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6 Site Selection Considerations for Life Science Spec Labs

Life science is one of the fastest growing sectors of the economy. With demand for office and retail space declining even before the pandemic, developers are increasingly investing to convert existing space into laboratories or considering a life science core and shell project for the first time. But deciding where to invest and build is no small task, and there are a lot of factors to consider, particularly as it relates to attracting tenants. What are the considerations that go into site selection to ensure a successful life science project? We have assembled a few key considerations from our experience.

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1. Know the Zoning Laws

It may seem obvious, but one of the first tasks in site assessment is to understand what is currently allowed and what the appetite is in the surrounding neighborhood for future development — be it life science or any other typology. Due diligence on life science building entitlements includes a great deal more permitting and approvals required for everything from chemical management plans to wastewater monitoring.  

Many jurisdictions may now allow lab use, but approvals are often complicated and have the potential to change. For example, Boston has its share of lab buildings, but each one is reviewed with great scrutiny. Innovation Square is a speculative development of 360,000 SF, and in order to meet zoning requirements, the developer needed to define the science that would be conducted in the space without having tenants on-board yet. For Boston, Article 80 large project review was required, adding time and scrutiny to a project the developer was eager to get on-line to meet the demand for research space in the city. Through collaboration with the city and consultants, the developer was able to work through all zoning and review requirements and proceed with the project, maintaining an aggressive timeline.

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2. Map Out Nearby Amenities for Live-Work-Play

It’s important that any site selected has amenities nearby or planned for the near future. Scientists who want to live and work in the city are looking for restaurants, retail and other services to be available within walking distance. Those that live in the both the city and the suburbs are looking for ease of access and proximity to mass transit. The 24/7 nature of the research work puts a greater importance on what type of services and amenities are nearby. Does everything nearby shut down at 5? Or is it open later into the evening? Does the transit line run all night? Mapping out these amenities — whether existing or planned along the same timeline as the development — at each potential site can help paint a fuller picture of what the scientist’s experience might be like and inform decision-making.

Live-Work-Play in Action

A vibrant new life science development led by Oxford Properties is planned for Emeryville in Northern California, just across the Bay from San Francisco. The site is directly across the street from The Public Market, a bustling food hall and retail center, and connects to a multi-modal transit network including regional rail station, public bus system, regional bicycle transportation network with a bike parking pavilion and neighborhood parking structure. The development is the final phase of a Public Market initiative which includes approximately 500 residential units constructed prior to this final phase. The development features two new core and shell life science buildings totaling over 400,000 square feet with ground floor retail and conference amenities, “world-class” Bay Area views and a “grand stair” that bridges the adjacent railway to connect the City of Emeryville and Bay Area to this growing live-work-play bio-tech hub.

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3. Consider Proximity to Academia

Many life science developments have arisen in proximity to academic medical centers and other academic research programs due to the growing collaboration between corporations and academia. Another reason for developments in proximity to academic medical centers and other academic research programs is the knowledge community with availability of newly minted scientists. 

For example, the 1.48 million-square-foot high rise buildings in the Schuylkill Yards Development Phase One (designed by PAU architects with HDR serving as the Architect of Record and lab planners) are being developed in a truly prime location adjacent to Amtrak’s 30th Street Station, Drexel University, University of Pennsylvania and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, in walking distance to the city center and the city’s landmark cultural institutions. This proximity to academic research and clinical care promises to attract gene therapy startups and other life science stalwarts. Key to the development and design was applying the appropriate base building criteria for these unknown tenants, and creating flexibility for right-sized lab suites for different users.

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4. Don’t Write Off the Urban Edges

Science buildings require a much greater level of service than office buildings with frequent large vehicle deliveries and defined Standards of Procedures. Many cities like Boston and Cambridge limit truck traffic, dock locations and sizes. For instance, cGMP and other high-intensity programs that can strain the city infrastructure make the urban edges and old industrial areas with more available land and at times fewer restrictions more attractive. Developing the urban edges and the industrial areas also proves to be both more sustainable and better for the health of the city. 

The Innovation Square development was envisioned when the site was all concrete and asphalt. Once the site of WWII tank fabrication, and most recently as a snow dump during the winter of 2014-2015, it is located in the Boston Marine Industrial Park and subject to more than the usual amount of city scrutiny, due to its historical relevance to the maritime industry and sensitive site along the waterfront. At the time of inception, it was also at the outer edges of development. The project was envisioned as a campus of buildings with green spaces, access to the water and amenities for food and health and fitness. In the end, the team designed a multi-building campus that has both attracted world-class bio-tech companies and sparked more development in the neighborhood.

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5. Calculate the Infrastructure Costs

In an existing urban environment there may be limitations to the flexibility of the existing infrastructure, and in a newly established industrial area, the services may need to be extended/expanded. Also due to the nature of the research, redundancy is important and with services like electricity, the distribution network should be investigated back to the substations that feed the area. Dual feeds are a beneficial resiliency measure. 

Robust infrastructure resiliency is examined on all projects and is incorporated into design and development of the project and can be a standalone infrastructure analysis deliverable as determined by the client.  Some key infrastructure elements that have been reviewed on projects such as the Schuylkill Yards East Tower include:

  • Site electrical distribution robustness
  • Electrical capacity limitations of local infrastructure
  • Natural gas infrastructure
  • Sufficiency of fire water mains to service building
  • Local fire water hydraulic capacity
  • City steam infrastructure
  • Sanitary waste flow capacity limitations (rare unless disproportionately large construction relative to neighborhood)
  • Sufficiency of roadways for throughput/turning abilities of delivery vehicle types
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6. Use Placemaking to Differentiate

Using architecture and design to create a sense of place is critical on any site. But with availability of land in the established clusters becoming scarce, the developments being planned in nearby industrial areas require very purposeful attention to placemaking. For example, the Innovation Square campus site is located near the water, extending the harbor walk and was designed to harken back to the maritime history and symbolize the future of collaboration and discovery. Landscaped spaces, places of respite, and outdoor dining patios were included in the project to create an inviting public realm. Additionally, a centerpiece of phase I is a large landscaped courtyard with seating, fire pit, and trees. The space is designed to accommodate moderately-sized events. Balconies and a large roof deck were also included as tenant amenities. BOMA 2017 now allows for these areas to be included in the rentable area which is a big incentive for developers to provide such spaces

Site selection for a life science building or an existing facility conversion to labs must be carefully considered. Developers are always well served to do their proper due diligence related to zoning laws and existing infrastructure conditions and to develop a deep understanding of the knowledge community, urban or suburban culture, site adjacencies including neighbors, transportation accessibility and nearby amenities. Partnering with an experienced architecture firm to provide thorough site selection reviews and due diligence studies to identify unique design opportunities can only be advantageous to a successful development process and outcome.   


Alan Fried, RA, is a lead project architect with over 25 years of experience. Based in our Boston office, he serves as liaison among design team, client, construction manager, and consultants and oversees design through development, careful detailing, and construction documentation to ensure its constructibility and durability. His most recently completed work is the two-phase life science development, Innovation Square, located in Boston’s Seaport District and highlighted in this piece.

Greg Hadsell, AIA, LEED AP, is principal for education, science & advanced technologies for our San Francisco office. He works with clients and leads teams in the design of advanced technology, multidisciplinary research and higher education projects, local to the San Francisco Bay Area, throughout the U.S., and around the world. Greg is currently serving as project manager and principal on the Oxford Properties life sciences development highlighted in this piece.

Adam Hayes, AIA, LEED AP, CDT, is an architecture section lead with 23 years of experience. He is an insightful, methodical and thorough architect and project manager with a broad range of building types in his resume ranging from complex interior renovations to ground-up construction of varied building types and uses. Adam is currently serving as project manager on the Schuylkill Yards Development Phase One, discussed in this piece. 

Alan Fried
Senior Project Architect
Greg Hadsell
Education & Science Director, U.S. West Region
Adam Hayes
Architecture Section Lead