potential to support that equipment is crucial.  
  • Storage – Knowing the allowable limit of chemicals and hazardous materials in a facility will determine the building’s fire safety design. Designers need to know what materials will be used and where they plan to store and use them on-site.  
  • Ability to Subdivide Space – Life science facilities contain many diverse spaces, including labs, chemistry or BSL, research and development space, offices, break rooms, storage space, manufacturing rooms, etc. Often requiring some degree of segregation from other spaces in the building.  
This once empty shell building is now home to life science and research and development for Cambrex. Adaptive reuse of this space allowed the tenant to begin work quickly.

Here’s What Developers Need to Know about Adaptive Reuse for Life Science Facilities:

Do Not Underestimate the Budget

Life science buildings require the use of more power, water, and airflow than typical commercial structures and office buildings. It is highly recommended that companies and developers leave room in their budget to fund the preliminary design for their projects. This phase of design will help the team develop a comprehensive understanding of the project and develop a plan for how to execute it whilst adhering to the budget.  

Flex Buildings Make the Best Candidates

Flex buildings are multifunctional spaces that can be easily adapted to meet the needs of various businesses ranging from corporate offices to life science facilities. Flex spaces are designed for versatility and allow tenants to easily customize the space to fit their needs. These types of buildings are perfect for adaptive reuse projects and life science facilities because they are often easy to renovate.  

Conversion Pros

  • Speed to Market – Converting an existing building into a new life science building is far quicker than building a new facility from the ground up. The faster a building can be completed; the sooner scientists can begin working.  
  • Sustainability – Generally, renovation and adaptive reuse projects are more sustainable because they do not usually require replacing carbon-heavy concrete and steel structural systems.

Conversion Challenges

  • Can Limit Space Planning Options – Working within an existing building means that designers must work with the existing square footage. If the building cannot support all necessary amenities, the owner may need to consider choosing a different space or investing in expansion. 
  • Zoning Challenges – Ensure that the site is zoned for the type(s) of science being practiced in the facility.  

“As a designer, the challenges that these types of projects present are what make life science conversions so interesting. When you’ve worked in this sector of design for a while, you learn a sort of formula to these projects, yet every project is still unique.”
Yi Luo, RA, NCARB, MHAworks Architect


Project Spotlights:

949 Washington Street Life Science Conversion

Located at 949 Washington Street, this 37,500-square-foot warehouse is currently being redeveloped as life science and office space. The decades-old building that once belonged to Brame Specialty Company sits on a three-acre site, adjacent to the Durham Beltline Bike Trail and east of the Pearl Mill Preserve. 

Because of the demand in the Triangle for life science and commercial office space, the redevelopment of this property will provide a layout, access, and parking ratio like what you might see in Research Triangle Park, but it has the convenience of being only minutes away from the heart of downtown Durham. 

The property will maintain its industrial aesthetic but will include a new outdoor terrace and canopies along with upgrades to the building envelope and its systems. Once a tenant is acquired, the space will be modified to fit their needs. 

adaptive reuse of 949 Washington Street, a life science and office space designed to echo those found in Research Traingle Park.

Novan Lab & Office Building

MHAworks was hired to transform an outdated 50,000-square-foot office building into a modern and open workspace for Novan, a biotechnology company based in Durham. Our team worked diligently to revamp the interiors of this office, using daylighting and wayfinding to create open workstations, collaborative areas, private meeting rooms, and a staff lounge area. 

Our scope of work also included window treatments, new personal storage units, and upgraded lab space that includes a lab coat storage unit. 

Adaptive reuse of Novan lab life science facility