A source of global hope during the pandemic has been the life sciences sector, which has moved with incredible speed to produce vaccines. The sector’s ways of working and its real estate requirements are changing just as swiftly, with a number of existing trends in life sciences now being accelerated by Covid-19.

Lee Polisano

Lee Polisano

This is creating a huge opportunity for cities and the property sector. Some £15bn of capital has been allocated to UK life sciences real estate, of which less than 10% has been deployed to date, according to JLL. But attracting this increasingly discerning and in-demand sector will require an in-depth understanding of the fast-changing world of life sciences.

A key trend is boundaries between once siloed sub-sectors are being blurred as tech, start-ups, life science corporations, academia and institutions are increasingly working together. This has resulted in an increase in science and technology clusters and wide recognition that design that promotes cross-sector meetings results in successful innovation districts and clusters.

Our scheme for ThinkSpace at Imperial College London’s White City campus illustrates how to integrate academia, innovators and practitioners. The building provides a home where established organisations, growing companies, start-ups and entrepreneurs can work alongside one another and share expertise with academic researchers and students. Bespoke accommodation for technology start-up companies, part of the College’s research endeavours, sits alongside modern and efficient office space for commercial tenants that can be repurposed into functional laboratory space.

With a growing demand for space, universities have an opportunity to unlock land banks to create life sciences campuses,. For example, the latest tenant to snap up space at Imperial College ThinkSpace is clinical-stage oncology biotech company ADC Therapeutics.

Another key area to watch is large technology companies, which are pushing deeper into MedTech, thereby driving occupational and even retail demand. Google Health’s development of wearables, for example, is bringing this technology out of its usual occupational-consumer realm and into the retail-consumer world.

There will be a large number of real estate mergers and acquisitions for big pharma companies this year, which will mean significant juggling within portfolios. Built environment consultants should be ready to advise on rationalising estates and repurposing existing assets for new uses and team configurations.

Life sciences lab

Life sciences lab

Source: Shutterstock / Namomooyim

The most successful workspaces – and hence the models clients will want to replicate - will be those that inspire occupants to go further and accelerate research. Our design for Alderley Park, Cheshire, has this aim. It converts an outdated business park into a modern, amenity-driven bioscience campus with shared scientific services and dispersed community spaces. The layout encourages better knowledge sharing, wellbeing and creativity. Typically, introverted workspaces are made more connected and social, while an injection of new amenities brings round-the-clock vibrancy and life to the district. At the same time, the design ensures those on campus feel close to its natural surroundings, via paths and buildings designed to emphasise views, which helps to create a healthy and active environment.

Life sciences spaces are increasingly becoming ‘ultra-flexible’ and adaptable. Big pharma can leverage this flexibility to gain a competitive advantage, whilst booming SME’s need facilities that can grow with them. Emerging areas of research such as gene therapy need facilities that can be adapted according to how the research evolves and the activities that may be required in future.

Organisations are now rightly looking to futureproof their assets. Whether it’s retrofitting their building stock, exploring solutions for converting offices and retail into labs, or investing in purpose-built mixed-use buildings. This comes after frustrations within the industry with existing designs and layouts, with many that were built in the last decade already suffering from poor adaptability, lack of space and isolating environments.

At ThinkSpace, flexible floor plates and spaces designed to inspire and promote interaction help engender new levels of collaboration throughout the building. The facility is home to laboratories, an incubator and the accelerator space, as well as a range of flexible office spaces and the boundary between research space and offices is adjustable to suit market demands and future needs. This built-in flexibility means that bioscience researchers can work right alongside other disciples, say, patent specialists, sharing expertise and insight efficiently.

Locations are changing too as life sciences companies are showing an increased interest in urban locations, as they now believe being embedded and connected to the city drives productivity and innovation, and attract talent.

Notably, MedTech disruptors are injecting fresh occupational demand for highly connected workplaces in UK cities. With a deep and competitive talent pool in both life sciences and technology, these organisations will particular attention to human experiences – of patients, workforce and ecosystem partners – and their effect on business outcomes.

An exemplar of this model is the new Francis Crick Institute, London, on which we collaborated with architects HOK. The building next to St Pancras International Station and the British Library is both highly visible and inherently accessible to the surrounding city. The public is drawn to the site by outdoor artwork and the broadened public realm, which extends into the building’s lobby, while the same features encourage scientists out into the city.

The Francis Crick Institute is now a place for inclusive science on a prominent urban scale, focussing on civic responsibility and the relationship with the community. This reflects the modern life sciences sector well, and the key to providing the right buildings for the sector is to respond to these values, creating places that drive energy, collaboration and connectivity to surrounding communities and cities, and which are well-positioned for whatever the future may bring.

By Lee Polisano, president of PLP Architecture