Developing laboratory facilities in China: Unique challenges, practical solutions
Beginning with the relative pros and cons of building new or retrofitting existing buildings, firms face a number of unique considerations when planning technology-intensive facilities in China
Purpose-built or re-built to purpose?
Both options of constructing a purpose-built laboratory facility or retrofitting an existing structure have their inherent pros and cons. The decision of which to pursue is best resolved at the earliest possible stage of the project, as every subsequent decision – from site selection to construction and design specification, to safety precautions and delivery timelines – stands to be affected in turn.
Weighing the pros & cons
Generally, new purpose-built structures offer an optimal design that best meets the user’s functional requirements. Capital expenditure on new construction will also be invested internally on a facility that will be useful over a long period of time. However, new builds often entail a relatively large investment with longer delivery and/or turnaround times.
By contrast, establishing a laboratory in an existing building will require a smaller investment and less upfront capital expenditure. It may also shorten the delivery and/or turnaround time required for lab activation. In many cases, the user may also benefit from developer support for licence and business registration. However, one common shortcoming of this option is that an existing shell often imposes physical constraints on the laboratory’s efficiency, flexibility, and capacity to accommodate future growth.
Unfortunately, there is no single clear-cut solution to the ‘new build or rebuild’ dilemma. The most effective solutions are inevitably unique, developed in response to the core purposes, operational needs and functional requirements for the planned facility. Identifying and understanding these objectives will reveal in detail the present and future needs the space must accommodate, and particular qualities – such as adaptability to a variety of uses and configurations – the facility should offer. Due to the importance of this initial build/rebuild decision, these factors must be considered as early as possible and outlined clearly in the project brief, which should be developed in cooperation with experienced architects and engineers.
A decision for new-build
Meeting stringent environmental, operational and safety standards and reducing operating costs were dominant objectives when an international telecoms equipment giant wanted to develop its new advanced R&D laboratory facility in China. High security measures were an additional concern in order to protect intellectual property. The facility also needed to allow for further integration of production capabilities with lab processes within a couple of years of establishment.
Two locations immediately recommended themselves as potentially effective sites for the new facility. A rapid but thorough due diligence procedure revealed that one of the options, as well as meeting the firm’s spatial requirements, also offered the advantage of a speedier development approval process, and thus a reduced risk. The final result was a state-of-the-art facility where everything from envelope size and height to floor loadings, MEP (mechanical, electrical and plumbing) provisions, equiment installations and loading dock locations, is highly customisable.
With M Moser as the lead designer and builder, interior layouts and settings of the facility based on functional demands (such as what people need, how people work, what lighting and air-exchange rates are required, and what MEP systems are needed to support their functional operation) were also optimised from the ‘inside-out’. This approach led to a building which copes with all foreseeable flexibility and sustainability scenarios, while concurrently meeting the objective of reducing overall operating costs.
A decision to retrofit
A petrochemical firm was searching for a new laboratory site in China to develop lubricant products for the local automotive market. As collaboration with various outside vendors and car manufacturers was vital to the lab’s effectiveness, the facility was to include a showroom for project demonstration. A further project requirement was quick delivery.
After evaluating the facility’s projected size and useful life against potential costs, the company decided to rent an existing building in close proximity to their customers and supply chains. The rental option also offered an added value as the building’s foundation, infrastructure and core and shell were already in place. However, investment in MEP and interior elements was needed to create a customised space.
As expected, bridging the gap between the suboptimal base-building infrastructure and the client’s functional and aesthetic requirements posed a challenge. All new infrastructure had to be designed for both effectiveness and compatibility with the existing structure. In this case, accommodating the utility equipment, water treatment system, dangerous goods storage, and building-wide high exhaust output with humidity control required extensive structural reinforcement. Additionally, a dedicated lift was needed for transportation of chemicals within the facility.
Delivering this complex project within the tight timeframe necessitated precise coordination of design, engineering, procurement and construction efforts over the duration. From the start, M Moser’s integrated team of professionals collaborated closely with the client and the site’s owner to anticipate and solve potential problems before they occurred. As a result, the selected site was smoothly upgraded and put into service within the specified time and budget.
The keys to minimising risk
Laboratory projects are normally far more expensive than typical commercial projects of comparable size, mainly due to the many demanding technological and utility requirements they must fulfil. Therefore, regardless of whether the final decision is to build new or retrofit an existing building, having proper pre-purchase and in-process contingencies in place from the start is essential.
Due diligence refers to a comprehensive examination of the building or potential site that not only covers the existing provisions, but also explores opportunities for potential upgrades and enhancements. It is an effective means of identifying many of the potential legal and environmental risks and liabilities associated with a site. It is an equally essential aid in identifying spaces that will meet the lab’s projected technical, sustainability and budget requirements. Among other data, the due diligence process will reveal constraints such as the site’s latent restrictions and opportunities, infrastructure provisions, required upgrades, building use versus building zoning restrictions, and regulatory compliance.
The China factor
Developing laboratory facilities in China can present challenges that extend beyond matters of capital and business strategy. Unfamiliarity with local practices and technologies are common sources of confusion for foreign investors, as are locally specific cultures, languages, zoning and environmental regulations and policies. Conversely, local contractors’ lack of familiarity with international quality standards can sometimes make it difficult for client expectations to be met.
“Also worth noting are the quality of basic utilities infrastructures such as water, natural gas and electricity supply, none of which will always be consistent with officially stated figures for availability and quality. Similarly, in China existing spaces or buildings which are being considered for lease or purchase should be thoroughly examined to ensure that they live up to the specifications stated by the owner,” says Nabil Sabet, Director, M Moser Associates, Shanghai.
A project partner with a balance of comprehensive capability and ‘on-theground’ experience can be invaluable in this context. “Our experience developing these types of facilities in China has allowed us to make educated assumptions about space requirements at a very early project stage. These initial considerations as part of a due diligence exercise allow us to better gauge the infrastructure provision and feasibility of a building or site,” Sabet explains. By identifying the drawbacks or potential for required upgrades early on, full technical requirements can be incorporated into formal negotiation documents (ie, lease contracts, deeds, etc) thus better protecting clients during the project execution stages. Ultimately, this results in clients’ interests being safeguarded throughout the project process.