Call it the era of building conversions. Owners, developers, and city leaders are thinking more about a building’s potential use than at any time in recent history. The pandemic emptied out offices, and now, more than three years later, they have yet to be filled up again. At least not to previous levels. Billions of dollars in office loans are set to mature this year, and the looming deadlines are forcing many owners to think about whether there’s a future in their office building that involves something other than desks, chairs, and water coolers. But as good of an idea as it might seem to convert an empty office to another use, the reality is quite a bit more complicated. Last month, the White House even issued a statement on office to residential conversions, including a guidebook to navigate all of the federal programs that could help lessen the financial blow.
Now the industry is starting to think about how to design buildings that can adapt to different uses over time. “Because tenants will now be moving in and out more frequently, buildings might become more valuable if they grow more adaptable,” McKinsey researchers wrote in a recent report on the pandemic’s impact on the real estate industry. If buildings were easier to reconfigure, it would make buildings much more resilient to future changes in the market and reduce the waste and carbon needed to tear a building down and build a new one. There are currently some high-profile projects that illustrate this concept, but like many things, it’s a lot easier in theory than in practice.
The unTower is one of those projects. Created by a group of architects and engineers, the proposed project is a donut-shaped skyscraper that is built to be ‘neutral-use,’ meaning it could easily support different uses based on the way its building systems and structural elements can be adapted without requiring any major changes. The team behind the unTower envisions the tower as office space, residential apartments, a hotel, and potentially even a hospital. Aside from the versatility of how the building can be used, the building concept is also at the forefront of sustainability and carbon reduction. While the unTower is still just a proposal, given the uncertainty in the office sector, the concept does have potential advantages over traditional buildings.
Another recently developed concept is the idea of a “perpetual asset.” The phrase was coined by Gensler architects and designers exploring the idea of creating more adaptable buildings that could morph and change to new uses throughout their extended lifespan. “Typically, a purpose-built building is good for 20 years,” said Darrel Fullbright, Global Office Developers Leader and a Design Director in Gensler’s San Diego office. “For a Class A office building that’s solid and at the top of the market for at least 15 to 20 years, then what happens after that?” As Fulbright and the team at Gensler first began researching the topic, they looked at the trends moving the office market right now, like flight to experience, net-zero targets, adaptive reuse, and community placemaking. They then looked at the challenges of creating something that can be used for multiple purposes instead of a specific one.
Most buildings are built for specific purposes, so the design and structural elements can be optimized for those particular uses. For instance, bay depths, or the distance between the core and the perimeter of the building, are major design elements and can mean the difference between a property being better divided into residential units than a large office. This is a key structural element that cannot be easily adjusted once it’s already built. Office buildings also typically place building elements like bathrooms and elevator banks in the center of the building. What perpetual asset design proposes is a “coreless” design that moves elements traditionally located in the core to the perimeter, freeing up the interior of the building for more flexibility to change things around.
The Gensler team looked at how they could design buildings to be less specific to use and touched on some key elements. Many buildings these days feature a glass facade that can be covered from top to the very bottom by what architects call a curtain wall. This process of “curtain walling” entails an exterior covering of a building that is non-structural and, therefore, can be made of lightweight materials, including glass. Many office buildings are done this way, but in the case of changing the use of the property, the entire curtain wall would have to be taken down. If the curtain wall was designed so that the glass only goes to each individual floor, it could be easily pulled back to make space for balconies. This is particularly advantageous for buildings that get converted into living spaces. “These are little design things that we are just starting to see that we’ve found can really make projects more flexible,” Fulbright said.
One project where the coreless design concept is being put into practice is at Beam Reach Partners’ forthcoming office development, KANON, in the Seattle area. Designed by Gensler, the two-tower office project features abundant decks and terraces on each floor and was designed to meet the evolving needs of tenants. Another Gensler-designed development, Aperture Del Mar in San Diego, was also designed with flexibility in mind. Developed by GemdaleUSA, the 630,000-square-foot life sciences campus has extensive outdoor space, including terraces, and is built in a way that offers flexibility for the future in the event that the campus was to be used more for office space than life sciences and lab space.
While designers and architects are finding ways to increase flexibility in a building, creating a property that can easily pivot to a variety of uses remains a difficult task. Zoning laws are often a big hurdle, though there have been a growing number of cities that are relaxing these rules in order to allow more conversions as office districts struggle around the country. There is also the issue of developers not having a long-term mindset for their projects, as they usually sell them quickly after construction is complete. Nevertheless, it’s something that many feel is important to address and is good for the industry going forward.
“I think if we’re going to effectively change how real estate is built, we have to tackle it on a long-term basis,” Fulbright said, suggesting incentives could help encourage developers to consider future uses when designing buildings. He pointed to when LEED certification came onto the scene, and developers hesitated to take part because of the higher cost of developing to the standard. But as time went by and more property developers got on board with it, LEED began to be thought of as something that increased a building’s value in the long term, and developers began to embrace it. “I think a similar thing could happen, in that these perpetual assets could have more value,” Fulbright said.
Creating a building with the ability to shift between uses without any major construction updates is getting closer to reality. Designers and architects are at the forefront of a growing number of adaptable design concepts. Whether neutral use, perpetual asset, or other newly coined concepts, they all aim to expand a building’s possibilities and lifespan. As city leaders continue to open up to zoning changes and incentivize conversion in order to revitalize struggling areas, the idea of public-private partnerships developing adaptable buildings doesn’t seem so far-fetched. While developers may not be as willing to build for the long-term in a more adaptable way now, given some recent examples of developments with flexible elements, it’s reasonable to believe that they may be more willing in the near future.