Boston is known for many things, including its rich history, incredible sports legacy, clam chowder, wicked good accent, top-ranked universities, and the best hospitals in the U.S. It’s those last two categories–an embarrassment of riches–which help make our region the mecca for research, science, medicine, and innovation.
That has fueled a construction boom for the red-hot biotech and life science industry. Is it sustainable? The science would seem to indicate that there’s plenty of life left.
“We are incredibly fortunate to be here,” says David P. Manfredi, CEO and founding principal of Elkus Manfredi Architects. The firm has designed many buildings and campuses for research and development companies such as Novartis and Pfizer. “It’s no exaggeration to say there is no greater density of life science research anywhere in the world,” he adds.
The focal point is Kendall Square, which benefits from its proximity to MIT. Among the companies planting their flag in the Cambridge outpost are Moderna, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Eli Lilly, Biogen, and Thermo Fisher Scientific, to name a few. But construction of life science buildings has expanded to the Seaport, the Fenway, and elsewhere as developers and companies continue to invest mightily in the sector.
There is even a life science project being built in downtown Boston. Nan Fung Life Sciences Real Estate, a development company based in Hong Kong, is transforming One Winthrop Square into lab and research space. In addition to its location in the Financial District, what makes the project unique is that the five-story, 111,000-square-foot building was originally built in 1873.
Lots of plumbing
The big, sturdy structure, with its tall ceilings and open floor plans, is conducive to being repurposed for life science needs according to Paul Dionne, president of P.J. Dionne Company. The GBPCA contractor, which has been working on life science projects for most of its 30 years, is handling the plumbing for the One Winthrop Square transformation.
“There is a lot of piping and mechanical systems in them,” Dionne explains, referring to gases such as nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and argon that typically serve multiple labs. The mechanical rooms for life science buildings are often very large and include reverse osmosis water systems, air compressors, vacuum pumps, nitrogen generators, and other systems. The buildings also typically require a lot of hot water and natural gas and have multiple drainage systems to accommodate the needs of research and tech companies.
“It’s great for us,” adds Tim Fandel, Local 12’s business manager. Echoing Dionne’s assessment, he says that life science projects are technically complex and require lots of plumbing–considerably more than other types of jobs such as office buildings or residential complexes.
Among the many major life science projects now underway and keeping GBPCA contractors and Local 12 plumbers busy is Cambridge Crossing, a vast, multi-use campus that will include three large lab buildings. Other projects under construction or in the pipeline include BioMed’s 1.3-million-square-foot innovation space at Assembly Square in Somerville, a number of projects in Watertown, and a project in the Alewife section of Cambridge.
There is much new construction. But as with One Winthrop Square, there are a number of existing buildings that are being redesigned for the in-demand life science market as well. 601 Congress Street in the Seaport, for example, had been John Hancock’s headquarters. Built in 2005, the office tower is being transformed into lab space. Its height won’t change, but the number of floors will. The repurposed building will have fewer stories, each of which will be taller to accommodate racks of piping, duct work, and other systems.
“To retrofit a standing building, the mechanicals are a little more challenging,” Dionne explains.
“Not every office building should be converted,” says Manfredi. “It’s a lot easier to convert while it’s still on paper than after it’s built,” the architect adds.
How long can the boom last?
Still, with so much demand, there is a tremendous incentive for developers to transform existing buildings. Investors and developers are also placing huge bets on new biotech projects.
“Right now, there doesn’t seem to be any end to the demand,” says Dionne. “It reminds me of a bubble. I sure hope it’s sustainable. In the long run, I think it is.”
There appears to be a general consensus around that optimistic outlook. “Science and technology are really the future for our regional economy,” attests John Cannistraro, Jr., president of Cannistraro. The GBPCA contractor has worked on many projects in the sector and has a number of jobs on the horizon as well. “There is tremendous pent-up demand for science,” he says.
According to Manfredi, there is a foundation for continued growth. “What do we as a society care most about right now?” he asks. “It’s probably health and wellness.” Therefore, it’s no surprise there is so much interest in the life science industry.
The architect warns, however, that research hubs in Silicon Valley, San Diego, Seattle, Houston, and elsewhere are nipping at our heels and eager to cash in on the biotech boom. “If we are not good stewards, they’ll find other places to go. But I think we have been good stewards.”