Life Sciences Drive Campus Expansions

Originally published Aug. 24, 2014 in Banker & Tradesman.

Next month, the University of Massachusetts-Boston will cut the ribbon on a new $182-million Integrated Sciences Complex, while Boston University stands before the Boston Redevelopment Authority to ask for permission to build a life sciences center of its own.

Not all of Boston’s 28 colleges and universities are expanding their footprint, but where they are, it’s life science programs that are usually driving their growth.

Institutional heavyweights like Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology helped keep the construction industry afloat during the recession, said Massachusetts Building Trades President Francis Callahan. Now, smaller schools like the Wentworth Institute of Technology and Bunker Hill Community College are putting cranes in the air.

“We call them the ‘eds and meds.’ That’s our auto industry in Massachusetts,” Callahan said. “There’s growth in all sectors now.”

Wentworth Institute of Technology will open a 305-bed residence hall this fall, said David Wahlstrom, the institute’s vice president of business. The new building follows a 19,000-square-foot expansion of the school’s Center for Sciences and Biomedical Engineering, which was constructed in tandem with a 48,000-square-foot renovation of its campus center.

The renovation includes a new $3-million manufacturing center where students can practice machining with 3-D printers, automated drill presses and lathes. Although the recession put a damper on construction, Wahlstrom said enrollment stayed strong. The institute introduced new engineering programs, including electrical, mechanical, and biomedical engineering.

“From Wentworth’s perspective, we’re responding to the marketplace,” Wahlstrom said. “Our education is applied. It’s hands-on. So, students are learning in the labs, as well as in the classroom.”

As the biotech and pharmaceutical industries change, so must the institutional spaces where skilled workers are trained, said Boston University senior vice president of operations Gary Nicksa. That is one of the driving forces behind the university’s proposal to build a 145,000-square-foot Center for Integrated Life Sciences and Engineering at 610 Commonwealth Ave. The $100-million project would bring together multiple disciplines under one roof, hosting the type of collaborative research projects students would expect to find in the field.

“There’s a need for replacement space for our laboratories that are coming to an end of their normal life cycles, and it’s also an opportunity to design them in a different way,” Nicksa said. “We’re really developing areas of research where we’re bringing together engineers and life scientists, and we need a different kind of research space that can bring those disciplines together.”

At Boston University, Nicksa said the focus on finding solutions to cure drug-resistant diseases requires a process that involves biomedical engineers and biochemists working together.

“There’s really a medical demand for more sophisticated ways of addressing infectious disease, and that requires much more sophisticated ways of diagnosis and treatment,” Nicksa said. “We want to bring in the physicians with the scientists and the engineers because it requires all of those skills sets.”

Seven years into a 25-year master plan, UMass-Boston prioritized developing a life sciences center first, said Dorothy Renaghan, assistant vice chancellor for facilities management. The recently- completed Integrated Sciences Complex is the first new academic building for the school since 1974.

“We looked at what we thought would be our projected enrollment in the next five years and what disciplines would need to be shored up based on that,” Renaghan said. “It was fairly easy to realize it would be difficult to offer innovative courses in the sciences in a building that was built 40 years ago.”

The university is in the process of securing a permit for occupancy to allow faculty to move into the new space, said DeWayne Lehman, director of communications for UMass-Boston. The complex won’t be open to students and researchers until October, he said.

One thing is clear: demand for life science skills is strong, and nowhere is that demand felt more than at Bunker Hill Community College. The public college is investing $44 million in new and renovated space for the school’s science laboratories, library and student services center. The 40-year-old campus was constructed for about 3,000 students, said John Pitcher, Bunker Hill’s vice president for administration and finance. Now, the school enrolls 14,000.

“The good news is that we’re growing,” Pitcher said. “The bad news is that there’s no place for students to sit.”

The school is in the pre-design phase for a project that will add 30,000 square feet of space and renovate another 60,000 square feet, Pitcher said.

 “Our labs are at an astonishing 100-percent utilization rate,” Pitcher said. “That’s unheard of because you need downtime to set up from one class or project to the next. So, we need to add some more space.”

 

Growing Outside Greater Boston

Without the luxury to expand its campus in Boston, the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences (MCPHS University) is adding space in Worcester and Manchester, N.H., said President Charles Monahan. Landlocked between Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Woman’s Children Hospital, Monahan said the college decided to grow elsewhere, and now have 17 buildings in Worcester and four in New Hampshire.

“We started as a pharmacy school for 150 years and then we had a legislative change to include life sciences in our charter. Currently, pharmacy is 30 percent of our business,” Monahan said.

The continued growth of university programs and research facilities bodes well for the life sciences industry across the Bay State, said Angus McQuilken, spokesman for the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center.

The agency devoted to fostering growth in the industry has invested nearly $280 million in academic institutions because of the vital role they play in growing the industry, he said. Universities churn out a skilled labor force and engage in research that often leads to discoveries in drug manufacturing, while playing a key role as incubators for early stage companies.

“The life sciences are our state’s fastest-growing sector, and our institutions recognize that,” McQuilken said. “That’s why you see so much expansion in academic settings in the life sciences. They want to ensure they can keep up with the economic trends, which all point to life sciences as a leader.”

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