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Tuesday, Feb 20, 2024

Turning Standard Buildings Into Life Science Labs

Taking a standard office building and turning it into a place of wonder and discovery for life science is the challenge that the San Diego architectural firm Delawie was given by Sterling Bay West.

Delawie, based in Bay Park, is completely redesigning a 62,000-square-foot office building in Sorrento Valley.

“That one had the most challenge, converting an office building to a lab building,” said Greg McClure, a principal of Delawie. “It needed everything you could imagine.”

The building at 5785 Oberlin Drive is one of three Sterling Bay bought in partnership with Harrison Street in April for $31.3 million.

The acquisition by the Chicago-based company also included a two-building complex in Torrey Pines at 11010 Roselle St. and 3660 Dunhill St. totaling 28,000 square feet.

Those properties also will be renovated with the project designed by Delawie.

Still underway, the $17 million renovation of the three-story Oberlin Drive building requires significant structural work, said Alison Morita, project manager for Delawie.

A Little Touching Up

The exterior of the building required just a little touching up. “It was in pretty nice condition when our client purchased it,’ Morita said.

Inside, it was a different story.

“Each floor had to be structurally upgraded so we could have more heavy equipment on the floors,” Morita said. “Your lab equipment is much heavier than your standard office equipment.”

That involved adding weight-bearing columns and strengthening floors.

A freight elevator also had to be added to bring heavy lab equipment in and out of the building, and new sewer lines were needed to handle lab waste.

Complicated Renovation

Complicating the renovation were ceilings that were lower than in buildings that are designed from the outset for life science tenants.

The extra space is needed to accommodate the extra ventilation and other equipment required for lab work.

The interior of the building is about half-and-half lab and office space, with the lab space to the south of the lobby and the offices to the north.

There’s a mix of private offices and open space.

“This building had very nice balconies on the front, so the break room and the office space is adjacent to the balconies, Morita said. “Our breakroom is designed more like a lounge and residential kitchen.”

Firm in Life Science Since 1994

Delawie got into designing life science space in 1994. The firm’s first life science client was The Scripps Research Institute.

The firm also has designed life science space for clients that include Pfizer, and the University of California San Diego.

In 2016, Delawie designed the eight-acre new campus for BioLegend in Sorrento Valley.

The more than $100 million project won a design award from the San Diego Architectural Foundation.

The project entailed a complete overhaul of four older buildings and replacing a demolished building with one that has an 80-foot tall atrium as its focal point.

“That was our biggest life science project since the ‘90’s,” Morita said.


With that, Delawie is ramping up its life science business to the point that life science now accounts for about 40% of its business, McClure said.

“We’re probably working for eight or ten different developers and tenants from ground up buildings to repositionings,” McClure said.

Renovation Work in Demand

In recent years, renovation work has accounted for a growing chunk of Delawie’s life science projects, as companies scramble to find room to establish themselves and grow.

That’s a big change from when Delawie first got into designing life science space.

“You weren’t taking these 20-, 30- or 40-year-old buildings that were built for office and trying to make it work for labs,” McClure said. “The main thing is the demand here in San Diego is extremely high. The vacancy rate for lab is probably 1% across the county. Everyone’s just trying to find land or existing buildings.”

Life Science Office Space in Demand

The demand for life science space shows no sign of letting up, according CBRE, a commercial real estate brokerage.

San Diego in the past three years has grown faster than any other life science cluster in the country at 248%, according to a December report by CBRE.

CBRE said demand for life science space in San Diego is 3.5 times higher than historical averages.

Much of that demand is being met with conversions, such as Delawie is doing for Sterling Bay.

Nearly four million square feet of Class A and Class B office space in San Diego County is scheduled to be converted to life science, CBRE reported.


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