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November 16, 2000

Technology space, from core to shell

  • Buildings designed for high-tech businesses are different

    When it comes to developing space requirements of technology companies, it can be tough to move past all of the necessary minutiae:

    Photo courtesy Collins/Woerman

    How many watts per square foot is enough, and can I get it?

    Bandwidth—I need all I can get and it has to be available to my build-out on time.

    What about cooling? Does underfloor cooling really cost less?

    How fast can my space be designed and permitted?

    Urgent questions, all of them. At least as crucial, though, is the human element.

    It’s a fact that technology workers are different in crucial ways from traditional office workers, both in the way they live and the way they work.

    Central to those differences is the simple fact that tech workers are younger. Think of a 22-year-old stepping right out of college into a $60,000-a-year software de-velopment position. Then, multiply that person by 10 or 20 or 50 or 200, and you can begin to imagine the energy levels tech facilities need to accommodate.

    Tech employees also spend more time at work, often 12 to 16 hours a day (though not always at their desks). As a result of these long hours, being able to take care of personal business at the office is a must. So is being able to have some fun there; again, a high percentage of these workers are single and fresh out of school.

    They’re not high-tech automatons, but energetic young people with money in their pockets. If their social lives aren’t to some degree integrated with their work lives, they’ll take their phenomenally marketable skills to a more casual, user-focused workplace.

    They’ve taken us into new territory, a gray area where the work environment becomes a lifestyle that needs to rival the home environment.

    Tech people also work differently. Since e-mail is such a pervasive communications conduit, most tech companies require significantly more collaboration space, including teaming areas with alternative furniture and 50-foot white boards to encourage face-to-face interaction.

    Put simply, in the emerging tech office, “hard space” is harder and “soft space” is softer.

    “Harder hard space” refers to unprecedented requirements for expensive ($100-$300 per-square- foot) spaces defined by hard connections of dense infrastructure such as computer labs, server rooms, call and data centers, communications and electrical rooms, product exhibit spaces.

    “Softer soft space” means extremely flexible areas designed to meet the shifting social needs of tech workers — pool and ping-pong tables, hangout space with moveable furniture, and the aforementioned collaboration spaces.

    Office buildings built to historic space standards (36-40 foot window-to-core dimensions, 22,000-square-foot floorplates) have had a tough time reconciling these competing demands. Changes have slowly but surely been arriving since three or four years ago, when tech users emerged as a small but increasingly viable piece of the market.

    Unified Building Code changes that occurred in 1997 accelerated the pace of change by allowing single-floor tenants to have no rated corridors.

    Today, dense private offices for tech tenants are being built out all over the Puget Sound. “Microsoft standards” for private office space — greater depth to core and the need to efficiently accommodate 2,000-3,000 square foot hard spaces — have become a commercial development reality in the region.

    This isn’t to say that the marketplace has already undergone a transformation. Far from it; not only are new space requirements still widely being imposed upon ill-suited older spaces, but the bulk of new spec spaces are still based upon outdated space standards.

    What’s the solution? To paraphrase Albert Einstein: “In order to solve the problems we face today, we must think differently than we did when we created them.”

    How might we think differently? This would make it easier to place hard and soft spaces efficiently in a plan, and would help create dense private office build-outs that are competitive because they’re suited to both full-floor and multi-tenant uses.

    In the next generation of mid and high-rise shells, 24,000-square-foot floorplates ought to be commonplace. So should 20-foot-wide cores, and floors with, say, three different window-to-core dimensions (40, 45 and 60 feet, for instance). Such adjustments would yield many more corner offices or, more likely, corner soft spaces, as well as room for the larger hard spaces required to power today’s tech companies.

    Designers of this new generation of shells would be wise to think three-dimensionally about how much of what kind of space is required. The 500,000 square feet of a typical high-rise, for instance, apportioned in tech-friendly fashion, with 20 floors at 24,000 square feet per floor, could be portioned vertically to yield four different types of space of 120,000 square feet each.

    Again, it’s important to note that change has been slow. The habits and perceptions of lenders, developers, design and construction industries haven’t changed overnight, nor are they likely to. The biggest reason is risk. The more specialized the design becomes to a particular type of tenant, the greater the risk becomes in releasing the space in the open market.

    That’s about to change, I believe. As we moved from the dot-coms through the dot-gones to stabilized technology companies, the pace of change is sure to accelerate. Just as technology is inexorably changing the way we work and live, it’s bound to continue to exert an ever more profound impact on the space we build.

    Arlan Collins is a partner with CollinsWoerman.

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