As the life sciences industry continues to see significant growth in response to COVID-19, laboratory fitout projects within existing office buildings have become increasingly common as a means to satisfy the high demand for lab space. This raises the question: what does it take to convert an office building into a laboratory? There are several major factors that should be considered when determining the feasibility of a lab conversion project, including the following:
- Construction Type. The construction type of the existing building will impact its ability to support control areas for chemical storage and use. Control areas are generally required to have 2-hour rated floors and supporting construction (with some exceptions). If an existing building has 1-hour rated or non-rated floors, this will affect the control area strategy of the building and the corresponding maximum allowable quantities of chemicals that are permitted to be present within the laboratories.
- HVAC Design. NFPA 45, Standard on Fire Protection for Laboratories Using Chemicals, requires a dedicated ventilation system for laboratory spaces in which flammable gases, vapors, or particulate matter are present. In addition, depending on how chemicals are used within the building, it may be necessary to provide a hazardous exhaust system in accordance with the mechanical code. The need for these systems will likely warrant additional shaft space and larger fans to be provided. Exhaust air from such spaces is also not permitted to be recirculated. If energy recovery devices that have the potential to recirculate vapors are present, modifications may be required to meet this requirement.
- Fire Protection. Given the hazards associated with the presence of chemicals, laboratory spaces and chemical storage rooms require greater sprinkler densities. Any existing sprinkler systems will need to be evaluated to determine if they are capable of supporting the required densities.
- Structural Loads. Laboratories generally have greater live loads than office space. A structural engineer will need to determine whether the building is capable of supporting the loads associated with laboratory use.
- Electrical Service. Laboratories may have several pieces of equipment with large electrical demands. An electrical engineer will need to confirm that the electrical service provided for the building is capable of supporting the larger electrical demand presented by laboratory use. Further, spaces within the laboratory may require classified electrical equipment (e.g. Class I Division 1) to protect certain hazards.
There is a wide of array of types of laboratory tenants that will have varying needs based on the nature of their research and chemical hazards they present. In our experience, it is most prudent for an owner to understand the relationship between the building infrastructure and the type or types of laboratory tenants their building may attract. Once this is understood, a basis of design from a multidisciplinary design team can be established for potential adaptive reuse projects. If you have any questions or would like assistance with your laboratory conversion project, please do not hesitate to contact us.