Rui Dinis, a life sciences expert who has spent more than 20 years exploring the drivers behind the complex design of laboratories, discusses how we can add value to limited space to support the future of the UK’s research and development initiatives.

As we enter 2022, it’s more important than ever that every space we design is approached in a sustainable way. Not only regarding the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions and to reach net zero, but in order to address the growing demand for space, creating laboratories that stand the test of time when it comes to flexibility and performance. How can the design of speculative labs truly meet the needs of the science and technology industry, maximising limited square footage to benefit the entire supply chain, from developer, to landlord and of course, end user?

Research from Savills suggests that although the talent pool in London is amongst the strongest across the world’s cities, funding and investment, which is key to sector growth, is notably higher in the United States. Furthermore, the cost of property ranks much lower in China, suggesting better value for money when it comes to potential lab spaces.[1] These combined factors tell the story of a nation with strong ideas and research initiatives, with nowhere for them to come to fruition. So, what is the solution? We must increase the value of the limited space that we have available, building a bridge between ideas and impact and supporting research and development at every level.

In an attempt to remedy this issue, we are witnessing a movement towards the over-design of facilities, resulting in less sustainable outcomes in an attempt to appeal to a wider market. Not only is it unrealistic to create a space suitable for say, a start-up, that would also perform functionally for a mature-stage corporation, this approach also fails to acknowledge the draw of particular geographical locations. It is vital to consider who will conceivably use a space. There is no point in facilitating a lab for certain tenants when the research “ecosystem” relevant to their work is already based elsewhere.

As explored in Life Sciences Innovation: Building the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a major report by Perkins&Will, Blackstock and Savills, there is now a growing opportunity for developers to take advantage of the science park “clusters” that have formed across the UK. Through bringing these communities closer together through collaboration and interconnected spaces that support the research journey, it is possible to reduce unfavourable design overlap and over-specification in a single lab. Rather than one lab catering to multiple users, a cluster is able to support the lifecycle of a company, through the technology that it offers, in addition to the added bonus of peer-to-peer knowledge-sharing. As we see the number of start-ups in the industry raising more than £25M increasing from an average of approximately 2 per year from 2008 – 2016 to around three times more at 25 per year from 2014 – 2018, it is clear that these ecosystems are key to creating a more stable structure when it comes to lab design within the limitations of the property market.[2]

Just as the scientists within these systems work together to reach their targets, the way in which we design labs should mirror this collaborative approach. Another reason that spaces are often over-designed is because net zero lab design guidance does not exist. There is a noticeable lack of centralised data on building performance within the industry.

We should look to the success of other sectors and begin to adopt the same practices. The London Energy Transformation Initiative (LETI), a network of over 1000 built environment professionals that are working together to put London on the path to a zero carbon future, demonstrates the powerful influence of collective thinking and design.

To date, LETI has produced guidance such as the Client Guide for Net Zero Carbon Buildings and the Climate Emergency Design Guide, supporting the construction industry and education sector to deliver projects such as Lamington Group’s room2 hotel in Chiswick, a LETI Pioneer Project.

Through a detailed review of the predicted energy use intensity of room2, Elementa’s development of a new energy strategy will see an approximate reduction of carbon emissions by 60%, in addition to notable cost savings over the lifetime of the project.

Lamington Group are also looking at the bigger picture, through the creation of a net zero roadmap. Through assessing the greenhouse gas emissions of the entire organisation, the roadmap has seen Lamington Group become one of the first companies in the hotel industry to make commitments that will serve as a benchmark for the sector.

Despite some efforts to create a similar support network within the science and technology sector, this has yet to materialise. There is a clear need for a collaborative group of experts to come together and debate and agree on best practice for sustainable lab design. In 2019, Biocity reported that there had been a doubling of investment in UK start-up initiatives within the sector since their last report[3], yet this is still a fraction of the activity in the US. Through unified action, it is likely that the UK could better replicate the US model, increasing investment in lab spaces as a result of a better understanding of market needs, with solid data to back our approach.