Class B Metamorphosis

A team of designers explored the future of the classic Class B suburban corporate campus. The result is a strategy to turn aging campuses into flexible, lifestyle-focused developments that are relevant — and leasable — for generations.

Owners of aging office campuses are wrestling with tough questions. Do they reinvest or repurpose? How can they attract tenants as vacancy rates rise and competition increases? Is it time to demolish and start over?

In recent months, a team of LPA designers has been exploring different strategies to activate, rethink or reinvent the looming surplus of Class B office space. They moved beyond discussions of hybrid spaces and return-to-office predictions to focus on redeveloping campuses into communities that will stay energized and relevant for generations.

For this Forward Thinking project, designers focused on a classic suburban office campus, with a mix of building types. The process looked to the future to develop cost-effective concepts that would address the many challenges facing aging office buildings, while providing resilience to inevitable shifts in the market. Operational costs, carbon emissions and the desire to create the type of healthier, sustainable campus that more and more tenants are demanding were core parts of the discussions.

“The idea was to work with a typical configuration of what we’re seeing and then really understand what it could become,” LPA Design Director Rick D’Amato says. “We needed to understand what made this successful once, why it’s not successful anymore and what will it take to make it successful in the future.”

Designers looked at a variety of strategies to redefine the campus as a destination, reflecting changing attitudes about the relevance of the workplace environment. For many of these centers, conceived in a different era, simply adding a few amenities would be a waste of money.

“It’s not about aesthetics,” D’Amato says. “It’s about providing meaningful alternatives for the tenants that are going to occupy these spaces and transform what they know as their workplace into a lifestyle.”

Designers rallied around a defining goal: What if the current turmoil in commercial real estate is an opportunity, not a crisis?

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Designers focused on a typical campus of mid-rise office buildings, recognizing that strategies must be applicable to a wide variety of building and campus types.

Market Realities

There is no dispute about the extent of the problem. While demand is returning for new Class A spaces that address the needs of modern tenants, older Class B space is floundering. Commercial real estate firm CBRE estimates 700 million square feet of U.S. office space, or 7% of the total inventory, will become surplus in the next few years. In CBRE’s spring 2023 occupier poll, more than half of the firms surveyed — and 68% of the companies with more than 10,000 employees — said they planned to reduce their office space, while only 20% reported plans to expand.

With the competition for tenants increasing, owners are demolishing, redeveloping or converting office space at an unprecedented pace, JLL reports. From 2000 to 2019, 6.6 million square feet of office buildings on average were removed from the inventory annually; in 2022, 21.1 million square feet of office inventory was taken out of the market, of which 13.6 million square feet was converted, the consultancy recently reported. A significant catalyst has been new incentives from cities and government agencies, JLL wrote in its 2023 Q2 U.S. Office Outlook Report. “Many of the largest office markets in the U.S. are creating financial incentives for adaptive reuse of office buildings and attempting to lower regulatory barriers for these projects, generating significant momentum.”

At the same time, JLL research shows upgraded facilities are delivering a better return on investment. By 2025, properties that incorporate a “diverse roster of amenities” will experience 12% higher demand from tenants versus their “plain commodity counterparts,” the firm forecasts. “Landlords can get the biggest bang for their buck by investing in health and wellness initiatives, hospitality services and outdoor spaces, all of which will increase foot traffic and provide a top-notch experience for tenants,” JLL concluded in its recent Global Flex Report.

To better explore the realities of the current market, designers hosted a charette that included LBA Realty Principal and Chief Investment Officer Steve Briggs and LBA principal Brad Neglia. LBA has been ahead of the game for years, developing mixed use facilities that have adapted to changing needs. LPA and LBA have worked together on several projects over the years, including Park Place in Irvine, California, a 100-acre suburban development that has evolved into one of Orange County’s most successful mixed-use developments.

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Many older buildings won’t be able to adapt to the changing market, LBA chief investment officer Steve Briggs said.

“Park Place has become the sum of the parts around it,” Briggs said.

The challenges facing older stock are not going away, Briggs said. Many owners will need to recognize that many older buildings are simply unable to adapt to the changing market needs. The office market is not overdeveloped, it’s “under demolished,” Briggs said. “If there is a piece that doesn’t work, get rid of it. Partial teardowns are worth looking at.”

The discussion focused on shifting uses and the ability to activate outdoor spaces. But the bigger theme centered on the need to change the energy, the vibe of older centers to create value for the future campus. “You can’t just put in amenities,” Neglia said.

Tough questions were asked: What is the catalyst to revive an older campus? How do you energize it?

“It has to be a destination first,” Neglia said. “You need to create a campus where all things you need can be found.”

It has to be a destination first. You need to create a campus where all things you need can be found.” — Brad Neglia, LBA Realty principal

The Target

The Forward Thinking exercise was viewed as an opportunity to address an array of issues.

How can we design resilient structures that can accommodate a wide range of uses and functions? In the changing landscape, flexibility and adaptability will be crucial. How can we change our thinking on how we build and how we address sustainability?

Success would be assessed on many levels: Is the new concept more leasable? Is it more sustainable and efficient to operate? Will it be future proof?

The approach was program agnostic. Multifamily, industrial, life sciences, medical, hospitality are strong draws now, but there were no assumptions about what would attract tenants 10 to 20 years from now.

“It was important to explore options that made financial sense for clients,” said LPA Director of Commercial Nick Arambarri. “We wanted to create value with higher-quality buildings that are deeply mixed-use with spaces that succeed regardless of market cycles.”

These campuses still have real value that shouldn’t be discarded. Any design approach needs to include the benefits of preserving existing resources, while analyzing the impact of building, construction waste and the project’s larger carbon footprint. The re-creation of the campus can include more-efficient systems and on-site energy generation, lowering costs and addressing environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals.

“It is not economically or environmentally smart to look at this glut of square footage as expendable,” says LPA president and chief design officer Keith Hempel.

The process recognized the importance of a phased, or tiered approach to any campus evaluation, designers agreed. Strategies must be applicable to a wide variety of building and campus types; not every approach will be right for every property and market. Any solution would have to address a variety of different conditions, circumstances and building types, from stand-alone mid-rise and office towers to office campuses and low-rise rural developments.

As ideas developed, designers focused on a broader concept incorporating a holistic view of the campus. Adaptive re-use of existing buildings and market re-alignment strategies were all part of the toolkit. Strategies could target specific buildings or portions of a campus, including selective or partial demolition and reconstruction. The return-on-investment would be defined by a new type of campus that works on many levels to better connect the development with tenants and the community.

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Discussions centered on the need to develop flexible buildings that can adapt to shifting trends.

A New Ecosystem

The final design preserves the core of the existing suburban campus, while moving beyond the homogenous office park to create a new ecosystem of uses. The cohesive approach involves engineers, landscape architects and interior designers to develop structures, outdoor spaces and system strategies to support and enhance the value of existing buildings. Campus and stand-alone strategies are included, supporting a research-driven approach to implementing what works best for each campus.

On one portion of the reimagined campus, open space and parking are reclaimed for a new building specifically designed for multiple uses. The basic structure, floor-to-floor heights and floor plate sizes are designed to accommodate an array of tenants, from a school to vibration-sensitive lab spaces. The new building serves as an anchor for the campus, with a chameleon-like ability to accommodate shifting market trends and attract different types of tenants without the need for costly retrofits.

“This new type of structure supports a variety of alternative uses, which in turn starts to energize the entire campus,” Hempel says.

On the reimagined campus, wide bridges are added to connect the buildings, adding active spaces to the existing layout. “Typically, when you talk about repositioning an old asset, a lot of the improvements happen on the ground floor,” Hempel says. “As we think about stacking the programs and new uses, bridges allow the campus to provide amenities on multiple levels.”

Spaces are carved out of the high-rise tower to create green-space balconies and rooftops throughout the vertical campus. A multi-level open space in the high-rise can be used for events and meetings, creating a link to the surrounding community. Green spaces are added at the end of each floor, along with a green rooftop.

In the mid-rise tower, floor plates are expanded, and spaces opened to natural light. The design creates more usable, programmable rooftop areas, while adding space for photovoltaic (PV) panels. Adding space in the new buildings provides the opportunity to carve out different spaces in the existing buildings without sacrificing total leasable space.

“If you’re only looking at one building, that square footage is sacred,” Hempel says. “When we think about buildings in groupings or clusters, we have the ability to add flexibility and square footage to the campus.”

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Early efforts highlighted the ability to develop rooftop and outdoor spaces in the older mid-rise buildings, introducing natural light and fresh air to spaces and making the buildings more energy efficient.

Outdoor spaces are activated and treated as an extension of the leasable environment, connected to the indoor spaces and offering a variety of amenities and uses. A pedestrian zone is added between buildings, creating ground-floor connections between the different sections of the campus.

The flexibility allows a multitude of supportive uses throughout the campus. Office, residential and educational components can co-exist and be reconfigured as demand shifts. Added programmable, leasable space or shared public spaces can be an amenity for multiple tenants.

The destination workplace will provide employees with new environments that will make the office part of their lifestyle. No longer user-specific, the facility can adjust and host a variety of uses to support different needs, including retail, day care, fitness centers and restaurants. Every element of the facility is activated with the potential to serve different roles. And every element is designed to be regenerated, potentially multiple times, creating layers of resiliency to ensure a long-term return-on-investment.

The concept isn’t meant to solve all problems. But it presents a holistic kit of strategies that can be applied to a wide variety of campuses. And the core of the concept allows facilities to be effective no matter what the uses or the tenants.

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The Rejuvenated Corporate Campus

LPA designers developed a series of strategies to cost-effectively transform an existing corporate campus into a flexible, mixed-use facility. Different levels of intervention provide options to maximize current assets; create healthy, shared outdoor spaces; and provide adaptable buildings to attract tenants and deliver long-term resiliency in shifting markets.

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Editor’s Note: AI Was Used to Develop Images for This Article

For this edition of Forward Thinking, LPA designers looked forward with the help of a generative artificial intelligence (AI) tool, which was used to create the final images. The project was an opportunity to experiment with integrating AI technology with architectural design to visualize the reimagined corporate campus and explore ways for AI to aid future projects.

The LPA team collaborated with architect Greg Tate to create an aerial view of an imaginary office building site using real photos and the AI image-generation software Midjourney. Designers then used Stable Diffusion, an open-source program, and a combination of prompting, sketch-to-image and inpainting generative AI controls to selectively alter parts of the site to achieve the final series of images of the enhanced campus.

Each version provided ideas to help the designers conceptualize the final project.

“AI allows you to conceptualize a bunch of different ideas quickly in a discovery process,” says LPA designer Jack Li.

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Designers learned more about what the software can and cannot do. To better control the illustrations, each element needed to be considered separately. A small change in the prompts could send the results in dramatically different directions. It was difficult to edit and control small parts of the image; diffusion models performed better on larger portions of the image.

Ultimately, designers found that the technology was not a quick fix to replace a traditional rendering process, but more of a complement to the process that can take discussions in unexpected directions. As AI technology for image generation evolves, the time and effort required to render ideas accurately will be reduced, providing designers with one more option to conceptualize projects and generate new ideas.

“It really is a process of discovery and surprise,” Li says. “Those moments of unexpected inspiration really open up an entirely new way of working and thinking creatively.”