The greatest hazard for incubator labs? Inadequately managed hazardous chemicals

The greatest hazard for incubator labs? Inadequately managed hazardous chemicals

Developers creating multi-tenant spaces for life science startups need to consider something most other industries don’t: how hazardous chemicals play a role in their tenants’ work and the design of the building.

Some refer to them as “incubator-style workspaces.” Others borrow the name “WeWork” from the tech sector. Whatever you call it, the coworking model has arrived in the life sciences industry, bringing with it a unique matchmaking opportunity between small-scale R&D startups who need lab space and developer/entrepreneur partnerships who need tenants. Both stand to gain important business advantages from this shared arrangement—but only if the project team manages to overcome a few significant hurdles.

Some of those hurdles are easy to spot from the start, but others are stealthier, often escaping attention until they cause major problems. I’m writing this article to address one such challenge: managing hazardous lab chemicals. In the complex process of designing a multi-tenant lab facility, many companies bookmark this issue for later, assuming that it’ll get addressed at the permitting stage. This type of delayed problem-solving can cost you in more ways than one:

  1. You could face expensive rework. It costs more to fix an issue at the permitting stage than to proactively design for optimal chemical storage and handling from the start.
  2. You may be limiting your revenue potential. The number and type of tenants you can accommodate depends in part on how you manage hazardous lab substances. To earn the most from every square foot, you need a robust plan.
  3. You may be sacrificing flexibility. Instead of designing for one blockbuster tenant, managers of an incubator-style lab facility must accommodate a high turnover of diverse tenants. This means designing for maximum scalability and adaptability, which is hard to do retroactively.

Here’s the bottom line: incorporating a hazardous chemicals management strategy into your building’s design from day one simply makes good business sense. Here are a few suggestions for overcoming the challenges encountered while helping clients develop multi-tenant lab facilities.

Key features of a successful hazardous chemicals management strategy

A good strategy helps to protect your building’s occupants and the public from harm. That’s its core responsibility. A great strategy goes further, helping you design a facility that’s readily adaptable as tenants, and their chemicals, change over time.

First, let’s talk about Maximum Allowable Quantities (MAQs). MAQs define how much of any given lab chemical you can store, handle, or dispense in your facility, depending in large part on your building’s design (see Figure 1). Think of MAQs as buckets, whose volume is determined by the decisions you make during your building’s design programming stage—decisions such as how to incorporate control areas, where to locate your tenants, and what special safety features to include. The bigger the bucket, the more tenants you can accommodate, and the better you’ll be at accommodating inevitable shifts and changes without incurring additional costs.

Figure 1: This graph shows MAQs per chemical, as distributed across a sample group of tenants.

This is why your hazardous chemical management strategy isn’t just about compliance. If employed from the start to guide your building’s designers and engineers, your strategy becomes an indispensable business tool. It plays a big role in increasing the size of your bucket and, correspondingly, the health of your bottom line.

Here’s how a great hazardous chemical management strategy works.

It comes into play on day one.

As stated already, but it bears repeating: the greatest strategy in the world isn’t much help if you don’t engage it from the earliest planning phases.

If you document your hazardous chemicals management strategy from the start, you’ll know that the building program must include an interior control area, or that certain floors need fireproofing to achieve area separations. These would be painful (and expensive) surprises late in the building’s development; caught early, they’re opportunities to ensure the best possible experience for your tenants without needing to retrofit your building.

It influences the design and location of control areas, specialty cabinets, and other containment systems.

Tenants expect convenient bench-side access to their most frequently used lab solvents, reagents and gases. But how can you design for this level of convenience without knowing exactly who your tenants are, what they’ll need, or who will replace them when they outgrow their lease and move on?

Start by gathering and analyzing the available data. Larger, most established labs have the personnel to maintain complex data sheets that document the risks of different chemicals, often in something called a Hazardous Materials Inventory Statement (HMIS). Smaller operations, like your tenants, don’t often have the resources to maintain an HMIS or anything like it. It’s up to you (or a qualified partner) to understand all hazardous lab chemicals inside your facility and to present that information to the Authority Having Jurisdiction (known as the AHJ, such as a fire marshall) upon request.

CRB has undertaken this complex process for many clients in the past. Some lab substances may belong in more than one category, such as a chemical that’s both corrosive and combustible, while others may be more or less dangerous as they come in contact with one another. Multiply these variables across dozens or hundreds of potential tenants, each of whom uses a wide variety of chemicals in small quantities, and you’ve got a complex snapshot of the potential hazards inside your building.

Using that snapshot, you can start to answer key questions. Let’s start with control areas, which allow for discrete hazardous chemical storage without impacting your facility’s overall classification. How many control areas will your facility need, and where will you locate them? In a multistory building, does it make sense to maximize the allowable control areas on each level, giving you a higher MAQ with fewer structural restrictions? Or is it more cost-effective to control the quantity of lab materials in the upper floors, allowing only what is in use while keeping the rest in limited, appropriately-rated chemical storage rooms? Answering these questions early in your design process will impact your MAQs. The more strategic your approach, the larger your bucket (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: You can increase your MAQs with a strategic approach to managing hazardous chemicals.

The same is true when it comes to planning other chemical containment areas, such as using enhanced flammable liquid storage cabinets in strategic locations throughout the building. Estimating the volume and type of chemicals your tenants will need when occupancy peaks will help you develop the best possible approach to cabinet design and location, sparing you from a last-minute scramble after the building’s layout is locked down.

When possible, it goes even further than the code requires.

The tenants who occupy these lease-by-the-bench facilities are often on the cutting edge of science, developing unique techniques in their pursuit of a breakthrough. In my experience, going as far as the code requires and no further sometimes does these tenants a disservice. The code is not written for innovators, and it’s not necessarily representative of the latest science. When baseline safety standards are no longer enough to protect those experimenting with new and promising molecules, you may need an approach that’s sometimes called Alternate Means and Methods (AM&M) or Performance-Based Design Alternatives (PBDA).

CRB recently worked with a client on just such a project, whose potential hazards required a facility designed outside the letter of the code. Because we were involved in the project very early on, we had time to build a case that demonstrated, through extensive study, how our modified design increased the level of safety in our facility. We showed the AHJ that these modifications were aligned with the goals of all applicable codes, and that an increase in the allowable MAQ was warranted.

What gets in the way of a successful hazardous chemical management strategy?

It’s all well and good to pledge early adoption of a hazardous chemical management strategy, but success depends on anticipating possible setbacks and developing workarounds and preventative actions.

Interpreting the code is a challenge.

“The code” is a misleading term, with its suggestion of a single, transparent ordinance. If only that were the case! Instead, when we talk about “the code,” we’re really talking about several intersecting documents and regulations, each subject to the interpretation of the local office responsible for permitting (the AHJs, mentioned previously). AHJs can base their compliance standards on documentation from governing bodies such as the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), the International Fire Code (IFC) and the International Building Code (IBC), and some do. Others develop their own regulatory standards. There’s a discretionary element involved that can make it difficult for building owners to see their way through to compliance, without help from expert advisors.

In Colorado, for example, where CRB recently completed a project, the AHJ largely follows standards prescribed by the IBC and the NFPA, which required us to file an HMIS and adhere to the corresponding MAQs. When we moved on to a project in Chicago, we faced a different situation: the AHJ in that region has chosen not to adopt IBC and NFPA regulations, which meant traditional HMIS documentation and related MAQs did not apply. We were in different regulatory territory, requiring a different strategic approach to permit facilitation.

Maintaining a snapshot of your chemical inventory is a challenge.

It can take months to build a comprehensive chemical inventory such as an HMIS, especially when that inventory must accurately represent hundreds of different chemicals, each with discrete physical properties and multiple possible classifications.

Even once your inventory is complete, it represents just a single moment in time (see Figure 3). As tenants grow and change, so will their needs, which in turn will impact your chemical inventory and all the details that trickle down from it.

Keeping all of the quantities, varieties and categories of chemicals in your facility up to date is a daunting challenge. And the challenge doesn’t end there—once you’ve arrived at an accurate inventory, you’re still a long way from having the holistic hazardous chemical management strategy that’s been discussed throughout this article. Jumping that gap from data to insight, and from insight to strategy and action, requires specialized skills and a multidisciplinary team of expert advisors.

Figure 3: This is a hypothetical snapshot of one facility’s chemical inventory, per tenant. Keeping such inventories up-to-date is crucial to strategic chemical management

CRB understands the challenges and opportunities you’re facing as a multi-tenant lab facility with potentially hundreds of chemicals in play. We can help you build a hazardous chemicals management strategy that will improve your tenants’ experience, accelerate your permitting process, and move you closer to your business objectives.

When you’re ready to begin, call on us.


 Return to top