The atrium between renovated and new wings in Higgins Hall at Boston College.

Streetside, the imposing new Gothic Revival structure at Boston College looks like it could have been designed by Henry Hobson himself back in the day, but it is actually the descendants of H.H. Richardson’s legendary 19th century Boston architectural firm who are responsible for producing the Brighton institution’s latest building centerpiece, the expanded Higgins Hall.

“It needed to be compatible with the rest of the [historic] campus,” acknowledged Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbott principal Malcolm P. Kent, a member of the architectural team that designed the complex $80 million renovation. Yet while the arched windows and limestone-traced exterior might belie which end of the millennium the 230,000-square-foot project was conceived in, a quick view inside reveals Higgins Hall to be a thoroughly modern monument of masonry. Along with an active academic gathering spot and multilevel atrium, the building features some of the country’s most state-of-the-art laboratory and research space. Housing Boston College’s physics and biology departments, Higgins Hall marks the school’s aggressive foray into the oft-lucrative world of scientific research, pursuing a potential path of gold currently being tapped into by rivals such as Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The Boston College project also underscores the opportunities – and challenges – offered to the commercial real estate industry as a result of the explosion in life sciences in Massachusetts. Architectural firms such as SBRA, Process Facilities and Payette Associates are finding themselves awash with laboratory and biomedical projects of all stripes. Demand is not only flooding in from medical institutions and universities, but also via an explosion of new biotechnology companies and the arrival of several major pharmaceutical concerns into Greater Boston, such as AstraZeneca and Novartis AG.

“We see it as a growth area,” said SBRA principal Henry H. Abernathy Jr., who is helping oversee the company’s expansion into life sciences. Although the firm is heavily weighted towards academic work, SBRA is increasing its exposure to more commercial undertakings such as biotech start-ups and drug companies, with the firm most recently rehabbing 25,000 square feet of laboratory space for Millennium Pharmaceuticals at University Park in Cambridge.

“We are trying to diversify and let people know we can do that kind of work,” said Abernathy, explaining that commercial applications are often more sensitive to pricing factors than academic institutions, which tend to look longer-term when designing a facility. Biotech financiers “don’t want their money spent on bricks and mortars,” said Abernathy. “They want it all to go into the research.”

Image Isn’t Everything
Among the industry professionals who understand that aspect of the business best is Peter Markarian, president of the Richmond Group. A Hopkinton-based planning and construction management firm, the Richmond Group has been coordinating life sciences design and development for more than a decade, with recent clients including such firms as Cubist Pharmaceuticals, Enonta and Accusphere.

“We try to help them figure out which buildings offer the best value,” said Markarian, explaining that often depends on what stage of development the company is at, and what their long-term needs are going forward. With lab space fitout costing anywhere from $75 to $300 per-square-foot, Markarian said it is important to match needs with facilities.

“Usually at the start, it is 100 percent on the science,” he said, with office functions or corporate image not a concern. In many cases, a single-story industrial building will suffice, Markarian said, but the savings in rent from a more modern property might have to be weighed against the cost of upgrading the older property. The combination of demand by companies and a desire by landlords to reposition unneeded office space is prompting many to call the Richmond Group to help assess the viability of a certain property.

“We’re getting asked to do that all the time, either by the landlords or the tenants,” said Markarian. Issues to look at include floorload capacity, electrical supply and, perhaps most important, the strength of the HVAC mechanicals. Although it has been a popular theme in 2002 given the rise in office vacancies, Markarian said he does not believe there will be a glut of landlords rushing to convert their properties, with many fearful to do so due to the combination of infrastructure costs and questionable depth of the life sciences demand.

Whatever the future, the Richmond Group certainly has taken advantage of the industry’s surge in the Bay State, with Markarian estimating his firm has completed more than 600 laboratory or life sciences projects in the past 11 years, adding his track record of being on time and on budget remains unblemished.

Another veteran life sciences player from the real estate side has been Robert B. Richards, president of Richards Barry Joyce & Partners. Among the most significant changes, he said, is the increasing demand by clients for production space. “A lot of companies are moving from the research stage into clinical trials and production,” Richards said. “That’s an emerging trend we are noticing.”

To date, Richards said, most landlords have been offering research space, but the maturation of biotech start-ups, coupled with pressure from financial sources “looking for returns on their investments,” makes it likely that manufacturing space will be an ongoing requirement, he said. RBJ&P is currently working with Therion Biologies, for example, as that company seeks upwards of 30,000 square feet of manufacturing quarters, with the firm looking at opportunities both in the suburbs and in its current home in Cambridge.

One issue life sciences companies are grappling with, Richards said, is whether it helps to combine the research and manufacturing plants together. Some firms, including heavyweight Genzyme Corp., have successfully split the two, but Richards said that issue is expected to increase as more firms move through the approval process.

Landlords are doing their best to respond to the evolving marketplace, added Nancy J. Kelley of Spaulding & Slye Colliers, which is focusing on providing an array of services to the life sciences sector. Flexibility is becoming a critical element of helping industry players, said Kelley, with landlords being asked to offer more leeway in lease terms and in the physical space itself.

“These companies need to be able to expand or contract depending on how their research is going,” Kelley said. “Especially for the smaller companies, the need for flexibility is critical.”

Many property owners are working with firms such as Spaulding & Slye to offer core services to biotech start-ups, added Kelley, including assistance in permitting and meeting environmental regulations such as hazardous waste storage and disposal.

Landlords would also do well in preparing space for retrofit, said Kelley, with the smallest biotech companies particularly eager to get into a property as quickly as possible. New construction often does not work for those players, she said, because their financing is often impatient.

“They can’t spend nine to 12 months building out lab facilities,” Kelley said.

Old-Fashioned Biotech

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 5 min