Build-to-Suit 2.0: Not your grandfather’s office building (Or timeline)

By Steve Wright, Wright Heerema Architects and Tim Sweeney, Quadrangle Development Company

Has your office space begun to feel like an old iPhone—you’d love to upgrade, but the infrastructure just isn’t there?  You’re not alone. Many companies today are finding that existing office buildings – even relatively new ones built in the ‘90s or early 2000s – just don’t cut it for their needs. The good news: build-to-suit options are more relevant than ever, and faster to implement. So for that CEO ‘cultural change’ mandate—there’s a solution, and it’s not too far out.

Office design that supports C-Suite goals is more than just open-plan layouts and Millennial-friendly amenities. In fact, the building’s shell, its infrastructure and even its parking options can deeply impact key goals, such as fostering a new culture or attracting and keeping employees. To achieve the desired goals, a build-to-suit may be necessary.

Competition for large Class-A office tenants is forcing an evolution of the build-to-suit process. Recognizing the design needs and time constraints of companies today, some developers are teeing up projects to a much greater extent before a tenant is even identified. They’re selecting development team members, including the architect, civil engineer and contractor, and taking the building shell and site designs almost to completion. With these components in place, it’s possible to seek and receive many of the time-consuming governmental approvals.

The result is a product that still allows significant flexibility to ensure that the tenant’s objectives are addressed and incorporated, but that can be delivered in as little as 18 months from commitment. In some markets where tenants are finding limited availability of large contiguous Class-A spaces and realizing the significant improvements required for existing spaces, many times the office build-to-suit can be delivered for a competitive cost without a significant time premium.

A few scenarios where a new office building can make a difference include:

Footprint Shape

The shape of a building isn’t just for aesthetics – it provides the shell in which the workplace inside must operate. As such it can add – or detract – from a building’s ability to serve its tenants. Many companies are finding the footprint of the building itself can drastically change the space inside. For example, in a recent Northshore build-to-suit, a financial services firm found that by widening an office building by one-and-a-half feet, they could fit 25 percent more workstations inside. Some suburban law firms, too, are beginning to prefer wider buildings, but for a different reason. Offices filled with natural light are a prime perk for employees, and buildings with taller windows can maximize the natural light. 

Building for Natural Light

Open office floor plans have become ubiquitous; bench seating and open-air layouts are not just for tech companies anymore. What’s not always obvious is how essential the architecture of the base building itself is to enabling these interior layouts.

Make no mistake—redevelopment can go a long way toward modernizing older buildings. We can knock down walls to create expansive work areas. Amenities such as high-tech conference facilities and fitness centers can take over a floor once occupied by cubicles. But you cannot increase ceiling heights, expand the window line or add parking spaces. The fact remains that buildings erected 15 to 20 years ago were not designed to support modern office design or the higher population densities of many corporate offices, and many times don’t offer the natural light or building systems (HVAC, power and plumbing) that support a higher employee population.

Systems Designed for Density

The structure of a building can make or break a tenant’s shift to a more efficient floor plan. Sitting closer to your coworkers can feel more bearable if you have an extra foot or two over your head thanks to taller, 10-foot ceilings. Larger windows can let in more natural light, making the space feel bright and airy.

And when more humans share a space, there’s more required from the building’s HVAC system, too. That’s why what’s above the ceiling matters just as much as the spaces below. Mechanical systems need to be able to keep up with the extra demand for electricity and cooling that comes with having more bodies, laptops and phone chargers in a space. And all those people coming to your office need a place to park, particularly in suburban markets.

Would your firm benefit from a build-to-suit?

In the quest to design offices that are uniquely suited to a particular company culture and working style, many executives are asking whether it makes sense to custom design their next office to suit their special requirements. But not every company wants to take on the risk or effort of buying and developing land themselves.

Build-to-suit projects offer an alternative, a happy middle ground between owner-occupied and spec buildings. They’re often the option of choice for office tenants with exotic needs, such as laboratories, special auditoriums and test kitchens. But ordinary office tenants can also benefit from having the ability to influence building design before shovels hit the ground, particularly when they care about features that maximize workplace efficiency.

Some new developments are taking these attributes into account. Eight Parkway North, a five story, 200,000-square-foot build-to-suit office project in Deerfield, Illinois, will have 12- and 10-foot ceilings with floor-to-ceiling glass and high parking ratios, with the expectation that the future tenant will desire a high-density workspace. The project can be delivered in 18 months from commitment. The site also features dual power feeds from two substations, offering redundancy for businesses who want to ensure continuity of their operations in a power outage.

Build-to-suit projects also allow the opportunity to add special features that go above and beyond typical tenant improvements in a spec building. Tenants sometimes request staircases between floors to create a greater sense of connectivity, or an atrium that serves as a bright common space for employees to gather and build community. Many corporations today are also building full-service dining facilities, often with healthy food options, to help encourage employees to stay on site and socialize. These facilities require more out of the building than a small deli, such as special exhaust and mechanical systems, as well as practical ways to bring trash and inventory in and out of the building.

Making your next move a lasting one

Build-to-suit developments can often be the best option for companies who cannot find the large contiguous space in the right market with the attributes they want. This problem is being strongly felt in some Chicago submarkets, such as on the Northshore where the majority of buildings are 20 years or older. Even in downtown Chicago, where several new speculative office towers just opened, the properties are new—but the customization must fall within the footprint of the recently-delivered towers.

A successful build-to-suit results in a building that has lasting value for the developer, and meets the unique requirements of the tenant. It’s essential to have architecture and corporate interior design partners on both sides of the deal who can work together to make sure the tenant gets what it needs out of the space without sacrificing long-term value for the developer.  You may be able to do wonders with an existing building—or you may be surprised at the value a build-to-suit can bring to your bottom line.

The decision to move offices is never taken lightly—whether a company has outgrown its space or needs a more modern workspace to help attract and retain valued talent. The new office needs to be one that will accommodate the needs of today’s desired corporate culture and employee needs—but also the needs of building inhabitants for many years to come.

Steve Wright is a principal with Chicago architecture firm Wright Heerema Architects. Tim Sweeney is a principal with Quadrangle Development Company, based in Deerfield, Illinois.

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