Biotech, Biopharma, and Medical Device Companies Are Booming in California and Beyond, Require Specialized Spaces

Form4, Longfellow, Allakos Biotechnology, Adicet Bio, San Francisco
Courtesy of Form4 Architecture

By Paul Ferro

Commercial property owners are at a crossroads. With several companies decreasing their square footage by either migrating to remote working or relocating to states with lower overhead, landlords are hungry to fill vacancies.

The encouraging news is that the life-science industry¾-including biotech, biopharma, and medical devices¾-is booming internationally and is particularly strong in cities that have universities with strong life-science programs: notably Boston, Southern California (especially in San Diego with its long history dating back to the Salk Institute), and the Bay Area. According to industry feedback, two factors are stunting growth in the segment: a shortage of life-science talent in both research and real-estate expertise, and a lack of lab space. 

Although Boston is a hub of life-science activity, California’s climate and dynamic real-estate landscape make it an attractive destination for scientists and CRE professionals alike. In the Bay Area, the industry is better positioned for long-term growth than possibly anywhere else in the world. Established companies and start-ups are expanding the demand for life-science square footage, thanks largely to local capital: venture capital that has a history of seeding innovation globally, and human capital centered at leading universities such as Stanford, Berkeley, and UC San Francisco.

To attract life-science tenants, particularly in high-overhead areas such as the Bay Area, property owners and managers need to know that these workplaces are more specialized than offices for high-tech and finance workers. An increasing number of commercial and workplace projects are incorporating life science into their programs; the need for new, flexible spaces that accommodate the typology is becoming the norm, rather than the exception. Understanding these requirements and how to best incorporate them into properties is key to making the best use of location and real-estate industry trends.

Successful and competitive life-science companies need a mix of laboratory, workplace, and amenity spaces. Their workplace designs require balancing art and science. The art strives to create inspiring, collaborative workplaces that foster innovation and discovery. It also provides home-away-from-home environments that attract and retain top talent in a highly competitive industry. The science behind the design requires higher-level technical knowledge because labs are subject to hazmat and other safety codes that exceed many other industries’ requirements. Three examples of specialty lab classifications:

• Biosafety Level (BSL) research facility: Categorized in four different levels, BSL classifications address safety and security concerns, including ventilation and biohazards. Highest is BSL-4, which protects from possible exposure to potentially life-threatening viruses and requires on-site decontamination plus dedicated, isolated lab space.

• GxP (Good Practices): Good Laboratory Practice (GLP) compliance addresses non-clinical safety or efficacy of products for people, animals, and the environment. It can include adhering to FDA guidelines.

• Computational Labs: Involves computer-generated analysis requiring ample data storage, workplace, and specialized computational equipment.

Several important factors to consider when beginning a new project to accommodate life-science use: 

Structure and Support

Determining the viability of existing and new structures for lab use can include:

• Taller floor-to-floor heights, 16-foot minimum

• Adequate loading dock capacity

• Dedicated service elevators 

• Mechanical space for shafts and equipment

• Column grid spacing (33 feet is ideal for bench and equipment room layouts)

• Building heights: the taller a building, the less hazardous materials may be used 

Hazardous Materials

Quantities and types of hazardous materials to be used in the facility can have a substantial impact on the cost of the building due to their impact on the occupancy. Higher hazardous material quantities per area determine if a lab can be in a B (Business occupancy) building or need to be in an L designation (Lab occupancy). Additional requirements for L occupancy include:

• Full emergency power

• Increased exiting

• Fire-rated corridors

• Watertight floors

• L occupancy may not be allowed in commercially zoned areas


The entitlement process can be the most challenging and lengthy part of developing a project. An effective strategy is to meet early and often with Planning and Building Department staffs to build a good relationship and understand exactly what they need and desire for their community. Developing design solutions that are consistent with the Planning Department’s vision ensures an efficient and successful approval process. Approaching the process as a partnership between the city and the client creates projects that are welcomed by the community—and can secure entitlements in some of the most demanding cities.


Flexibility for future growth is another consideration. Particularly for start-ups, office/support square footage can equal or even exceed lab and manufacturing space. Trends are moving from less lab to more workplace due to advancements in computation. Previously, 50/50 was the norm; now 30 percent wet labs to 70 percent of the workplace is common. As companies grow and secure additional funding, square footage doesn’t always increase. Instead, lab/research/manufacturing area expands into existing office space. One design solution is to place lab space in the center of the footprint, surrounded by flexible office furniture systems and meeting areas. If research demands grow, the floorplan can be reconfigured with less disruption to the overall business. Other scenarios consider flexibility among multiple floors in a building. 

• Allakos Biotechnology is one of many projects Form4 Architecture designed in Longfellow’s Redwood Life complex in Redwood City, a life-science campus that even offers a spec-lab program. Two floorplans were created simultaneously for the 25,000-square-foot Allakos build-out. Phase 1, currently in use, allocates 25 percent for lab space. Phase 2 allows for a future doubling of the lab space, carved from open office area. Additionally, the client wanted to add an invigorating work environment with a “culture” space, including a bar/lounge and a game room. The take-away here is that TI projects are best served by projecting future needs from the outset, and ideally creating plans that accommodate multiple scenarios.

• Adicet Bio, another project on the Longfellow Redwood Life Campus, includes highly technical BSL labs and vivarium. Early in the planning stages, we included shell space for expansion into the program. During the construction phase, the client needed to expand clinical trials, so we designed a specialty containment or GXP lab for pharmaceutical operations. The flexibility that was built into the lab design allowed this to be incorporated as an addendum to the approved drawings and constructed with no impact on occupancy date and only minor disruption during construction.


Because life-science jobs aren’t conducive to working remotely, on-site employee amenities are still in high demand. Amenity spaces and proximity to transportation, academic institutions, and downtown areas are becoming increasingly desirable to biotech tenants. These morale-boosters include gyms, gaming areas, meditation rooms, and cafés. Placement of these amenities in life-science workplaces requires considering proximity to biohazards, vivarium, and other areas that would not be a concern in most industries.

The success of all types of labs requires both physical and programmatic needs to be met. Well-designed collaboration spaces, workplace, amenities, and building location are important for employee acquisition and retention as well as creativity and innovation. 

Further, life-science tenants tend to be community conscious. They often request good-citizen features, such as park-like public outdoor meeting and eating spaces, areas to display art, and curated tour routes for investors, students, and other visitors.

Ground-Up or TI?

New core/shell construction accommodates more design flexibility than adapting existing spaces. Systems such as HVAC and plumbing for wet labs can be optimized in new buildings to maximize efficiency. As an example, a proposed life-science park at the Millbrae Gateway Transit Center near San Francisco International Airport was specifically conceived to attract lab-intensive tenants with the appropriate mechanical-system infrastructure. Another ground-up example is Innovation Curve Life Science Campus in Palo Alto. This award-winning complex with Sand Hill Property Company was conceived in 2014 with high-tech in mind. Its park-like, four-building campus has attracted two life-science tenants thus far, with several more inquiring about leases. 

In recent years, much of the design work for life-science companies has been in TI—adapting existing interiors to accommodate research and technical training. Traditionally, research facilities tend to isolate lab space from office/support areas. For life sciences, many researchers prefer a hybrid arrangement, with computer workstations near their lab benches. This lets scientists document their research more efficiently, avoiding frequent walks to dedicated office areas in other parts of the building. Flexibility in lab design is key, not only when designing ground-up life-science buildings but tenant improvements as well. 

In an era of unprecedented uncertainty, the life-science industry is fueling an economic boom, helping revitalize CRE in California. Attracting these companies presents regulatory-dictated design intricacies, mitigated by the long-term thinking inherent in an industry devoted to life-changing projects, such as managing chronic pain and curing cancer.

About the Author

Paul Ferro is CEO of Form4 Architecture in San Francisco.

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