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Life Sciences Q&A with Chris Olmsted

jessica bobinac

Communications Manager

03 October 2022

It’s no secret the life sciences sector is hot, and that’s led to a rising interest among building owners in developing new life science buildings and converting assets to labs, research and biotech space throughout the Pacific Northwest region. This market segment is on an exponential rise in Washington. A big limitation on that growth is quality spaces. The complex and critical nature of these facilities aligns perfectly with UMC’s focus on quality and our love for solving complex puzzles. We are excited to help this industry grow by providing world-class spaces for science to flourish.

What sparked your interest in a life sciences / construction career?
I love seeing tangible results of engineering and leaving things better than I found them. Construction allowed me to do both. Buildings are a huge source of carbon emissions and the work we do is the largest impact I can personally have on reducing the impacts of climate change.

Life sciences customers have a simple goal: support the science and the people carrying it out. Life Science buildings are 24/7 critical spaces that constantly have problems to solve. Every day working with laboratories gives new opportunities to leave things better than I found them while helping, in a small way, to further the science that improves all of our lives.

Tell us about your new role, and the role you play in partnering with the local life sciences community.
The Life Sciences Market Lead role was born out of many conversations over a few years about how UMC can deliver better results for the life sciences market. The conclusion we came to was that it was going to take someone to create a plan and support all of UMC’s departments. It was a hard decision to move into the role and away from the amazing Service team. But the role will allow me to continue to support them in new ways, so I put my name in the ring.

How has this market evolved? How does it fare compared to other markets?
Life sciences jobs are growing much faster than the rest of the Washington economy and the sector is forecast to grow exponentially. Our universities are generating graduates with great ideas who want to stay in the Pacific Northwest. More and more start-ups are emerging in Washington and the ones that pass clinical trials can go from 20 people to 200 people within a year. Ten years ago, Seattle wasn’t on the map. Now, we rank in the top 10 US life sciences clusters. Unlike traditional offices, science can’t be done through remote work. Leases for labs are often 150% higher than a traditional office. Unlike hospitals, regulations on science buildings are much simpler since patient care is not involved.

What are a few key considerations that help drive a successful life sciences project?
Life sciences projects require heavy communication, organization and a clear understanding of criticality. These customers need a partner to ensure that mechanical scope helps them meet their goals. They often have limited internal resources. Two identical pieces of equipment in a building can have massively different impacts on science. Construction projects require design flexibility as customer needs often change while a project is underway. At the end of the day, life sciences customers want to reduce risk.

Converting other property types to lab and R&D space is both costly and challenging, what are some key factors owners should consider?
This trend of flipping offices to labs looks great on paper. Labs command much higher lease rates and companies want labs in neighborhoods with ample office space. Labs, however, require much more equipment and additional building systems. This can turn what looks like a simple building upgrade into a massive (and costly) design and engineering effort. Additional HVAC is needed to meet 24/7 redundant operations. Expanded ventilation, exhaust, plumbing, pressure control, generation and electrical requirements make things very complicated. How do the upgrades meet new energy codes? How does the design balance current needs versus future tenant improvements in the space? Where does all the new equipment go? Missing a hurdle early in the process can ruin a project’s budget down the line.

What do you enjoy most about being part of the UMC family?
We look our problems in the face and are not afraid to address them. We are not locked into rigid bureaucracy like our larger competitors. We have a lot of support from the leadership, unlike other firms with absentee owners. Our industry is being impacted by many pressures now. If now is a storm for the construction industry, I’m glad to be on the UMC ship.

If you could learn any one skill in the world without trying, which would you pick and why?
Celestial navigation. It sounds amazing to know where you are and which way you are headed, anywhere in the world, just by looking at the sky. I’d love to have the freedom to go over the horizon without depending on technology to get where I am going. Plus, sextants look super cool.

Questions or Comments?

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