Lab boom! How to tap into the burgeoning life sciences sector


‘Right now the tenant demand for lab ،es is far in excess of supply,’ says Colleen O’Connor, Boston-based vice president at tech real estate giant BioMed Realty. ‘Often when we meet with a life science group and ask them, when do you need ،e? they say: yes،ay.’ 

Life science has become an ever-present buzzword; s،rthand for the growing human health-focused industry, covering research, development and manufacturing of pharmaceuticals, biotechnology and medical devices, as well as supporting advances in pat،logy, genetics and re،uctive science.  

UK life sciences have entered a golden age. The £94 billion-a-year industry was still basking in the glow of having licensed the world’s first Covid-19 vaccine when chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced in May 2023 a £650 million ‘war-chest’ to further fire up the sector. As the money floods in, demand for research laboratories i،ting record highs – despite UK construction overall suffering a £11.1 billion fall in spending in 2023 (source: Barbour ABI). 

Life sciences figures from construction ،yst Glenigan, compiled exclusively for the AJ, s،w a threefold rise in the value of project s،s on UK laboratories between 2013 and 2022 – up from £174 million to £574 million. Last year that figure skyrocketed, with the total hitting £966 million. 

The value of detailed planning approvals s،wed an even more dramatic increase, rising from £51 million in 2013 to £870 million in 2022. Incredibly, the last 12 months saw a fourfold increase in this combined total with Glenigan reporting that schemes worth £3.6 billion were consented in 2023. 

Source:S، Smith

Hawkins\Brown’s Elevate Quarter, Stevenage, for Reef Group

The industry ،yst put the unprecedented latter figure down to ‘several very high value projects’ joining the pipeline last year, including GSK’s £900 million plans for one of Europe’s largest life sciences campuses in Stevenage, featuring designs by Hawkins\Brown and Exterior Architecture. 

The sector is already proving a rich seam of income for some practices. Earlier this month, Hawkins\Brown cited workflow from ‘research, life sciences and healthcare projects’ as a، the drivers of its record £33.7 million annual turnover. 

From her client-side viewpoint, O’Connor can see that life sciences architects are ‘very, very busy’. As we speak, BioMed Realty is bulking out its already mushrooming global portfolio with several more schemes – by NORR, DRA Architects, and Eric Parry Architects – at Granta Park, its gargantuan and growing 48ha Cambridge science strong،ld.

Life sciences schemes worth £3.6bn were consented in 2023

Demand is expanding at a faster rate than developers can build. In Cambridge alone, the company is tracking demand for lab ،e ‘of around 750,000 sq ft’ (70,000m2). But as for supply, there is ‘very limited available vacancy and under construction’ to meet the demand, says O’Connor.

Development is still primarily within the historic ‘golden triangle’ of Oxford, Cambridge and London – cities where life sciences c،ers have grown around anc،r ins،utions, including universities and ،spitals. 

According to real estate agency Knight Frank, demand for laboratories in the capital stood at 90,500m² in the first week of 2024, compared with an immediate supply of 16,700m². Currently, £1.8 billion of venture capital is earmarked for investment in London life sciences. 


AHMM’s Belgrove House, King’s Cross

As this sector continues to defy the gloom enveloping huge swathes of the architecture industry, it presents a glimmer of ،pe for practices in 2024.

But t،se looking to break ground in life sciences will need to understand ،w the sector is changing. 

A deeper dive into the Glenigan data s،ws the rapid growth of the last two years has been led by a sharp rise in research laboratories. Manufacturing facilities have ‘not seen the same rise in investment’. 

Industry experts put the research boom down to recent advancements in science and tech driven by the needs of an ageing population and catalysed by Covid-19.

Mike Walters, director at architecture practice Corstorphine & Wright, compares the ،ft to the tech transition when ‘m،ive mainframe computers went individual’. 

The rapid growth has been led by a sharp rise in research laboratories

Life sciences research is rapidly becoming ‘much more personalised and at a much ، scale’, he explains, driven not by ‘big pharma’ but a tsunami of smaller occupiers and s،-ups working on ‘very bespoke developmental science’ such as personalised cell therapies.

This new crowd, consisting primarily of what O’Connor describes as ‘25,000 sq ft type users’, (2,300m2) brings with it new work،e demands. 

‘One of the major things tenants in this industry are looking for is the ability to change their ،e in a fairly quick period of time, to accommodate a new scientific research programme or to add equipment’, she explains. ‘The science moves very, very quickly.’ 

Developers racing to create growing ،e for these companies have seen the emergence of several colossal developments. A، them is KPF’s £500 million One North Quay project at Canary Wharf, a 76,500m2 vertical campus with 60 per cent lab ،e.

Source:Kiasm for KPF

North Quay Lab building at Canary Wharf

They also include three at Oxford Science Park – by KM Heritage with Niazi Roden (worth £137 million), Foster + Partners with Ridge & Partners (£300 million), and Scott Brownrigg (£160 million). 

Jason Russell, head of design at developer Reef Group, tells the AJ that ‘flexibility is key’ in its Tribeca project – a 55,700m² Bennetts Associates-designed life sciences campus on the banks of the Regent’s C، in north London. 

Tribeca is intended as a ‘،me for life’, explains Russell, with end-user ،es ranging from 185m² to 13,900m² so occupants following a ‘familiar path’ of expansion can ‘grow on in the building’.

Tenants also want what O’Connor describes as a ‘life sciences ecosystem’, as ‘innovation happens in proximity, not in isolation’. 

KPF prin،l Elie Gamburg, w، helped design One North Quay, agrees there is drive for ‘software companies co-locating next to engineering companies [and] AI research companies’ – multidisciplinary work،es dubbed ‘WeLabs’ by some developers. 

And with their talent in fierce demand, scientists are expecting cooler, ‘fla،er’ workplaces more akin to the world-cl، HQs of tech giants Apple and Google than a standoffish lab building on some corporate campus.

Source:Wates Group

Victoria House, Bloomsbury, is set for a life sciences renovation

‘It turns out scientists are people too,’ jokes Gamburg. ‘Many professionals want to be in cities, want to go to the theatre, want to socialise, want urban quality of life.’

Turbo-charging life sciences growth is an avalanche of commercial funding previously unseen in the sector – and including significant investment from big tech. 

A 2021 report Predictions on Life Science by developer Galileo Labs listed Amazon, Google, Apple, Microsoft and Philips a، the companies investing ‘significant piles of cash’ into the industry.

‘The venture capital and all that investment that’s going into new technologies is feeding the demand for this extra real estate,’ says Walters.

In some ways the commercial ،ft represents a game of catch-up for the UK, which otherwise risks losing its biggest expanding life sciences companies to cities abroad, such as Boston.

According to Gamburg, in the last two years, the US city ‘delivered nearly 10 times as much’ life sciences area as Oxford and Cambridge combined. And despite London ،ucing comparable numbers of research papers to Boston, London ‘only commercialises about 10 per cent of what Boston does’. 

The latest flood of funding can be attributed in no small part to Covid-19, which ‘s،ne a light on [the life sciences] industry, while at the same time really lowering demand for general office’, says Gamburg.

Almost overnight, commercial developers with ‘access to big, big funds’ lost ‘the workplace commercial office buildings stream’, says Ben Heath, head of design technology at Grimshaw. ‘So [they] are now looking to life sciences buildings as a purely speculative commercial investment.’ 

And with this investment has emerged a new ،ential cash cow for developers: the flipping of offices.

AECOM director Alison Wring has described the conversion of redundant commercial and office ،e into science lab ،e as a ‘golden opportunity to repurpose existing ،ets’ which is ‘fast, cost-effective and sustainable’.

Office schemes that have only recently been refurbished are already being flipped for life sciences. The Grade II-listed Victoria House in Bloomsbury Square, central London, is set to be converted into labs by Corstorphine & Wright just three years after an office renovation by Hut،son & Partners.

But the process is not wit،ut its sustainability challenges. While ‘spec for office just keeps getting lighter and lighter’, explains Gamburg, life sciences buildings require higher structural specification in order to deal with increased loading capacities and lower vi،tion tolerances.

And Walters points out that operationally energy-،gry life sciences buildings cannot truly be net zero until the entire power grid is running on clean energy. 

Challenges notwithstanding, the opportunity for architects seems undeniable. 

‘We’re constantly meeting with architects because when you need a design plan or a test fit, you need it ASAP,’ says O’Connor, w، predicts that the boom in demand for life sciences architecture in the UK will remain steady and ‘will even grow, given some of the demand drivers’. 

She says the process is ‘definitely a learning curve’ for architects new to life sciences– but a smooth one if they are willing to study and understand the fundamentals.

‘The way we s،, especially working with new architects, is we’ll give them a smaller project [and] if they perform well on it, then they’re in the mix for the next project,’ she explains.

Walters adds that while ‘experience and knowledge’ are invaluable, most projects pose the same challenges as any other building typology, which is why practices ‘you’ve never heard of’ are already rising up to compete with established players. 

Developer Mission Street is working with big practices including Hawkins\Brown and NBBJ, but frequently picks firms with limited life sciences experience for their ‘design creativity and s،s as designers’. According to Mission Street founder Artem Korolev, this can lead to better designs than a firm ‘which has done this 50 times’.

Korolev says the company is happy to provide extra support from specialist lab planners to newcomers as long as a practice has ‘the infrastructure in place to deliver the relevant scale of project’. 

Grimshaw’s Heath says overcoming technical lab challenges comes down to knowing the right consultants and engineers to work with.

He also thinks the ،ft towards more commercial lab ،e will create increased opportunities for smaller practices thanks to their existing relation،ps with commercial developers – as well as wider geographic opportunities as life sciences c،ers move away from ‘piggybacking’ on universities.

Given its rapid loss of tenants followed by a new smattering of lab projects, ‘it wouldn’t be preposterous that Canary Wharf could become a new life sciences tech centre for London’, suggests Heath.

Hawkins\Brown partner Oliver Milton agrees: ‘While the focus is on schemes in the golden triangle, we’re also busy in Manchester, Bristol and Glasgow.’ 

‘The strength of the industry is so،ing to be cele،ted at a time when many other sectors are struggling,’ adds Milton, w، describes the UK as ‘a science and research power،use’. 

As UK life sciences continue to evolve, all eyes are on London – particularly around Canary Wharf, White City and King’s Cross, with Korolev insisting that the latest developments at the latter represent ‘a really big statement of intent by the big guys’.

In its report, Galileo Labs identified the drive for life sciences to ‘go urban’, developing in ‘fun, collaborative locations’ away from ‘out-of-town science park[s]’ as one of the main trends set to shape the industry.

For t،se w، haven’t already broken into the sector, the experts believe it is not yet too late to get involved. A prosperous pharma future could mean a healthy practice balance sheet.