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Built to Outlast: The Future of Design is Flexible

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The iconic recliner brand La-Z-Boy has been headquartered outside of Detroit, Michigan in its original, 1927 building for over 80 years. While the company might be known for comfortable home furnishings, their own home has had significant growing pains.

The old office had been remodeled fourteen different times over the decades and by the time the company decided to split it reportedly featured a mess of partitions, dead-ends and cubicles. The problem wasn’t that their space wasn’t designed right. Designers and builders in 1927 had no idea what the world would look like now much like we have no idea what shape it will take in 2211. The problem was that the design couldn’t evolve with the times. Rather than being able to reconfigure the space for the company’s needs they had to move out of their long-standing home into a brand new building.

La-Z-Boy isn’t the only property owner to struggle with flexibility. Across the U.S. lie commercial properties that have been built to suit the needs of their time. Twenty six percent of the current commercial stock was built before 1960. Consequently, in sectors as diverse as health care, retail and lodging, these buildings are thousands of square feet smaller on average than their modern counterparts.

These figures tell us what you may already know: due to population, trends and standards of living, our building needs can change dramatically across just a few decades. Modern retail centers were built large to accommodate a big box trend that is now failing. Offices managers are knocking down corner offices to make way for open floor plans. Industrial spaces now resemble factories more than warehouses. Owners of older properties must adapt to trends that their original investors could not have foreseen.

Those involved in the commercial design process need to reevaluate traditional strategies of development. They need to incorporate flexible design into their properties, taking full advantage of today’s technology to accommodate high standards and appeal to modern preferences. Only then can they create a property that stands the test of time.

Today, property stakeholders are able to work together through the entire building lifecycle, thanks to new tools and techniques. First, we’ll dive into the future of flexible design. Then, from modern construction methods to mobility, we’ll share the ideas that are allowing commercial spaces to transform as needed.Most corporate space is underutilized 60 percent of the time.

The future of real estate is flexibility

Perhaps the most striking example of flexibility in commercial real estate is the growth of co-working. Freelancers and corporate employees alike are taking advantage of spaces built for adaptability. Whether workers need an open table or a private conference room, the intention of co-working spaces is to provide for a multitude of needs.

It’s a sector that’s seen rapid growth over the past several years. Research from real estate services firm JLL indicates that the flexible space and co-working sector has emerged as the primary growth driver in the market, claiming 29.4% of U.S. office absorption in the past year alone.

Additionally, according to JLL’s newly released 2018 Occupancy Benchmarking Guide, most corporate space is underutilized 60 percent of the time. This becomes a massive financial opportunity for property stakeholders.

Commercial property owners can afford greater freedom in their lease terms through design options that keep their properties adaptable. As they adjust to meet the needs of their tenants, they’ll enjoy higher occupancy rates and improved satisfaction. Office buildings with flexible features will likely prove far more profitable than their outdated counterparts.

Research proves that these features are well worth the investment. The Alternative Workplace Lab in Washington, DC, for example, was built in 1999 to test the feasibility of high-performance office space in a historic government building. To test this, the GSA team constructed three workspace “neighborhoods” in the open space.

The results look stellar. One of the teams using the workspace was able to configure workstations in as little as 90 minutes. The current tenant occupying the space was able to support a 150% increase in staff. All in all, the AWL research indicates that reconfigurable rooms, flexible utility distribution, and alternative work settings all allowed for speedier transformations and greater adaptability to tenant needs.

So what must property stakeholders embrace in order to keep commercial buildings flexible?

The next industrial revolution

American history is littered with examples of technology that completely changed production quantities, efficiency and costs. Take the classic example: Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin in 1794. The cotton gin made the production process faster and easier, driving cotton to be one of the nation’s biggest exports throughout the 19th century.

The industrial revolution showed us that processes can always be transformed. And though construction is traditionally resistant to change, it’s easy to see that new building methods have the ability to lower costs and shorten timeframes in a slow-moving industry.

Companies involved in rethinking commercial construction are increasingly turning to modular solutions. In 2017, Marriott International announced plans to use modular construction for 13% of its North American hotel deals. It’s easy to understand why; constructing sections of buildings offsite can reduce costs, increase quality control and speed up delivery of the finished product.

But prefabrication can also increase the flexibility of property design. Ryan Simonetti, co-founder of workplace solutions provider Convene, believes that breaking through industry norms is crucial to success. Modular construction can create a product that can continue to benefit the needs of his clients long after the initial buildout. “Most of our R&D dollars right now are being used to create flexibility and reduce costs by having prefabricated components that came to be easily put up, taken down and reconfigured to change aesthetics or needs of users,” he said. “It is impossible to say ‘I know how people are going to work three years from now,’ so you have to give yourself options to improve on what you build — based on needs.”

The industrial revolution showed us that processes can always be transformed.

Despite the possibilities, offsite construction remains a challenging proposition for many companies in the U.S. A 2017 survey of members of the Construction Users Roundtable and the Construction Industry Institute indicates that 62% of respondents are still on the fence about modular construction.

“Rather than viewing offsite construction as a threat or disruption,” the report reads, “Owner organizations that embrace it will be best-positioned to win in the built environment of today and tomorrow.”

What gets measured gets mobilized

Buildings used to have to be drawn and then built. Then, with computer-based design, the plans could change mid-construction to meet needs as the project evolved. Now, buildings are mapped as they are being built.

The development process for commercial properties benefits from building information modeling systems, or BIM. This tool is essentially a 3D design and modeling software that uses data to keep information up-to-date and accessible for all parties involved in building and design: architects, engineers, urban planners and more.

Every project built using BIM is actually built twice. First, the project is modeled virtually, with information provided on every part of the building lifecycle. This includes pricing, performance and even projected lifetimes. Then, this visualization informs the design and construction process in real-time as the physical building is brought to life.

Those involved in integrated design can use BIM software to facilitate multi-disciplinary coordination. Communication across all parties allows for a design to meet the needs of all stakeholders. All those who play a part in property design can see the effects of their decisions and overcome obstacles before they play out in reality.

This technology isn’t just for the construction process, though. Post-occupancy, BIM models even have applications in facility management. Lincon Saki, PE and Principal Engineer at Southland Industries, comments, “With 3D modeling, the building owner is able to make rapid changes and decisions without increasing risks.”

Of course, BIM is just one technology used to achieve flexibility. Engineers have found that there are many ways to keep a building adaptable in the future. For instance, selecting equipment that can handle future permit changes allows a property to be used for alternative purposes. They’ll also route HVAC, electrical and plumbing systems to allow a space to be more easily restructured.

“In general, while designing HVAC and plumbing systems, flexibility becomes an important parameter. Building owners and developers are now willing to pay premium to incorporate flexibility in their systems, as it allows them to broaden their prospective tenant base,” Saki adds.

Property stakeholders appreciate the implementation of management systems that can easily be controlled and adapted. As business needs change, it is increasingly important that operations are easy to maintain even if a property is frequently changing hands.

We’re living (and working) differently

Flexible design necessitates the increased mobility of people. A workplace benefits from a certain degree of versatility in its layout, and reconfigurable furniture, de-mountable walls, and moveable desks, storage units and task lights lend themselves to easier rearrangement. Individual lighting and ventilation controls are also popular.

The goal with a flexible corporate space is to allow as much freedom to restructure an office as possible. Whether the building is home to a coworking space or is ready to adapt to the needs of a variety of tenants, it’s crucial that property owners can accommodate alternate work spaces.

A residential property, similarly, must adapt to handle changing population needs. In cities faced with a booming influx of residents and a crippling lack of new housing, smaller units have driven flexible design in interesting ways. In cramped cities like New York and San Francisco, minimum square footage per unit can now be as low as 220 square feet.

With such little room to work with, multifamily developers focused on microunits are all about efficiency. Within a unit, residents may sleep on hideaway beds, work on built-in desks, and expand their tables when it’s time to eat. More square footage is devoted to communal spaces, which function as living rooms, kitchens and social spaces alike.

Whether adapted from older structures or built new as modular units, buildings are becoming more prepared for the future. As the population trends toward telecommuting, smaller accommodations and flexible work situations, flexible design allows property developers to be less limited by the constraints of buildings intended for very different purposes.

Adaptability leads to success

All properties have to adapt to the requirements of their tenants and to shifting population trends that affect what is required from a physical space. What’s more, they have to do so in the most cost-effective ways possible.

Traditional design and building practices are not only ineffective, but they can be downright wasteful. Walking through the lifecycle of a traditionally-constructed property, like so many of the older stock we’re dealing with today, shows us many potential obstacles.

For one, there’s the cost of construction both monetarily and environmentally. Inefficiencies in the process can have a staggering effect on wallets, too: if one major event triggers the average construction delay of 30 percent, then a $50 million project can turn into $65 million. The EPA has indicated that the U.S. construction industry is responsible for 25% of non-industrial waste generation per year.

Even after a property is developed, traditional design can cost even more money down the road. Remodeling a commercial building for adaptive reuse after-the-fact is considered to be one of the most expensive projects a property owner can take on, as the very infrastructure of the property likely needs renovation. Even small oversights in construction can lead to headaches for the facilities managers that are tasked with running the building.

Instead, we should be developing properties for the future. The growth of prefabrication and building information modeling has given developers more control over the construction process, cutting back on waste and inefficiencies that slow down the process. Once buildings are in use, flexible design principles let them be reconfigured over time without the cost of pricey renovations.

Properties are serving a greater variety of needs than ever. People flit between work and home, needing increased connectivity in every environment. Living accommodations are shrinking in major cities, and communal spaces are calling for openness and mixed-use functionality.

No one has a crystal ball that can see into the future. This makes designing something as permanent as a building feel like shooting blindfolded at a moving target. But, there are steps that the construction, design and property industry can can to make the inevitable changes less costly. Successful design has to be flexible design if property owners want their developments to serve their needs decades into the future. While we can’t always predict what the public will demand, we can be prepared to meet it. Our buildings, our children and our legacies depend on it.

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