Opinion: How knowledge clusters are shaping flexible office development

15th October 2019

In a recently published article in Property Week, Sheppard Robson’s Mark Kowal and Eugene Sayers explore how knowledge clusters are creating a new science of office design.

The article, which can be found here and below, looks at how knowledge clusters are shaping flexible office development in London, and what practical design measures can be adopted to further support this clustering.

Knowledge clusters create a new science of office design

Science and commercial workplace were unlikely partners 20 years ago, but since the rise of city centre knowledge cluster, they are forming a much closer relationship, and it’s leaving a mark on the speculative office market. Responding to this trend, more commercial developers are exploring how office developments can be retrofitted to create highly specialised spaces for science and, beyond retrofitting, how new-build workplaces can adapt between traditional office use and the specific requirements of science.

City centre knowledge clusters—the co-location of healthcare, education, scientific research and tech in mutually-supportive innovation networks—have grown off the back of recent trends deviating from typical office typologies, driven in part by the proliferation of start-ups and the tech industry. Co-working and flexible work spaces now dominate the commercial office sector, and science industries are looking to replicate the success of these workplaces.

In moving towards flexible, urban clusters, the sciences are hoping to promote cross-disciplinary collaboration and innovation. Moving centrally—near universities, research, start-up hubs and amenities—to enable the critical mass and chance encounters needed to spark innovation, injecting agility and dynamism into the industry. Further, by adopting central, agile workplaces, science employers are aiming to attract talent—especially those straight out of university—who are increasingly looking for non-traditional work environments.

While this presents an exciting opportunity for the sciences, it presents a multitude of challenges from an urban development perspective. Historically, science industries have been located in urban peripheries to accommodate technically complicated designs that require ample space—which city centres distinctly lack. Developing urban science clusters also presents financial risk, with the high costs of developing and fitting-outs labs misaligning with the ethos of flexible work space; scientific start-ups and incubators require alternative tenancies and may result in high turnover of users, and scaling-up space for growing companies or anchor corporates requires an adaptability not afforded by conventional labs.

So, how can the design of work spaces support this adaptability needed for scientific knowledge clustering? For a start, architects and developers need to think beyond the work environment, to the same features that make flexible workplaces attractive in the first place: amenities. It is just as much the non-work spaces that make a workplace desirable to new talent, and through a variety of amenities—such as restaurants, leisure spaces and gyms—a collaborative, relaxed culture can be nurtured.

Further, adopting a ‘hot-desk’ approach to scientific facilities through shared lab space can help overcome challenges and mitigate some financial risk associated with start-ups and incubators. Creating office spaces that can be converted to lab can further enhance this flexibility, allowing growing scientific businesses to scale-up their space.

Sheppard Robson took this approach when designing a new commercial office building for Legal & General—245 Hammersmith Road—where we used practical design parameters to accommodate a broad spectrum of tenants. Some of these features are increasingly common in office buildings, such as increased floor to floor heights, which allow for the additional servicing needed in labs. Space for air flow and the potential use of hazardous materials were also considered—including an air handling plant, air intake and extract routes, and accommodation for the safe delivery, transport, and containment of hazardous materials. Further, additional power consumption for laboratory equipment was factored into electrical infrastructure requirements, and potential laboratory space was planned on a 1.5m office grid for relative ease of transition between uses.

Of course, designing for this level of flexibility comes at some cost—accommodating extra space for airflow or designing a lab on a 1.5m grid inevitably leads to a loss of efficiency in space planning—and it is up to each developer to balance these costs, ensuring that any added design parameters stack up financially. However, if there is any the question of whether adding in this extra layer of adaptability pays off, it is already being answered. It is no coincidence that facilities such as Imperial College’s Molecular Sciences Research Hub—which was developed specifically with knowledge clustering in mind—are now drawing neighbours such as science companies Novartis, Autolus and Synthace. It is exactly this sort of facility that draws together researchers, entrepreneurs and industry in one place to drive innovation.

As an industry we have begun considering how to enable this flexibility of use, and we must continue to explore new design strategies to support the growth of city centre knowledge clusters.