Market report

Adaptive reuse and its importance for life sciences

Adaptive reuse can offer significant advantages over ground-up development, but the technical challenges are many.
The CaixaForum, Madrid
The CaixaForum, Madrid (© Doreen Kennedy)
Table of Contents
In: Market report

Architects define adaptive reuse as a process in which buildings are adapted for new uses while retaining their historic fabric and features.

Previously, only buildings of architectural or historical significance were considered for reuse or adaptation but in recent years a broader concept of retrofitting has arisen from environmental necessity.

The greenest building is the one that is already built, to quote architect Carl Elefante. Here are three examples of adaptive reuse from across Europe:

  • In Copenhagen, a former water tower now houses students (Jægersborg Water Tower)
  • In Madrid, an old power station is now a cultural centre and museum (The CaixaForum)
  • In London, a former Camden Council office building is now a boutique hotel (The Standard)

In the US new life sciences space is often created by converting existing buildings. Such projects accounted for nearly 10 million sq ft (0.9 million sq m) of new supply in the top 12 US life sciences markets at the end of 2021, according to CBRE. 31 per cent of the life science space delivered in the fourth quarter of 2022 was conversions. In New Haven (home to Yale University), “developers have been scouring the city for buildings that could be repurposed as lab,” according to Colliers.

Key drivers of conversions

When considering real estate development projects, converting or repurposing an existing building often presents several advantages over a new build. Whether it is an office building becoming apartments, a retail outlet becoming medical offices or something else, adaptive reuse offers numerous benefits that can make it a cost effective and sustainable option. The benefits are listed below.

1. Sustainability

Conversion contributes to sustainable development by repurposing existing structures instead of demolishing and rebuilding. Adaptive reuse not only helps preserve the architectural heritage of a community but also reduces waste generation and the consumption of new resources. This approach aligns with environmental goals, promoting a more sustainable and responsible approach to real estate development. From a sustainability perspective, refurbishment can deliver a 56 per cent reduction in carbon emissions compared with a new-build facility, according to one UK consultant. It takes an estimated 65 years for an energy-efficient new building to recapture the amount of energy lost in demolishing an existing building. Further energy is then required to build a new structure, exacerbating the energy waste with a new build. Adaptive reuse does not require demolition, an energy-intensive process, or the quantum of raw materials consumed by new-build construction. This reduces pollution and energy waste.

2. Time to market

Repurposing an existing building generally takes less time than starting a new development project. The lengthy processes of securing permits, conducting environmental impact assessments, and architectural design are often expedited as the building’s core structure is already in place.

This allows for quicker occupancy and a faster return on investment. According to JLL, in general, life sciences firms in the US can expect to spend about 18 months from the start to completion. However, as Charles Walford of Stanhope plc points out, the process may take longer in Europe. That includes the design, the permitting process, the base building conversion and the buildout of lab and office space.

3. Location and accessibility

Existing buildings can be strategically located in areas with easy access to transportation networks and proximity to unique amenities.

4. Community integration

A repurposed building can become or remain an integral part of the existing neighbourhood fabric, providing new services and contributing to the local economy. Adapting older buildings of character can provide more distinctive properties with spaces that lend themselves to place making. This approach fosters a sense of continuity and preserves the character of the community while meeting evolving needs.

5. Potential cost savings

Converting an existing building may be less expensive than constructing a new building from scratch, although it depends to a large extent on the degree of refurbishment required and on the local planning regime.

In summary, adaptive reuse of an existing building can offer several advantages over ground-up new developments. We now turn to the specific case of adapting buildings to life sciences use.

Life science conversions

Existing buildings offer a certain degree of adaptability and flexibility to meet the specific needs of a life sciences lab.

With appropriate renovations, including upgrading utilities, optimising ventilation and air quality systems, and implementing necessary safety measures, the building can be transformed to include wet lab space. The layout and floor plans may need to be adjusted to accommodate specialised equipment, laboratory spaces, and office areas as per the requirements of the life sciences industry. With careful planning and execution, this adaptive reuse strategy can bring benefits to occupiers of all sizes. (The number of office-to-lab conversions in the United States, as noted above, is testament to that.) However, it is not necessarily straightforward and the many technical issues that need to be factored in will be covered in depth in a separate article.

Which buildings get converted

A common type of conversion is from office to lab, but other repurposing projects have also been undertaken: retail space, warehouse space, or even a museum of art may be reincarnated as life sciences space.

Within the category of office-to-lab conversions, we pick out three European case studies. All three were featured in previous editions of Life Sciences Real Estate.

Example 1: a city centre office in Ireland

Joshua Dawson House
Joshua Dawson House (© Kieran Harnett)

Joshua Dawson House in Dublin is an example of a successful office conversion in the centre of an old city (Dublin is over one thousand years old). The building in question is a five-storey over basement, Grade A office in Dawson Street. The street is a vibrant mixed-use location in the Central Business District, featuring offices, retail outlets, bars and restaurants, as well as the Mansion House (where the Lord Mayor lives). Trinity College Dublin is a short walk away and the other three universities in Dublin are all within six km. The building has a net internal area of 1,486 sq m (16,000 sq ft). Nuritas, an Irish biotech company that uses data mining of natural sources to identify new health benefiting molecules, is the main tenant.

Before moving to Joshua Dawson House, the company’s operations were split between two locations. The company wished to bring their activities and staff together in one location, which is often the case when a company moves from start-up to scale-up status. The company had to undertake some major internal changes to make it suitable before moving in. For example, within the labs there are varying types of equipment that require special treatment.

Some of the equipment is noisy (requiring sound-proofing hardware), some of it generates heat (requiring air conditioning) and some of it is sensitive to vibrations (requiring specially designed benches). Certain units were very bulky and not possible to move around in a standard lift. Gas lines were needed to supply carbon dioxide, nitrogen and oxygen to certain locations within the labs. Fume extraction was needed too, which required the installation of fume hoods and associated ducting.

Despite these challenges, the repurposing went smoothly, and the building is now functioning well and has been future proofed to allow for expansion. Nuritas staff, whether scientists, data scientists or others, like the city centre location and the fact that their whole team is in one place.

Example 2: a biotech incubator in Norway

A second example comes from Norway, where Oslo Cancer Cluster Incubator converted three offices into new laboratories to accommodate the rising demand from their members. When undertaking the conversion, walls had to be moved, a separate ventilation system had to be installed, and new water pipes had to be fitted. Expensive instruments had to be ordered and work benches with hoods were mounted for the cell laboratory. All rooms needed to be measured correctly down to the last millimetre for everything to fit precisely.

The Incubator Labs follow a distinctive model, which offers both private laboratories and fully equipped shared laboratories. The private laboratories are leased with furniture, water supply, electricity and ventilation. The companies bring their own equipment depending on their needs. Shared laboratories, including a bacteria lab, a cell lab and wet lab, are leased including basic equipment with the opportunity for companies to bring their own. All laboratories share the support facilities including a cold room for storage, a laundry room, and storage room including cell tanks and nitrogen gas.

The advantage of working in a shared lab is that companies can avoid the costs and limitations associated with setting up and managing a laboratory. A broad range of general equipment, including more advanced, analytical instruments, are provided by the Incubator because it can be too expensive for a small company to buy all this equipment themselves.

Example 3: a warehouse in the UK

Sycamore House, a 1980s industrial and warehouse building of 9,756 sq m (105,000 sq ft) is located adjacent to Stevenage BioScience Catalyst (SBC) and the Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult Manufacturing Centre (CGTCMC). In August 2019, Kadans Science Partner acquired the building from GSK. At that stage in its life, the building was described as “a rather tired 1980s metal shed, currently used as a warehouse and storage facility.”

Kadans converted the building with Mission Street acting as the Development Manager.

The building now provides two floors of modern, vibrant, multi-tenanted offices, and laboratory facilities within the existing shell of the building. The new building offers grow-on space catering for demand from the SBC and CGTCMC. Kadans has retained some of the original warehouse features within the modular and flexible design, which will accommodate a range of tenants in terms of size and maturity.

The multi-tenanted approach is designed to facilitate a collaborative ecosystem within a single building. The lab space is categorised as Containment Level 2 (CL2), and units range from 100 sq m to 2,000 sq m (1,076 sq ft to 21,536 sq ft). The building also incorporates a communal welcome area, collaboration spaces, enhanced meeting rooms, waiting rooms, and breakout areas.

Sycamore House was fully let prior to completion and became operational in Q2 2022. It is home to the Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult’s Skills and Training Laboratories, which were part-funded by a £3m (€3.51 million) investment from Herts LEP. Other current tenants include Achilles Therapeutics, Charles River Laboratories, Cytiva, Freeline Therapeutics, GSK and Rentschler Biopharma. The official opening ceremony took place on 18 May 2023, and it is believed that Kadans provided £25 million (€29 million) of investment into the redevelopment of the building since 2020.

These examples illustrate how adaptive reuse can be successful for occupiers at different stages of development: a startup in an incubator in Norway, a scaleup company seeking a single location for all its team members in Ireland, or well established companies with locations across several countries including one in the UK.

The importance of talent and urban locations

Buildings located in or near the edge of an established life sciences cluster will support recruitment efforts and the collaborative work of scientists. If the life sciences cluster is densely populated, there may be a greater tendency towards adaptive reuse; if not, ground-up development may be more prevalent.

New York is a good example of density tending to favour adaptive reuse. 2023 will see the completion of major conversion projects such as 125 West End Avenue in Manhattan, where the former ABC studio and office building will become a 517,000 sq ft (48,000 sq m) purpose-built research and laboratory complex.

Meanwhile, in Queens, Longfellow Real Estate Partners is converting the former 214,000 sq ft (19,900 sq m) industrial building at 43-10 23rd Street into Class A lab and research space. New York City, where 77 per cent of product in the pipeline is attributable to conversions, has the highest ratio of conversions to ground-up development, followed by the Washington, D.C./Baltimore corridor, Denver Boulder, and Boston-Cambridge. Less than 4 per cent of NYC office space is currently developed for life sciences use, and life sciences inventory is projected to more than double to 4.64 million sq ft (431,000 sq m) by 2025.

If Europe’s densest life science clusters follow the example of New York, one should expect to see more conversions in the future. At present, approximately 190,000 sq ft (17,700 sq m) of lab space in London has been converted from existing office stock, according to Savills. New York City is a hot spot for life sciences because it has the assets the industry is looking for — universities with strong research programmes, highly skilled professionals, hospitals, public transit and a diverse labour pool. It also has another key asset — a resident population of venture capital and private equity funders looking for investments. The parallels with London are obvious.

Adaptive reuse can offer significant advantages over ground-up development, but the technical challenges are many.

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