The Cost of Lab Remodeling

This Is the second in a series of three articles on lab design. The first article was "How to Plan a Lab BuildIng"

By | January 12, 1987

This Is the second in a series of three articles on lab design. The first article was "How to Plan a Lab BuildIng" (The Scientist, November 17, 1986, P. 15). An upcoming article will deal with furniture for laboratories.

Sooner, or later, everyone working in a laboratory building must face the perplexing question of whether to build a new one or remodel the old one. The answer depends on many considerations. Let's look at some of the more obvious ones.
  • Time. Are you under time constraints that would preclude either new construction or remodeling? New construction is not necessarily the longer process. If you are facing the problem of keeping operational while conducting the remodeling and you must occupy the same lab space, remodeling can take longer.
  • Down time. Along with the total time involved in new construction or remodeling, you must consider whether you can afford the down time involved. Must you shut down in order to remodel?
  • Surge space. This is the space into which a function can move on a temporary (although not necessarily short-term) basis while the remodeling is accomplished. Surge space is a commodity in great demand and short supply, yet is absolutely essential to avoid extensive down time. You should consider finding off-site space or using trailers or other mobile units to house the affected functions. For instance, it might be possible to "surge" office or other nonlab functions into a trailer so that the newly vacated space can be temporarily (or even permanently) converted to lab space. This is often cheapest, too.
  • Age and condition. As in human beings, old age in a laboratory doesn't necessarily imply bad condition, nor does youth always mean good condition. But chances are that you can trace a lot of lab problems to the building's lungs and arteries—the heating, ventilating, air conditioning, and plumbing systems, and to a lack of sufficient electric power.

    If any of these systems seem to require a transplant (i.e., a completely new system installed), a second opinion as to whether total new construction should be considered is in order. Remember, too, that once you start changing or adding to older systems they frequently seem to deteriorate faster. Some of this is undoubtedly due to the unavoidable disturbance of older systems (e.g., piping and ductwork) that can loosen deposits on their surfaces. This leads to clogging of lines or increased rates of corrosion.

  • Demographics. I often find that as a facility ages, the people who work there commute farther than they did when the building was new. This may be attributed to several personnel factors (such as changes in income that permit changes in housing) that may be coupled with a deterioration in the neighborhood of the lab. In one case I know of, this problem was so serious that it was a major factor in the management's decision to build a new laboratory in a location closer to where its employees lived.
  • Taxes and insurance. Older facilities, even, when remodeled, often cost more to insure than do new ones. Also, depending on where a new facility might be built, the real estate tax may be less than what you're paying now.
  • Building code changes. Changes in building codes have probably clobbered more remodeling plans than any other factor. In most urban areas, any remodeling expenditure over a certain amount (sometimes as low as $10,000) will mean bringing the entire building up to current code requirements. The major costs here are in making special provisions for handicapped individuals (including toilet facilities, elevators, ramps and stairways) and in maximum distance to exits, which generally has been reduced in recent code changes.
  • Cost. The budget, not surprisingly, affects decisions more than any other factor and is definitely the toughest one to really come to grips with. Assume that your studies show that to remodel your facility it is necessary to essentially strip the building to its basic structure. At best, you will probably save no more than 30% overall (in terms of pure construction cost) over new construction. And most ofo that savings is likely to be in the cost of site development, not in the building itself. A recent survey of the pharmaceutical industry showed that in the average laboratory building only 47% of the cost of construction is in the "general" category; i.e., in the basic construction including the structural system, foundations, walls, roofs, etc. Mechanical and electrical construction and special features (e.g., special water and power systems) accounted for 43%, and the remaining 10% was in fees and miscellaneous costs.

    In one of our recent projects, the superstructure exterior enclosure and roof accounted for only 15.6% of the cost, a figure that is fairly typical. For instance, in a new building that might cost in the vicinity of $140 per gross square foot to construct, only $21.84 is the basic structure. So you can see that the savings realized in a total remodeling can be far less than are generally assumed. If the roof and outside wall need work, you should seriously consider new construction, especially if the entire decision rests on cost.

If you are considering a complete remodeling, here's one last thought—no matter how the building may change, a remodeled building can rarely provide the same amenities you expect in a new one.

Walls is a laboratory programming and design consultant. His address is Earl Walls Associates, Suite 200, 5348 Carroll Canyon Rd., San Diego, CA 92121.

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