A Brand Renew Day

How to Reposition a Building to Meet Changing Expectations

November 18, 2019

Senior Associate / Commercial Market Director, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: An extended version of this post, co-authored by David Yuan, Robert Mankin and Chris Beza, was first published in NAIOP’s Development magazine.

 

As buildings age, they often need to be renewed to remain competitive at attracting or retaining tenants, employees or residents. The scope of a renewal can vary widely from building to building, but keeping a few important factors in mind can position a building for continued success for years to come.

 

The building’s established brand
Every building has an existing position in the marketplace, and the most successful renewals build on that. A contemporary intervention in a classic midcentury building, for instance, might feel foreign to that building’s character. For instance, the renewal of 177 Huntington, an I. M. Pei-designed landmark in Boston, focused on activating the lobby with new furnishings, finishes and a cafe, rather than alterations to the building’s bold architectural character. Something radically different can work under the right circumstances, but it has to be intentional. (Photo: 177 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA © Christian Phillips)

 

The building’s existing condition
In addition to structural or mechanical upgrades, renewing an older building may require the remediation of hazardous materials like asbestos, lead or PCBs. Sometimes the cost of renewing a building to meet the needs of the market exceeds the cost of demolition and new construction — in which case, it makes more sense to start over. At the same time, older buildings often have historic texture or cultural importance that many tenants value and is worth preserving. (Photo: Maritime Building, Seattle, WA © Sean Airhart/NBBJ)

 

Your company’s business model and brand
For core real estate investments whose goals are to provide a steady income stream, it would not make sense to invest in a major overhaul. Value-add or opportunistic investments, however, acquire a building for the express purpose of making a significant investment and increasing its value. Also, keep in mind your company’s brand vision for the look and feel of a renewal project — are your properties edgy and creative, or subtle and sophisticated? This also extends to corporate workplaces — how can a renewed building better connect employees to the company’s brand and mission? (Photo: 407 North Maple Drive, Beverly Hills, CA © Sean Airhart/NBBJ)

 

Your desired tenants
Although nearly every tenant expects more amenities, the exact mix and appearance of amenities that appeals to potential tenants may vary. For instance, the recent renewal of Two Union Square in Seattle created public spaces that perform many of the same functions as a tech workplace — with areas for serendipitous interaction and impromptu gathering — but with a more sophisticated look and feel that is true to the building’s brand and position in the market. As a result, the space appeals to a variety of tenants, from brokerage firms like JLL, to tech firms like Apple. (Photo: Two Union Square, Seattle, WA © Kevin Scott/@K7Scott)

 

Your existing tenants
It’s difficult to renovate a building while it’s occupied, so it’s essential to align tenants’ expectations regarding the extent and duration of any disruptions. Communication is key. Many owners will deliver presentations to tenants nearing the end of their leases to show why the renovation makes it worthwhile to stay. Some tenants at 1201 Third Avenue in Seattle, for instance, initially disapproved of the contemporary aesthetic of the renewed lobby, until they understood the benefits of a more open building with new amenities. (Photo: 1201 Third Avenue, Seattle, WA © Sean Airhart/NBBJ)

 

The urban context
The ground floor — and even some of the floors above — can function as a hub for the surrounding neighborhood. Is a property near a hotel, a convention center, an entertainment district, or other offices? Think about how it can contribute to the life of those surrounding uses, perhaps in its retail mix, food and beverage, coworking space or a public plaza where people can congregate. (Photo: 85 Broad Street, New York, NY © Sean Airhart/NBBJ)

 

Programming
Typically a renewal is considered in only three dimensions, but there’s a fourth dimension too: time. Some landlords are even beginning to hire coordinators who program amenity areas with events, whether for tenants only or the public at large. “Experience design” and environmental graphics — encompassing murals and public art, music, VR and augmented reality and more — can also attract tenants and visitors. Think about how a space can change throughout the day or month or year, and provide reasons for people to visit again and again with special events, popups or interactive spaces. (Photo: Confidential Biotech Company, Cambridge, MA © Peter Vanderwarker)

 

As architects, what excites us most about this shift is that physical space, increasingly, is considered not as overhead but as an asset. Physical space helps employees work smarter, more creatively and more healthily. It generates revenue and brand vision for retailers. It helps residents live fuller lives. And the most successful renewals will be those that enable people to meet these changing expectations for work and life.

Banner image courtesy Umanoide/Unsplash.

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New Methods, New Results

Digital Methods and Tools Are Transforming at the Intersection of Modern Building Demand and Design Methodology

September 16, 2019

Associate Dean and Senior Lecturer, Yale School of Architecture

Editor’s Note: This essay was originally authored for the December 2018 issue of A+U. It is reprinted here with the permission of the publisher.

In the prescientific era, humans built by experience, trial and error. Traditions of design and construction emerged from repeated attempts, failures and refinements of technique, and even the earliest “building standards,” as defined by Vitruvius in his Ten Books of Architecture, did not even have the benefit of drawing to demonstrate results. Architecture has progressed as a slow but steady march toward rationalizing our approaches to creating the environment.

Refinements in methods of representation (drawings and models), abstraction (mathematics) and evaluation (analytical techniques like formulas and algorithms) have barely kept up, particularly in the 21st century, with the demands of complex building in the modern world. This has been especially true in architecture, where a myriad of social and urban constraints, increasingly sophisticated building materials, enclosure systems and digital infrastructure, demanding briefs and risky construction delivery models call out for new design sensibilities and methods.

Digital methods and tools are transforming at the intersection of modern building demand and design methodology. Having transited from the purely analog techniques of hand drawing, algebra and reference tables in manuals, through the era of electronic CAD drafting and spreadsheets, architects find themselves on the cusp of a “second information revolution” powered by robust building information modeling tools, the computational and storage efficacy of the cloud, and ubiquitous connectivity from  design studio to factory floor to job site through the internet. Experience and trial and error give way to analysis, simulation and prediction of results before the first shovel of dirt is turned.

That revolution will change how buildings behave, and therefore how they must be designed and built. The bright line between digital and physical systems, understood until recently as “the structure versus the wiring” is blurring rapidly in an era of digital control infrastructure, information systems integrated into spatial experience, and the blending of virtual and actual spatial perception. Making architecture is no longer just tectonics alone, but the integration of information and digital space.

At the same time, the decision-making of daily life is increasingly reliant on information, data, analysis and insight. Architects’ clients will no longer rely exclusively on the experience, intuition and judgment of the designer without more substantiating proof of an assertion, based upon available data. This is not to say that architecture will be reduced to only the prosaic, hyper-rational or “best mathematical idea.” Far from it — the ineffable aspects of building to express the aspirations of our culture become as important as ever. But the analytical basis upon which many design decisions are made — in the realms of performance and systems behavior — will inexorably improve, and designers who can leverage the opportunities of the former while accomplishing the latter are best positioned to define 21st century practice going forward.

Thus, new building demands and techniques demand novel design methodologies that are equal parts experience, enthusiasm, competence and innovation, both within the design studio and without on the construction site. Relying on established methods of design and the lessons of past work is table stakes towards this new challenge. The deft deployment of the digital tools of the trade — advanced modeling, analysis algorithms, big data collection, scripting and design-to-fabrication techniques — combined with the willingness to experiment that is part of the designer’s toolbox yields these new methods and equally interesting results.

Hack-a-thons, a technique used for years in the software industry, are a recent addition to the architect’s toolbox and an excellent example of ways to experiment, develop and test new ideas and strategies quickly. Rapid prototyping of narrowly focused questions that can be built, evaluated and refined quickly is a design muscle that transfers new strategies into the design studio. This is not a case of emulating another discipline (although clearly architecture benefits from such ideas) but rather accelerating design thinking through a different lens. The measure of success in a hack-a-thon is not just an idea, but a physical and measurable result, much like the shift in design methods outlined above.

At the building scale, applying these techniques in the intersection of design generation and physical form takes a certain fearlessness (to innovate) and determination to plow new fabrication ground. Architects have traditionally eschewed this connection, staying safely in the realm of “design intent” and leaving “the means and methods of construction” to contractors, with the expected timidity of built result. Digital tools, however, are particularly adept, in the right hands, at creating precise, understandable and buildable results starting from a provocative formal idea, through iteration,  evaluation and refinement, and landing upon a novel built result.

Experienced, digitally enabled and innovative architects do more than just produce unexpected, and in some cases astonishing, results for their clients. They build not to simply create space or meet schedules and budgets but rather to make things happen for their occupants, users and the public. Company headquarters are not just brand markers on a skyline or providers of workspace, but rather environments that enable creativity and results while contributing to the texture and life of a city. Hospitals are intended to make people healthier, not just mediate operational relationships between caregivers and patients. As digital tools — and the architects who best deploy them — are used to understand, generate and evaluate integrative solutions to complex building projects, the value of architecture (and architects) improves, and the propositions that architects bring to improving the built environment become more powerful. The rationalizing influence of such tools to measure and predict can be met with equal enthusiasm for the creative and expressive possibilities of making space.

All images courtesy Sean Airhart/NBBJ.

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They’re Alive! Skyscrapers that Breathe, Evolve, and (Maybe Even) Move

How Tall Can Skyscrapers Go? The More Pertinent Question Is: How Can Skyscrapers Better Serve Us?

June 20, 2019

Contributing Editor, Architectural Record

Editor’s Note: This essay was originally authored for the December 2018 issue of A+U. It is reprinted here with the permission of the publisher.

Back in the 1960s, Ron Herron and his compadres in the Archigram group envisioned a Walking City standing on telescopic steel legs that would allow it to ramble off to a new place if its residents got tired of its initial location. While no one has tried to build such a nomadic metropolis, many of the ideas behind this exercise in paper architecture are very much alive and kicking. The notion that buildings should respond to the needs of their users and change over time to adapt to new conditions is driving much thinking on high-rise design today. In addition, Archigram’s faith in technology’s ability to make a better future — while perhaps a bit naïve – still resonates with many of us. But instead of creating machines for living, 21st-century architects are aiming to design living machines that breathe, generate energy and listen to their users. “Alexa, prepare the skyscraper for the incoming storm.”

The 825-foot-tall Tencent headquarters in Shenzhen, China, by NBBJ doesn’t stand on legs, but it has arms that reach out and embrace its two towers. The arms don’t move, but they facilitate movement by the workers inside, providing horizontal connections between the towers and serving as activity hubs for exercise, dining and congregating. NBBJ rotated the towers and offset their heights so one shades the other and together they capture the site’s prevailing breezes to ventilate indoor atria. A modular shading system on the curtain wall varies according to the degree of sun exposure, thereby reducing glare and heat gain. The building’s skin seems alive. And its various rooftops support gardens that offer changing outdoor experiences to people working on upper floors.

The obvious question to ask about the future of skyscrapers is: How tall can they go? The answer is: Much taller than they need to. At 2,723 feet and 160 stories, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai is a notoriously inefficient building with more than 800 feet at the apex unoccupiable and a large percent of its top habitable floors consumed by elevators and core. When the 3,307-foot Jeddah Tower opens in 2020 in Saudi Arabia, it will have more than 1,000 feet of “vanity height.” Structural engineers’ skill at building high now far exceeds the market’s demand or users’ desire for such things.

The more pertinent question to ask is: How can skyscrapers better serve us? Building tall reduces the physical and carbon footprint of our cities, so it makes a lot of sense. Dramatic skylines give our cities their particular identities and manifest values of innovation and progress. As Daniel Burnham famously said, little plans “have no magic to stir men’s blood.” But in addition to inspiring us, tall buildings today must create healthy and beautiful places to live, work, learn and play. Instead of sucking energy and generating waste, these structures must generate their own power, capture and reuse water and make the planet a cleaner place. Most of the technologies needed to do this are currently available; now we just need to make them more economical. Because of the economies of scale inherent in their size, skyscrapers are the logical place to start deploying these green strategies.

While the particular technologies used will change over time, the direction of high-rise architecture points to various forms of biomimicry — design that’s modeled on biological processes. One way to do this is to undermine the hermetically sealed environment inside buildings, by either adding outdoor spaces such as sky-gardens that are accessible to people on upper floors or creating landscaped atria at various heights throughout a tower. Malaysian architect Ken Yeang has been greening his skyscrapers in these ways for decades, adding nature to architecture and in the process reducing energy loads and creating healthier indoor environments. The next step is to make building envelopes that actually breathe — allowing fresh air in and pushing heat and carbon dioxide out. While studying at the University of Stuttgart, Tobias Becker developed a breathing glass skin that controls the flow of light, air and temperature by changing the size of apertures or “pores.” These openings dilate or contract pneumatically like muscles and require little energy to operate.

In recent years, Arup has been developing building skins impregnated with micro-algae that insulate indoor spaces while absorbing carbon dioxide and generating oxygen. The algae can also be harvested and used as a bio-fuel. The engineering firm tested the technology in a five-story building in Hamburg a few years ago and now XTU, a French studio, is proposing to use its own micro-algae system in a high-rise project in Hangzhou, China.

Meanwhile, David Benjamin and his firm The Living have been building structures using bricks made from a fungus called mycelium. Materials that are grown instead of manufactured have lots of advantages, such as requiring less energy to produce and being biodegradable. Benjamin’s most prominent project was his Hi-Fy Tower installed in the courtyards at MoMA PS1 in Queens, New York, in the summer of 2014. At Cambridge University in the U.K., bioengineer Michelle Oyen is trying to develop building materials made of artificial bone or eggshell, which are stronger and lighter on a per-weight basis than steel. And because they are produced at room or body temperature, rather than more than 1,000 degrees for cement, they require less energy to manufacture. A lot more research needs to be done before a skyscraper’s structural members truly resemble an animal’s skeleton, but we can now imagine a day when columns and beams can be grown and can perhaps even repair themselves.

Haresh Lalvani, the cofounder of the Pratt Center for Experimental Structures, wants to go one step further — developing building systems that are encoded with information on how to shape themselves, similar to the way stem cells and genes are in living organisms. Working with metal fabricator Milgo/Bufkin, Lalvani has created perforated metal sheets that can be stretched out — using gravity or some kind of applied force — to become three-dimensional structures. The process is similar to cutting a piece of paper into a spiral and then pulling it into a telescoping coil. It gives “pop-up” architecture a whole new meaning.

While the gee-whiz factor of such experimental strategies can be either exciting or a bit silly, the main goal of skyscraper innovation should be creating buildings that are more environmentally friendly, more responsive to the needs of their users and healthier for the people inside and around them. Sensors will monitor and automatically adjust temperature, humidity, lighting, air quality and all kinds of interior conditions. Ideally, we’ll be able to tune these buildings to improve performance and erect them so they can clean and repair themselves. I doubt we’ll ever have skyscrapers that walk, but I can imagine a day when they grow and contribute to an urban ecosystem that’s sustainable, resilient and enticing.

Banner image courtesy Vladimir Kudinov/Unsplash.

Tencent sketch courtesy Jonathan Ward/NBBJ; photograph courtesy Terrence Zhang/NBBJ.

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