Proto-Urban Designs In The ‘Burbs

Creating urban environments in suburban office parks makes it possible for businesses to attract younger workers.

Adaptive reuse of part of The Tannery in Yardley, PA, combined a bleacher-style architectural element to serve as stairs and as an informal relaxation/collaboration space. Exposed industrial elements create a unique, “authentic” workplace experience.

By Joshua Zinder AIA, NCARB, LEED AP, Joshua Zinder Architecture + Design

Businesses of most sizes and types thrive on the availability of talented people. Increasingly, that talent pool is dominated by the generation referred to as Millennials, or Generation Y, soon to be joined by the post-Millennial Generation Z members, who are just now coming of age. These younger demographics characteristically prefer to live and work in urban environments, which offer the highly integrated social atmosphere and density of social activity and amenities that suit their preferred lifestyles. But office space in these cities can be very expensive. Can emerging companies compete for top recruits in the suburbs?

Learn more about creating urban environments in the suburbs in our interview with Joshua Zinder.

In fact, designers and their owner/developer clients are coming up with creative ways to produce the urban environment that Millennials desire by repositioning existing suburban buildings, with strong ROI results. Our firm has been collaborating with owners of office-park properties to find ways to attract emerging firms as tenants—precisely because the redesigned property is attractive to their prospective employees.

Many of these properties were built during the boom of the 1980s and have aged poorly. But, by focusing on the potential for the social space within the buildings and deemphasizing the expanses of parking, it is possible to create “urban oases” in the ‘burbs. By following a few top-level guidelines, the results can offer the dense social environments younger people want, and a timeless aesthetic that any generation can enjoy.

Combining a robust amenities program with visual connections among multiple floors helps create an activated social space for this repositioned office property, offering the urban environment that younger employees may desire.

Don’t build, reposition

Owners of properties in suburban office parks have watched over the past two decades as premium tenant firms increasingly launched in, or moved to cities. The owners have become aware that the aging commercial properties in their portfolios offered little of what these potential lessees wanted. Savvy owners recognize the opportunity they represent for themselves and for tenants whose business models don’t support leasing expensive downtown offices. Cost-effective repositioning strategies can make aging suburban office properties competitive, and even elevate them to the Class A market.

Our own successful repositioning projects focus on creating robust offerings for shared amenities. By converting central atriums and lobbies into densely programmed social spaces—with cafes, lounge areas, after-hours coffee kiosks, and fitness rooms with showers and full lockers—the environment simultaneously attracts younger employees and encourages them to work longer hours, a bonus for tenant firms. Because these companies will need fewer private amenities, each can opt for a smaller footprint, giving the owner room to charge a higher per-square-foot rental rate, even as the lessee perceives that they are getting more value for their money. These amenities programs may also offer potential new revenue streams for the owner.

Improvements to the property’s aesthetic are essential as well. Shared spaces in older office parks will usually need to be made lighter, brighter, and airier, and entrances may need a refresh for added curb appeal. A cost-effective investment in a new look adds a level of prestige that will have an impact on lessees’ employees, clients, and visitors. The right approach can create a timeless aesthetic that won’t feel dated two or three decades from now.

For this 5,000-sq.-ft. atrium space in a Princeton, NJ-area office property, the design team reduced the mass of an imposing pedestrian bridge and placed a sculptural wood canopy in the center of the space to create an iconic focal point. Light-colored flooring and finish materials make the space bright and airy.

Consider the end-user

Remember, the goal is to offer young people aspects of urban life, even in the suburbs. In addition to desirable amenities, younger people are attracted to venues that support socialization and interaction. This can mean simply a comfortable place to meet and interact with others or the availability of infrastructure that supports the use of mobile devices. Both are eminently achievable, and at reasonable cost.

In addition, Millennials crave authenticity. This can be interpreted many ways, but in commercial design it can be achieved through adaptive reuse. JZA+D recently completed the offices of medical-marketing firm Red Nucleus in Yardley, PA, in a 100-year-old building called The Tannery, because it was originally used for tanning hides. The design team capitalized on the stone, wood, and steel of the existing structure, leaving much of it exposed and introducing architectural flourishes and contemporary finishes. The result is a workplace with a unique character, a relaxing vibe, and an authentic, historically charged experience.

Cross-generational design

Younger generations also appreciate a social experience that is multicultural and multigenerational. An integrated, collaborative design process is the optimal method for delivering a workplace that supports this rich social fabric. Owners of suburban office properties looking to reposition effectively will benefit from working with design firms that themselves have a culturally and generationally diverse staff.

Our design team’s work in creating these proto-urban environments in the suburbs has benefited from deliberately soliciting input from the range of generationally diverse designers in our firm. This is not to suggest simply “let Millennials design for Millennials.” Rather, the most innovative ideas for repositioning office properties along the lines discussed here tend to come from a kind of cross-pollination among designers of differing ages and experiences.

Joshua Zinder, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP is founding partner of Joshua Zinder Architecture + Design (JZA+D), an architecture and interiors practice headquartered in Princeton, NJ. The firm’s international portfolio includes commercial, hospitality, retail, and residential projects, as well as product, furniture and graphic designs.

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