Five Trends Shaping Life Science Labs of the Future

Five Trends Shaping Life Science Labs of the Future


The demand for life science and technology buildings is steadily growing. As advancements in medicine and private investments in research surge, the need for more, better-designed laboratories and support spaces increases. And the growth isn’t just taking place in traditional science and medical clusters like San Diego, San Francisco and Boston — it’s also permeating emerging areas such as Los Angeles and Denver.

As life science and technology designers at HKS, we want to help developers, institutions and companies in our field meet their needs for expansion and change. So, we conducted research to understand the sector’s current real estate needs and how we can address them through design. After reviewing more than 40 recent publications including journal articles, real estate news and design research, we identified trends from the years before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. We also interviewed a variety of life science professionals in the academic, corporate and government realms to validate our findings and gain valuable real-world insight.

We learned that during the pandemic, laboratory utilization increased while the use of other types of workspaces decreased. People with more administrative functions in all sectors are now slowly returning to offices, but the scientists who worked in laboratories never left. Their workflow, however, did change — people are balancing collaboration and individual work differently than before. Still, laboratories, support spaces and associated offices continue to have highly specific requirements and designers must be able to innovate and deliver projects that support those needs with creativity and expediency.

Here are five trends we discovered from our research and how we are actively translating them into our projects to help shape a more sustainable and efficient future.

1 – Renovations on the Rise

Renovations are becoming increasingly popular in the life science and technology community. A lack of vacant greenspace in desirable areas for lab development has led to more projects that adaptively re-use outdated structures. Renovations are often both a sustainable solution and a financially smart choice. With the help of architects and planners, savvy real estate investors can quickly determine which vacant spaces make the most financial sense to become conversions.

Renovations are often both a sustainable solution and a financially smart choice.

Some existing buildings are easier and more cost effective to convert than others. Factors to consider include whether they have the proper structural floor-to-floor heights to accommodate the ductwork required for chemical fume hoods and instrumentation or appropriate column spacing to accommodate lab modules. Additional considerations designers think about when determining if a site makes sense to convert include available space for emergency back-up generators, service and delivery accommodations for loading docks, and bulk storage for specific gasses.

Though the most common type of renovation property for life science and technology conversation is an office building, warehouses and shopping malls have also become desirable. As more people shop online, malls have become less desirable for consumers to travel to, meaning there are many opportunities to leverage those structures that already have built-in conveniences such as parking and eateries to accommodate changing needs for researchers and scientists.

HKS helped transform a modest office and warehouse building in a Kansas suburb into a state-of-the-art Food and Drug Administration laboratory.
HKS helped transform a modest office and warehouse building in a Kansas suburb into a state-of-the-art Food and Drug Administration laboratory.

Broader considerations for renovation projects include proximity to amenities, university research hubs, and associated health care and research institutions. Students and researchers in university settings are more likely to be attracted to facilities that are close to where they study or live, especially if they are also located near conveniences like restaurants, public transportation and day care.

2 – Flexible, Adaptable Labs

Scientists’ space requirements are transforming along with the real estate landscape, making flexible and adaptable laboratories more critical than ever before. Research needs for start-up companies often look quite different year-to-year and technological improvements in all parts of the life science sector are constantly changing workflows.

The ratio of lab space to office space is subject to change over time and a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t support shifts and growth in personnel or projects. Flexibility in design allows for spatial enhancements that adapt to future changes

HKS’ design for Biolab Research Facilities in Singapore features flexible compartmentalization to accommodate different start-up companies and facilitates interior and exterior connections with nature.
HKS’ design for Biolab Research Facilities in Singapore features flexible compartmentalization to accommodate different start-up companies and facilitates interior and exterior connections with nature.

While there are reasons to enclose some laboratory spaces such as biocontainment, noise mitigation, and environmental control, open laboratory concepts are increasingly desirable. Designs with open concepts promote interaction and resource sharing. When organized with a modular approach, labs and offices can become interchangeable and offer opportunities to flex spaces for increased efficiency with minimal disruption.

Other design solutions including movable furniture components and ceiling-mounted service panels for plug-and-play connections to workstations make modifications much easier. Sustainable rubber flooring products can be changed out much more easily than traditional epoxy flooring, which also allows for the laboratory to flex with the needs of scientists. As individual lab and office footprints become smaller and people seek more variation in their work settings, self-contained workstations that can easily move around are also becoming popular.

3 – Differentiating with Amenities

Laboratories are places of discovery and amenity spaces can be as crucial to a facility’s ability to promote discovery as the labs themselves. By programming desirable amenity spaces, designers can help optimize the experience of those working in life science buildings. Gold standard amenities are crucial to attracting and retaining top talent for the highly competitive life science industry.

Scientists and researchers want buildings that support health. Amenities that focus on wellness and sustainability are increasingly key for life science buildings and campuses. Amenity spaces throughout buildings such as fitness rooms, showers, bike storage, and grab-and-go shops or cafés with nutritious food make workplaces more appealing and support holistic well-being. And supportive recreational and leisure spaces such as a yoga studio, meditation room, sport courts and game rooms allow for much needed exercise or downtime.

Amenity spaces can also cultivate placemaking and support sense of community among scientists, researchers and administrators. Collaboration spaces adjacent to labs can enhance knowledge sharing and entice teammates to come to the office for face-to-face interactions. Within common areas, designers can create conditions for flexible arrangements including multiple seating styles, layouts and technological tools. Allocating space for informal and formal collaborations with open and closed room options is optimal, as is robust audio-visual systems to connect remote teammates and provide digital equity.

At the site level, building location, orientation and surroundings can also be viewed as amenities. Sun exposure and shade, direct connections to nature with views and indoor/outdoor working spaces, and biking or walking paths — all these elements positively impact well-being while contributing a desirable batch of amenities. When incorporated into buildings that support physical and mental health with high-performance design strategies such as natural ventilation, acoustic comfort measures, open stairways, efficient and flexible energy systems, these amenities can support a thriving scientific workplace.

4 – Modern Innovation Hubs

Just as new geographic life science clusters are popping up nationwide, smaller clusters of diverse, concentrated facilities are, too. Called innovation hubs, these developments are essentially campuses that support research companies in their endeavor to create and develop new ideas. Generally, they include wet and dry laboratory spaces and access to centralized equipment as well as conference and collaboration spaces.

Innovation hubs are becoming more prevalent as people realize how important and influential shared data and findings can be. They are often located near healthcare facilities for combined research opportunities, universities for attracting talent, and other amenities that are desirable for the workforce. Innovation hubs are beneficial to companies and institutions of all sizes and experience — from start-ups to established research groups — because they support learning from others and working together.

Due to the collaborative nature of their building programs, innovation hubs benefit from thoughtful design, as designers similarly leverage talent and opportunities to create solutions in their daily work. Planning and design for innovation hubs is crucial at the early development phase because they depend on proximity to other labs and research institutions. When designed and developed with the spirit of creative iteration and sharing they are intended for, innovation hubs can support a wide variety of high-impact scientific discoveries.

5 – Urban Settings and High-Rises

In recent years, life science and technology research entities have been locating or re-locating to populated urban areas. New technologies help make high-rise lab buildings more economically and socially feasible and they are a practical, high-density solution. Explosive growth in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries has caused companies and developers to capitalize on the advantages of urban locations, thereby maximizing land values and reducing environmental impacts.

HKS designed the Wexford ASU Biomedical Innovation Center in downtown Phoenix, which serves as a bridge between surrounding urban neighborhoods, the academic community, and the corporate life science research community.
HKS designed the Wexford ASU Biomedical Innovation Center in downtown Phoenix, which serves as a bridge between surrounding urban neighborhoods, the academic community, and the corporate life science research community.

Similar to innovation hubs, urban research settings allow the scientific talent to remain local to academic institutions while providing them the benefit of the urban living amenities they are accustomed to — arts, cultural and community-based activities, public transit and collaboration with other research groups.

As urban population rates continue to climb, developers are looking for designers and builders with experience and knowledge in pharma and biotech research and deep understanding of applicable (and often complex) code requirements for both high-rise and laboratory design. Designing for hazardous material storage and delivery, engineering controls for lab safety, and sustainable solutions for changes in energy, water, and air are all necessary considerations to responsibly accommodate urban life science and technology labs.

Impacting Life Science Design of Today and Tomorrow

Apart from these five, our research revealed trends in life science and technology real estate that closely matched other sectors. Changing investment factors and structures, a desire for high-performance and sustainable design, and attention to sanitation because of pandemic concerns are all sector-agnostic patterns. And while new and developing technologies impact every industry, we also noticed that cloud-based experiments and the integration of artificial intelligence are likely to significantly impact scientific workflows and life science real estate in the coming years.

At HKS, we are committed to understanding evolving trends and designing for positive outcomes. By maintaining our valued partnerships and creating new relationships, we strive to design spaces that are flexible and conducive to innovation within the life science and technology industry.  

If you would like to learn more about our findings and hear recommendations about how to leverage these insights, please contact Rich Smith or Nancie Constandse.

This project was completed as a part of HKS’ Research Incubator program. This annual initiative empowers practitioners throughout the firm to invest focused time and energy into exploring topics that encourage innovation and a culture of curiosity. To learn more about this program, please contact us at [email protected].