Repurposing Spaces to Labs: Out-of-Town or City Centre?


100 Buckingway Business Park

Our research shows location is a key consideration for laboratory-based businesses. We compare an out-of-town industrial conversion for Sherlock Biosciences with a retail-to-labs project in Cambridge’s Grafton Centre, examining the considerations of each.

As the Oxford-Cambridge Arc grapples with a shortage of lab space, the spotlight has turned to repurposing other commercial premises into workspaces suitable for science.

Despite economic uncertainty, the Oxford and Cambridge office and laboratory clusters have seen science and technology companies continue to commit to new space. Our Summer 2023 Databook reports show that knowledge industries were responsible for 93% of lettings in Oxford, and 85% in Cambridge, with prime rents continuing to increase. Both universities have continued to spin-out new businesses, despite the slowdown in venture capital funding.

As our survey with YouGov shows, though, location is a key consideration for businesses operating in labs – not least to attract the right employees for their companies to thrive.

In this article, drawing upon discussions at our recent Bidwells Bitesize seminar, we’ve identified five key considerations for repurposing to labs through the lens of two interesting case study schemes – a completed industrial-to-lab conversion for Sherlock Biosciences, and retail-to-lab conversion at the Grafton Centre, which hopes to be operational in 2027.

What are the tenant’s priorities?

The Sherlock Biosciences project at Buckingway Business Park, Cambridge, certainly bucked the trend of many recent repurposing projects – unlike the popular office-to-lab conversion, this was out-of-town industrial-to-lab project with ISO8 GMP cleanroom facilities, supporting R&D and QA labs, office, and warehouse packaging functions all under one roof.

The client (then trading as ‘Sense Biodetection’) had outgrown its workspace, and needed an operational site for bringing their COVID product to market.

In many cases, being embedded in the centre of a cluster, close to collaborators and attractive amenities is desirable for knowledge-sharing and retaining talent. However, in the case of Sherlock Biosciences, the practicalities of creating a suitable cleanroom far outweighed the importance of location.

Jonathan Wright

"Industrial-to-lab conversion can mean a tenant can pay lower rent, but may sacrifice on location. It has to be an occupier-led decision."

Jonathan Wright, Partner, Bidwells

In contrast to the requirements of the more mature business of Sherlock Biosciences, in Cambridge City Centre, Pioneer Group are embarking on a transformation of the landmark Grafton Centre shopping mall, to provide much-needed lab space for a spread of occupiers to include start-ups, spin-outs and smaller science businesses as well as the more regular medium and larger sized businesses.

Pioneer Group were looking for a somewhere to build such a hub in the heart of the city – where they believe employees, of all levels and skill sets, would benefit from the local amenities, the connectivity, and which would be accessible by public transport, a bike ride away from home, or walking distance.

The Grafton Centre, once a prominent shopping destination in Cambridge, faced a shift in its fortunes with the rise of online shopping, the impact of COVID as well the general over supply of retail space that exists in the UK. Recognising the urgent need for lab space in Cambridge, and armed with a vision for the future, Pioneer hope to provide cutting-edge laboratories for companies needing to be in the hub of the Cambridge cluster, for attracting young talent, cross-fertilisation of ideas, and collaboration with like-minded businesses.

Smaller companies seeking <5,000 sq ft, typically seek to move into a fully fitted-out lab space where they can ‘hit the ground running’, while more mature businesses lean towards shell & core, enabling them to customise the internal space to suit their specific operations and equipment needs.


"Companies that have employee numbers of less than 20-25, are not usually geared up to handle the fit-out themselves. The directors probably focus on lab work, gaining new business or getting funding... In our view, anything that is say 30 employees and above, is probably going to be finished to shell & core … for the smaller occupiers, we're more likely to create a fitted lab, making it easier for them to get up and running faster.”

Subjit Jassy, Development & Asset Management Director, Pioneer Group

Who are the neighbours?

The obvious difference between out-of-town and city centre locations is that a city centre site is likely to be somewhat restricted if you need to extend the scheme.

The Grafton Centre is close to residential areas, particularly to the north; a dual carriageway to the south; and busy Burleigh and Fitzroy Streets to the west.

The answer may be to build upwards, but that does need to take local views and the impact on the skyline into consideration.

“We had conflicting views – some of the public consultation comments came back to say, ‘This is a fantastic opportunity, why didn’t you make the building higher?’ and then equally other people say, ‘It’s too high, make it smaller.’  So for every comment there has been the opposite stated by other members of the community”.
Subjit Jassy, Development & Asset Management Director, Pioneer Group

There is a cinema and gym on the site which will remain, as they’re integral parts of the centre, necessitating negotiations to accommodate their needs. This illustrates a wider point that life-science can contribute to a wider ‘mixed-use’ town centre offer.

Engagement with the community on a project such as the Grafton Centre is fundamental, as many people in Cambridge will have fond memories of when it was successful as a shopping destination. 

“Concerned neighbours might imagine all kinds of hazards with laboratories, with people clad in hazmat suits wielding isotopes. We’re reassuring them that the labs we’re building will be no more dangerous or toxic than your science lab at school. And rest assured, there will certainly not be anything like animal testing going on”
Subjit Jassy, Development & Asset Management Director, Pioneer Group

While an out-of-town industrial unit may have more scope to accommodate a high risk CL3 or CL4 lab, the Grafton will be restricting labs to CL1 or CL2.

How do you maximise the building’s potential?

Industrial spaces can offer increased flexibility in lab design. Their naturally high ceiling heights offer an excellent solution for the substantial plant and ductwork space needed to serve the heating, cooling, filtration and ventilation systems of a lab. Their location, accessibility and larger floor plan means that the extra power, drainage and larger plant areas – which are usually restrictive in other commercial buildings – are also less of a concern in industrial units.

Anticipating the company's future requirements, the team at Buckingway made further strategic enhancements to the ground floor. For example, additional washroom facilities and showers were included to facilitate potential expansion and meet the needs of a growing workforce.


“This foresight in planning aimed to ensure that the facility could readily adapt to any future changes in the company's operations.”

Dean Powell, Group MEP Director at COEL, who was part of the Senior team managing the project for Sherlock Biosciences.

A large mezzanine area provides additional space for R&D labs and workshop areas below it. This generous warehouse space facilitated the design of modular cleanrooms.

“The first-floor area is also able to accommodate smaller quality control labs, which Sherlock Biosciences needed to be located as far away from the cleanrooms and the R&D labs as possible,”
Dean Powell, COEL

At the Grafton Centre, being a former shopping centre has provided some convenient advantages. Pre-existing air change systems are already integrated into the building, and different parts of the building have their own servicing, which is useful for a multi-occupancy lab project.

Unlike typical office-to-lab conversions, the Grafton won’t have all the M&E in the roof. The possibility for a roof terrace in the city centre is far more valuable, so they’ve cleverly found pockets of space to double stack the plant.

The project also aims to be as close to net zero carbon as possible by avoiding unnecessary demolition and excavations, reusing the ground floor slab and existing piles to reduce environmental impact, using renewable energy sources, recycling grey water, and installing PV panels on the roof.

"We’re thinking ahead about the amount of waste water and throw-away plastics generated from scientists, so we’re trying to see whether we can do something to help solve that problem.”
Subjit Jassy, Pioneer Group.

Can you turn a ‘building’ into a ‘place’?

City centre locations like the Grafton offer access to amenities, placemaking opportunities, and a sense of community, which may be more challenging to replicate in out-of-town industrial spaces.

There is a space in the middle of the scheme which, typically, would be square footage deemed an opportunity to develop and rent out. However, Pioneer are adopting a different approach - leaving the area open multi function flexible space that could be used as: a collaboration space for occupiers, an event space for occupiers, for schools, colleges and universities to see the latest innovations as well as welcoming the community to foster a shared sense of excitement and pride in the work of our Cambridge scientists, and encouraging people to witness the cutting-edge innovations happening right on their doorstep.


"There has long been recognition that variety of use can bring interest and activity to town centres, indeed that’s why the new Class E sought to lift many changes of use out of the definition of development – but we are increasingly seeing tenants wanting to be in the middle of the action – prospective employees are choosing where they want to work on the basis of place – as the workforce also increasingly looks to contribute to society more widely – the value of city centre locations will only increase"

Jonathan Bainbridge, Partner, Bidwells

At Buckingway Business Park, designers needed to work a little harder to foster a sense of community. Sherlock were keen to include large viewing windows throughout all of their cleanrooms for visitors and, when passing through, people can see the workers in operation.

Limited local amenities meant that a large welcoming breakout area for staff was created to encourage employees to take their lunch breaks among others, away from the more clinical environments they work in.

Additional windows let in as much natural light as possible and in the office area there are agile working benches to encourage conversation and collaboration.

What will it cost?

“The more you have to knock about a space to get it to suit the requirement of a speculative tenant, the more costs you incur upfront.” 
Jonathan Wright, Partner, Bidwells

The biggest cost of a lab fit-out is often associated with accommodating the mechanical services. Existing industrial spaces that can cater to MEP (Mechanical, Electrical, Plumbing) requirements may offer substantial cost savings compared to spaces requiring significant alterations. Offices tend to have some limitations in the existing structural loading, whereas industrial units have increased structure for loading.

In terms of rental value, five years ago the capex cost to undertake a conversion to lab scheme may have made such a project unviable. 

However, lab rents have continued to increase in both Cambridge and Oxford, overtaking average costs to for fit-out.

Costs indicated in the chart here, are typical costs to illustrate the comparison with rents, but it does depend on the scope of the project.

Rents table.PNG

The case studies of Sherlock Biosciences at Buckingway Business Park and the Grafton Centre in Central Cambridge may show very different approaches, but each caters to their market; the priorities of tenants will be different, depending on their operations, culture and their maturity as a business. Balancing practicality, sustainability, and local engagement is crucial for successful, forward-thinking projects.


Get in touch


Jonathan Wright

Partner, Building Surveying

Jonathan is an award-winning commercial building surveyor and a qualified principal designer specialising in large, complex projects.

Read more


100 Buckingway Business Park for Sherlock Biosciences - creating a custom facility for a growing life sciences research business

Cambridge’s shortage of available lab space, particularly cleanroom facilities, was a major issue for our client. Its business had a specialist function in the cleanroom space which didn't exist in the market and they couldn't find it to lease. So we helped them build it.

Read the full case study
100 Buckingway Business Park

Related content

Search Bidwells