Why Architects Must Think Like Developers
As architects, it is fundamental that we understand the goals and aspirations of our clients, and this is never more relevant than when we’re designing a building for developers. Our strategies differ significantly for a developer that intends to hold onto its new asset within its portfolio versus one that wants to sell the building for a significant return, or even one that intends to operate and maintain the building for a third-party owner. Over 30 years of workplace architecture and design, I’ve found that each scenario uniquely influences our approach to the building’s design and construction.
For developers that seek to quickly sell a new building, we must arrive at a design that fits the local market, can be built with readily available materials, and will lease quickly. This doesn’t mean we sacrifice safety and quality over speed: quick builds aren’t always wrong, if that’s what the client needs. A recent client in the midst of a major hiring crunch, for example, had to prioritize speed as schedule drove everything about the project. And while this client wanted to control costs as much as possible, they also needed flexibility to house infrastructure and constantly shifting teams of employees. To that end, the selection of materials and structural and mechanical systems were driven by balancing speed, cost, and future flexibility.
In cities where high rises are permitted, office towers tend to be constructed from steel because they are not limited by ceiling height or total building height. Steel also allows for fairly large floor plates, a market preference driven primarily by technology tenants. Before tech was blue chip, companies made do with what was cheaply available, often old warehouses or manufacturing facilities. The structures in the Meatpacking District in New York feature deep floorplates and high ceilings. In manufacturing facilities, high ceilings provide long sight lines for safety. As these facilities were adapted by tech companies, long sight lines supported collaboration and productivity. As the warehouse aesthetic became the standard go-to for tech, including uncovered ductwork and exposed structural details, designers were challenged to create that same sense of historical place in newer buildings. T3, for example, constructed entirely from cross-laminated timber (CLT), gives the older character of exposed wood beams and taller floor-to-floor heights in a reinvented way.
High rises aren’t every developer’s request. A recent, award-winning campus for SRM Development is two 90,000-square-foot floors, which is the equivalent of three buildings at the 30,000-square-foot measurement typical of professional service buildings. These larger buildings are often outside city centers, and require the addition of amenities tenants would normally find in the surrounding neighborhood. Developers aiming to attract technology tenants often have to weigh the advantages of providing the preferably large floor plates with high ceilings typical in less urban settings, against a less than 30,000-square-foot floor plate and going vertical to remain in the purview of neighborhood amenities that may help them attract talent.
Generally speaking, for a developer driven by long-term goals—both as a portfolio asset and as owner/operator—staying power is key. Aesthetically, time-tested design appears to be the preference but what are often referred to as “traditional” design choices also factor into lease ability. Gridded floorplates in a square office tower tend to offer more rentable square footage than one of an irregular shape such as the Transamerica Pyramid, maximizing a site’s developable square footage and the resulting property income. Not only do these boxier building shapes offer a favorable ratio of floor-plate-to-perimeter-skin, linear layouts tend to be more flexible for a broader swath of potential tenants.
For developers looking to attract a higher-paying tenant, we as architects have to make the building look, feel, and possess the functional characteristics commensurate with competitors paying at that rate. If I am designing a building for someone, but I intend to own and operate it for them, I want to meet their needs as best I can while finding ways to reduce my operating costs. Efficient mechanical systems; renewable energy options, such as solar panels; and more utilitarian finishes that can take a licking but still look good over time are top of mind in this scenario. Anything we can do to make the building easier to maintain—so I don’t spend a lot out of pocket to repair and maintain the building—helps with the amortization of the property.
Amenities, Amenities, Amenities
In addition to leasable square footage, many developers also consider what’s already happening in the neighborhood. If there are local businesses already supported by the community, developers consider the potential support tenants can offer those existing businesses and define a complementary, not redundant, amenity program. In instances where services, entertainment and fitness, or food and beverage already exist near the build site, less budget, time, and square footage is dedicated to common areas, maximizing rentable and usable area within each floor. Full transparency around a building’s amenity goals also helps us design a limited number of shafts—namely those for mechanicals, elevators, and stairs—because those significantly limit rentable square feet. Using the perimeter to bring air in, and for exhaust, can help limit vertical mechanical shafts and increase rentable area.
Amenities can also factor into a landlord’s ability to attract tenants. In a large building, a fully-wired conference facility with good AV systems that can be reasonably leased from a building owner frees up a lot of square footage—and design opportunity—so large tenants don’t have to plan that in their space. They can instead prioritize collaborative and work spaces that support the activities of their employees, over a meeting room for 100+ that eats up a lot of room for not a lot of use. That frees us, as designers, to focus on flexible and multi-functional spaces that can accommodate large groups, or break into many smaller spaces. In addition to more leasable square footage, amenities outside the office can also offer productivity advantages. In these casual “third-space” settings outside the tenant office, people share with fewer inhibitions and speak more freely without the concern of others eavesdropping.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, bike storage and lockers are the most common amenities requested, as well as outdoor spaces. For a while, workout rooms and gym facilities were big, but they were no longer being used, or perceived as added value. People tend to gravitate to fitness facilities on a personal level, be it barre class, yoga, spin, or CrossFit. That choice is often tied to one’s social life, too, so it is hard for many to incorporate that activity in a work setting. Universally, what attracts people are “great room” experiences as part of a lobby, a place that people sit, meet, work, and connect through all-wireless devices. Accompanying that is almost always some sort of F&B program which helps keep the space active, kind of like an informal conferencing or coworking space.
This is why, when working with developers, it is so important we ask seemingly simple questions about the short and long-term goals of our developer clients: It helps us prioritize and organize very complex solutions, as well as where and how to most effectively spend the clients’ budget. The closer we align our desired outcomes, the greater are our chances for collective success.