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How a Popular Texas Book Chain Built a Modern Office Building on a Budget

The most expensive office buildings tend to get all the headlines. But not every company can afford to be in the cream of the crop workspaces, particularly these days. So when I see a new office building debut that’s architecturally distinctive and built on a budget, it’s worth looking into. Half Price Books, a popular chain of bookstores headquartered in Texas (that is incidentally the nation’s largest family-owned bookstore chain), commissioned a boutique office building a few years ago as part of a larger mixed-use development near its Dallas headquarters. Designed by local firm Cunningham Architects, the office property was intended as an investment in the neighborhood and a way to earn extra income. But after its debut won praise from local architecture critics for its innovative design on a small budget, it has proved to be much more.

The project began years ago when Half Price executives were mulling over what to do with six acres of property it had acquired over the years near its HQ, located about 7 miles north of downtown Dallas. Ken Wright, Vice President of Construction at the company, told me it began with the company trying to clean up the neighborhood. “We’re a retailer, and it’s good to have other retail around us,” Wright said. There wasn’t much around the company’s headquarters building when they moved into the space in 1999, and that hadn’t changed much over the years. The only neighbors to Half Price Books were “a couple of shady bars,” so company executives slowly began acquiring the neighboring retail properties and sat on it for a few years before ultimately deciding to build a mixed-use development with office and retail.

When it came time to choose an architect, there was no decision to make. Wright and his team had worked with Cunningham Architects in 1998 when they chose the firm to redesign Half Price’s current headquarters, where they still reside to this day. That building was formerly a department store, and it posed some challenges during its redevelopment, the most notable of which was the fact that the property, built around 1960, had no windows. That project was also on a tight budget, and the architecture firm was able to complete the project under budget. “They loved the idea of repurposing the building,” Wright said. 

Built at just $200 per square foot, Half Price Books’ boutique office building in Dallas features a wood facade that doubles as a sunshade. (Image courtesy of Half Price Books)

When they began to work on the new spec office building, Wright and other team members thought about potential uses and users and, especially with their modest budget, knew that maximizing the leasable space was very important. “My instructions to the architect were that we want it to be low to no maintenance, which they were very much on board with,” Wright said. As project plans evolved, Half Price Books had “tremendous” input into the design, which they wanted to be something unusual. “We didn’t want it to look like every other shopping center,” Wright said. After many iterations of the design through the collaborative process, they settled on a wedge-shaped building that the architect told the Dallas Morning News looked kind of like a Jawa sandcrawler from Star Wars. The design effectively turns the building inside out, with hallways, lobbies, stairs, and landings on the outside of the building rather than the inside.

After years of planning, construction broke ground in 2019. The project was about 75 percent complete when the pandemic hit, and construction was ultimately forced to shut down. Fortunately, the materials for the office portion of the development had already been purchased, so the building wasn’t impacted by the supply chain backlog and rising material costs that many other projects have had to contend with. 

The facade of the boutique office building is made up of wooden slats that form a sunshade. The Accoya wood, sustainably sourced timber from Japanese pine, is a material fairly new to the market in the US, Wright told me. The wood goes through an ancient and time-consuming process where it is cooked in an autoclave in a solution of vinegar mixed with a secret mineral additive that Wright points out is non-toxic. Though the wood is pricey, he said it’s still less expensive than metal, and the team thought the natural material was more attractive. “The sunscreen was something we thought was very necessary. The afternoon sun here is brutal,” Wright said. “Basically, it’s our only decorative element.”

It’s also the project’s most distinctive feature and one that saves money by reducing the building’s need for more cooling by blocking the harsh Texas heat. It was also what took the hit when it came to making cuts so the project would stay on budget. Original sketches of the sunscreen intended for it to take up the same amount of space on both sides of the building, but to stay on budget, they had to do with less on the East side of the facade. However, the tweak in plans ended up in an eye-catching design. “Everybody that sees it loves it,” Wright said. Another reason the building costs less is that it doesn’t have the kinds of amenities a newer, larger building typically includes. With the expectation of a conference space and a catering kitchen on the building’s top floor, there’s no fitness center or shared business center. “We’re geared more toward smaller users that don’t care about that sort of thing,” Wright explained. The building has a total of 47,000 square feet, including the balcony walkway that wraps around the building. Twenty-seven thousand square feet of gross leasable space spans the inside.

The office’s design features a wraparound walkway on the exterior of the building. (Image courtesy of Half Price Books)

With today’s steep construction costs, finishing a project under budget is not easy. Average office building construction costs can vary widely between different geographic locations. San Francisco has consistently been one of the most expensive markets in the world for construction. A 2022 report from CBRE found that building in the city costs nearly $440 per square foot on average, with Tokyo a close second at $425 per square foot. A combination of labor shortages, rising demand, geopolitical risk, and rising costs are all weighing on the construction industry in the U.S. The report predicted that by the end of 2022, construction costs would rise nearly 15 percent year-over-year. 

Dallas doesn’t rank high on the list of international cities with the highest construction costs, but it’s not the cheapest market either. The banking giant Goldman Sachs is developing a 980,000-square-foot office building in downtown Dallas that will cost about $500 million–or more than $500 per square foot. A former apartment complex was torn down to make way for the new project, the largest office development in Dallas in decades. Construction is expected to begin any day now, with the building slated to open in April 2026. The project is getting $18 million in tax incentives from the city, on the promise of about 5,000 jobs expected to be brought to the city along with the development. The new Dallas hub for Goldman Sachs is located only about 7 miles southwest of Half Price’s spec office building, but the project is much larger, more extravagant, and situated in the heart of the city’s CBD.

So far, Half Price’s new office building has one tenant leasing half of one floor in a 3,000-square-foot lease. Wright said he expects the rest of the space to eventually be filled with a mix of tenants from different industries. While leasing has been a “slog” since the pandemic, Wright said businesses looking for smaller spaces as they downsize had expressed interest. While the design was locked down pre-pandemic, it aligns perfectly with the trend toward more light and air in office spaces. “One can take a lap around the building whenever fresh air or a stretch of the legs is needed,” said Gary Cunningham, founder and president of Cunningham Architects, which designed the project.

Developing office space in the U.S. at the moment is no easy feat. Construction costs alone are a major barrier, not to mention the lengthy approval and land use process many cities require and then, of course, finding tenants amid a time of more remote work than ever. But Half Price Books’ example in Dallas, where the development achieved sustainability and cost savings without sacrificing design, is a project that could serve as a model for other developers trying to pencil out projects during these trying times for construction.

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