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Wednesday
Oct282015

Five Megatrends Shaping Commercial Office Development

Tysons Corner is a perfect example of a mixed-use development that's stayed relevant by ensuring its commercial office buildings give workers what they want. Image © Prakash Patel

We’ve heard it all before. After World War II, the Baby Boom generation escaped the city in favor of the green horizon of the suburbs, and escaped the travails of urban life. Traffic, smog, crowds and crime were to become a thing of the past.

Except that never happened.

The post-war migration to the suburbs rid the country of certain problems while creating new ones. Communities separated developments by use. Offices, schools, stores—and everything else—were built to be accessible by car. Regulatory codes written for the car-dependent lifestyle compounded the problem and increased traffic. As a result, many of the suburban office developments built after World War II now seem antiquated in an American culture where people no longer want to be tethered to automobiles.

The developments and offices we plan and construct today are being governed by something I like to call New Office-ism. It’s a design approach that eschews monolithic uses in favor of mixed-use, walkable patterns. New Office-ism incorporates aspects of master planning, urban design and landscape architecture into commercial office development. It is what the next generation workforce expects, and communities that cannot provide it will fail to attract new businesses and be in danger of losing the ones they already have.

New Office-ism yields fully-functioning and walkable neighborhoods that just happen to be anchored by commercial office buildings. Here are five megatrends driving this new paradigm.

1. Population Growth and Urbanity

The U.S. population currently stands at just over 320 million. When we hit the 400 million mark sometime after 2030, we’ll need to consider where everyone will live and work. A joint AIA/APA 2007 study projected that by 2030, 66 percent of American jobs would be located in areas that were developed after 1950 – i.e., suburbs. While the Great Recession blunted some of that momentum, the trajectory is still ever outward, though Americans have shown a renewed interest in the kind of lifestyle that comes with living in an urban area.

To this end suburbs are thinking more like cities. There’s been a renewed emphasis on mixed-use development patterns. New Office-ism is a direct result of this: it’s transforming suburbs into quasi-proto-urban areas.

2. Expectations of the Next Generation Workforce

New Office-ism encourages a mixed-use approach to corporate campus development, because that’s what the next generation workforce wants.

Highly-amenitized office campuses epitomize what office workers want. They want more than a desk and a place to park. They want environments that provide access to retail, dining, recreation and child care amenities. They want places to grab lunch and run a few errands. And they would like to be close enough to home to check in with pets and family.

These new predilections have turned office design into an “arms race” in which attracting and retaining employees is the primary objective. Companies that fail to provide New Office-ist amenities risk being on the losing end. Companies are relocating to wherever such developments are available, or to cities that allow such development. Cities and suburbs that fail to modify regulatory codes to smooth the transition of existing and future office districts into mixed-use developments will find themselves behind the curve.

3. Design for People, Not Cars

In the near future, the car will no longer be the primary form-giver of commercial office development. It’s high time we got the memo.

We used to plan offices with parking ratios of just four spaces per 1,000 square feet. But as more offices adopted high performance workspace layouts, that ratio increased dramatically, to eight or more spaces per 1,000 square feet. Today, areas for vehicle storage can easily be 140 to 280 percent more than people-oriented spaces, so at some point the question arises: who are we really planning for—people or cars?

The answer to that question should be people, because the next generation workforce appears not to have much interest in car ownership. They make decisions on where to work based on quality of life factors, which often do not involve cars. So how should New Office-ism incorporate this crucial evolution?

One potential approach: prioritize location. New developments adjacent to rail transit stations can reduce parking demand by 15 to 20 percent. This frees up space and prevents the need for additional capital investments in garages and parking lots. Transit friendly offices also offer employees that coveted choice: car or light rail. Next generation workers have consistently shown a preference for work environments that offer multiple transportation choices.

Luckily the number of U.S. cities with light rail transit systems has steadily grown since the 1980s. Today, there are more than 30 cities with regional rail systems. Even car-oriented cities like Los Angeles and Dallas have adopted rail as a real alternative to driving.

Depending on where you are, rail transit may only shift a small percentage of commuters out of their cars. But they also increase property value and appeal through proximity to transit-oriented development (TOD), which places stations in close proximity to residential, office and retail uses and gives workers easy access to the amenities they crave. TOD has transformed Tysons Corner in suburban Washington, D.C., from a traditional suburban regional shopping destination into a mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly environment. It can have that same transformative effect for both suburban and urban infill sites.

4. The Parking Conundrum Part II: Autonomous Vehicles

In order to stay relevant, New Office-ism must anticipate what happens when demand for existing and future parking garages decreases.

Self-driving cars are no longer the stuff of science fiction. They are currently being tested on the roads of Los Angeles, Austin and Las Vegas. Increased adoption of these technologies can radically decrease parking demand. Who needs a parking space, if your car can drop you off and park itself remotely?

So if parking garages are destined to become less relevant, how should we design them? It is easy enough to return portions of a surface parking lot to green space or other non-car uses, but what about the humble garage? Because garage spaces are much more expensive to construct, we should start designing them with built-in exit strategies. We should conceive of garages as more than vehicle storage space—they should be the framework for future buildings. We can accomplish this by increasing floor-to-floor heights and designing on a module that would allow garages to transition into occupy-able space.

Call it future-proofing the garage of today.

5. Technology and the Definition of “Office”

Collaboration is the typical justification for bringing people together under one roof, but now that workers can easily video conference with colleagues from other time zones, the nature of collaboration has changed. Even if employees commute/walk to a single campus every day, their workplace may exist in multiple locations.

Of course not everyone is going to be camped out at the local Starbucks with a laptop and a latte and a schedule of cross-country conference calls. But the next generation workforce campus will learn from technology and adopt New Office-ism principles of mixed-uses, walkability, social spaces and retail/dining options. Doing so creates work environments as flexible as the technologies we rely upon. Hoteling, telepresence devices, and even traditional conference rooms and workspaces equipped with the right technologies allow New Office-ism to emphasize choice, mixed-use, socialization, and—yes—collaboration.

These trends are shaping how we conceive and design commercial office buildings and corporate campuses, and designers must continue to understand what workers and companies want if they hope to create relevant and lasting design solutions.

Joe Pobiner is a master planner and urban designer in Gensler's Dallas office. He specializes in applying responsible planning and urban design principles that strengthen the physical, natural, economic, and cultural frameworks of our rapidly urbanizing planet. Contact him at joe_pobiner@gensler.com.

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