Boston’s life science market has emerged as the world’s leader for biomedical and pharmaceutical research, and demand for space continues to be on fire. A consistent flow of new projects, whether ground up construction or renovations are being proposed and breaking ground across the region.

In Boston, Lendlease along with Ivanhoe Cambridge recently won approval for a 317,320 SF lab development at 60 Guest Street in Brighton. While across the Charles River in Cambridge, IQHQ released plans for a 3-building research campus named “Alewife Park”. In Watertown’s expanding lab cluster Alexandria is planning a 500K sf campus at the Watertown Mall site. On the conversion side Oxford Properties won approval this month to transform offices at 745 Atlantic Avenue into 155,000 SF of life science lab/research space. Construction is also underway for the conversion of 4 floors of space within the Innovation & Design building into labs. 

To better understand the advantages and disadvantages of new construction vs. conversion, BLDUP spoke with Adam Palmer, Director of Operations and Project Executive for JM Electrical for a look into their work. Over the years, JM Electrical has had extensive experience within the life science sector and as a result are well positioned to handle the current surge of projects in this vital industry.

BLDUP: As a result of the pandemic, a lot of companies are rethinking their workspace with many working remotely. Has this changed your business?

Adam Palmer: Like everyone else, we’ve seen a dramatic decrease in in-person meetings and an uptick in virtual meetings. Many of our clients prefer the virtual option as it is efficient and saves travel time while keeping the team informed and projects on track. Even as the pandemic winds down, I think virtual meetings will remain popular in our industry in those instances when an onsite meeting is not essential.

BLDUP: What are you currently seeing regarding a higher demand for lab spaces in urban environments? What are the advantages/disadvantages?

Adam Palmer: Developers are looking for opportunities to bring lab space downtown, when in the past they would typically be focused on properties outside the city. 

As a result of the pandemic and the popularity of remote work there seems to be more available spaces in the heart of the city as well as a decrease in rental fees in certain locations. Lab space is at a premium in and around Cambridge and Boston, with many life sciences firms moving their headquarters into areas now known as Innovation Districts. We are finding that many buildings originally designed for office space are now being converted to lab space, such as the Innovation and Design Building in the Seaport and 321 Harrison Avenue, located in Boston’s South End, adjacent to the Ink Block area at the crossroads of the city’s Downtown and Seaport Districts.

BLDUP: Regarding lab development, what systems or technologies are you seeing the greatest demand for?

Adam Palmer: In my experience, the biggest demand is for air valves and related controls that help regulate the movement of air in indoor environments, ensure adequate ventilation, filter airborne contaminants, and maintain appropriate air pressure in labs and adjoining rooms.  These systems are far more important in laboratory settings than in traditional office spaces.  Many of our clients also call for critical equipment alarms, gas monitors, generators, and emergency power sources.

BLDUP: What are the factors you have to consider when working in lab space?

Adam Palmer: Given the nature of the work, there are strict installation requirements associated with lab projects. When required, our teams wear gowns and booties, and clean all tools, supplies, and equipment before entering these spaces. 

BLDUP: You work with a large number of life sciences companies that want to reimagine their space or add laboratories without having to shut down. How do you handle these large-scale projects while allowing researchers to continue their work without disruption?

Adam Palmer: These complex projects require high-level communication and coordination with all trades, the general contractors, developers and owners to ensure there are no disruptions that impact the important research underway.

As vacancies tighten even further down the supply chain, available lab space in the Boston area continues to evaporate, putting greater pressure on firms seeking leases. As developers work to meet demand, contractors like JM Electrical are increasingly meeting demand in both spec development and outfit projects.