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Making good investment decisions about science and technology facilities can have a positive long-term impact on all parts of an organisation. But first, Patric Vale says, you need to ask the right questions.

For the executives of any research-focussed organisation, investment in real estate is likely to represent the biggest and most exciting opportunity for them to transform their business. It can enable their strategic visions and ideas to materialise in bricks and mortar, creating an environment that will shape the future direction of the business for years to come.

If the right decisions are made, they will attract and retain the world’s best scientists, providing a platform for them to collaborate, working effectively and efficiently together in the development of new ideas and innovations. But if the decision is wrong, the consequences of delivering inadequate or mediocre facilities, ones that are expensive to operate and create physical boundaries for their scientists, will leave a financial legacy that could jeopardise the viability of the organisation itself.

At the heart of the decision to invest, is the evaluation and understanding of the likely capital and operating cost for the facilities. At the start of every project, every investor has to weigh up the balance between time, cost and quality — or as most project managers say, ‘pick any two’.

It is almost unheard of in the science and technology arena for cost not to be either first or second priority; laboratories and associated facilities are expensive spaces to build, but this is often exceeded by multiples when it comes to the costs of running and operating them over a lifespan for 30 years or more. It is paramount, therefore, that project investors and their delivery teams develop solutions which maximise the long-term value of any investment by answering these key questions.

Do you need to build?

This may seem an obvious question, but it is often glossed over in the rush to develop design concepts, put project teams in place and raise staff expectations. A careful evaluation of existing space, capacity and usage is essential, and then mapping it against the strategic requirement for the research programmes requiring space will provide a long-term foundation for a successful project and organisation. Too often the potential to make the most of the current assets is overlooked.

It is useful to also explore wider options as part of this strategic evaluation. Is the organisation in the ideal location for staff, customers and collaboration with other organisations, or should relocation be considered? It may be possible to consider non‑capital options, such as looking at commercially available rental space, occupying excess space with commercial partners or maximising the opportunity from internet or cloud-based research. Only when a strategic evaluation has exhausted all other options, should the initial decision to commit to capital investment be taken.


How will you use the space?

Once the decision has been made to build — or refurbish — the very obvious next step is to ensure that the optimum amount of space is provided. The science sector readily engages with occupancy benchmarking, often to the point of obsession, but to maximise the value of the investment, it is imperative to challenge the existing norms and parameters.

The single greatest opportunity to maximise value is at the user briefing stage. Here the facility design team can work closely with the research teams to understand their requirements and how they will work with each other. Effective space planning should not be just about delivering the lowest metric for primary research space. It is about looking at the whole requirement, the working patterns and delivering a building that promotes collaboration and maximises utilisation.

This presents an opportunity to challenge the culture of an organisation. Taking researchers out of laboratory areas for write-up and administration functions reduces health and safety risks and focuses the more technical spaces on the research they were intended for.

One of the greatest challenges for laboratory operators over the past 10 years has been the need to provide secondary specialist research space — dedicated rooms or suites housing specialist (and usually expensive) equipment or facilities. Data often shows these are used less than 10 per cent of the time, and while their provision is fundamentally important to the science undertaken throughout the building, they should be seen as central assets to be used by the whole organisation — or even other organisations? — and their utilisation maximised.

Space for collaboration has been a continual theme in laboratory design over the past decade also, and, more recently, expanded to also include commercialisation zones. In particular, in the government and tertiary sectors, there is an increasing acceptance that while blue-skies research is vital to promulgate knowledge and understanding, it is not wrong for it to be for commercial benefit. Flexible incubator and grow-on spaces are now higher on the agenda in business cases, and provide opportunities for not just the development of entrepreneurs, but also allow key partnerships with strategic external partners to flourish.


How will you adapt the space?

There is one absolute certainty with all science facilities: the research need will change. With science programmes and grant cycles lasting around three years, the evolution of research frequently outstrips the time taken to design, procure and construct buildings. It is desirable that the space provides a level of future flexibility, and this is frequently seen high on the list of project priorities at brief stage. It’s worth noting, however, that sometimes small amounts of flexibility are all that are needed. Recent AECOM research in one R&D facility shows that only 25 per cent of highly reconfigurable labs were ever changed and the majority of those changes were minor, not requiring the degree of flexibility that had been built in.

Flexibility, though, presents a range of opportunities, and a range of price points. At the lower cost end, relocatable benching, safety cabinets and fume cupboards allow research teams to adapt ‘in room’, responding to new pieces of work or improved equipment. At the midpoint, movable partitions between rooms, common-room size modules for secondary research space, enhancement to the heating, ventilation or air-conditioning (HVAC), or labs gases allows a greater degree of flexibility, and the opportunity to alter team size or configuration, all with a moderate cost premium.

At the highest end, large, open-plan, fully flexible labs, with mobile partitions, enhanced services infrastructure and access points, allow teams to reconfigure spaces at short notice and respond rapidly. These flexilab-type facilities have been developed successfully by several private organisations, but with reduced operating costs offset by high capital investment.

Ultimately, the fundamental question on flexibility is ‘just how frequently will you flex your lab space?’ Before specifying a high degree of inbuilt flexibility, with increased capital investment cost, organisations should review their current facilities and analyse what changes they have made, how frequently, and whether they have actually been constrained by the lack of flexibility in the past.


How important are the running costs?

Given the engineering complexity within all but the simplest laboratory spaces, and that buildings are frequently operated 24/7 to accommodate lengthy experiments, it is unlikely that the answer to this question will be anything other than ‘very’. However, this is a significant cost driver through the lifecycle of any facility, particularly with energy costs increasing, intensive routine maintenance costs, expensive spare parts and a drive to reduce carbon footprints.

To deliver optimal whole-life running costs for a laboratory, it is necessary for building operators, scientists and services engineers to engage in a collaborative manner to challenge the current methods of operation. A standard fume cupboard uses three times more energy per day than a typical household, and it is increasingly common to see the number of cupboards, and their operating criteria, challenged at concept stage. Centralising equipment, -80 degree freezers and fume cupboards, even at a local level, allows rationalisation and energy reductions. Levels of resilience in key building systems are almost always required in laboratories — the last thing any scientist wants is a power or HVAC system failure half way through a month long experiment — but these drive up capital and operating costs. Again, a balanced view is required, with appropriate levels of resilience in key areas.

Selecting the most appropriate level of specification for the facility may increase day-one capital costs, but it reduces lifecycle costs through extended replacement and maintenance cycles. For instance, the most appropriate laboratory floor finish should be selected to resist the actual chemicals used in the facility. Automatic doors can be installed on routes with high trolley use to reduce impact damage.

Finally, ensuring that the building operator’s staff are fully trained in the management of these complex spaces is paramount to ensuring that actual operating costs meet those planned during design. The UK’s Soft Landings process assists greatly with this, advocating early involvement (during design) from the operator, and post-completion continuity from the delivery and commissioning team.