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November 29, 2018

What happens when big tech moves into small cities?

  • Many suburban jurisdictions aren’t staffed to handle large, complex projects.
    Code Unlimited


    Technology companies are breaking the mold of traditional office space. They want work spaces that are multifunctional, open and dynamic — where conversation, collaboration and creativity are fostered with visual and spatial connection throughout all levels of the building.

    By providing an inspiring environment that supports both work and personal life, employees are at their most productive. With this is mind, more tech companies are asking themselves, “Where and how can we create this vision?”

    In the Northwest, these opportunities are emerging in the suburbs of Seattle. These are no longer bedroom communities, rather they are small independent communities — such as Redmond, Bellevue and Kirkland — surrounding larger metropolitan areas. They have developed their own epicenter by welcoming new tech companies.

    The draw for these companies is simple: The location affords them the ability to create a supportive environment for their business and employees.

    New construction

    New technology ventures, whether digital or physical, have complex programs that drive building requirements beyond what can be supplied by the existing real estate inventory in urban environments. When space is available in the city, it often requires adaptive re-use to meet these innovative goals.

    This development can be time-consuming, expensive and difficult — evident particularly in seismic zones where stringent structural requirements are challenging to retrofit. New construction, however, is more predictable and less burdened by existing conditions that require improvement.

    In terms of size, quality and security, urban environments cannot compete with the opportunity to grow from an undeveloped piece of land. Work environments must be modern, with leading-edge laboratories and meeting spaces, to attract and retain the caliber of employee these companies are seeking. Amenities such as outdoor spaces, cafeterias, gyms, lounges and convenience services are mandatory.

    This holistic design of a workday results in buildings that function as small, self-sustaining communities within the confines of building walls. This must be achieved in tandem with environments that serve particular business needs.

    Whether it be sophisticated cleanrooms, vibration-sensitive facilities, or a flexible design that allows for quick response to market conditions, the design of these buildings requires forward-thinking skills.

    Fire-life-safety codes often do not address this level of innovation. Designers find themselves struggling to implement new materials, construction processes or unprecedented engineering within the confines of the building code. However, a code consultant with a deep understanding of the intent of the code can offer solutions that are refined and creative.

    The benefit goes beyond reading the code and applying it; rather, it is about understanding the functions happening in the building and crafting a solution that addresses both occupant safety and feasibility. Integrated solutions require a dynamic application of the code, not a static one.

    Review process

    One overlooked challenge for those seeking development in these small communities is navigating jurisdictional review. While there may be fewer physical restrictions, hurdles such as land-use, zoning and entitlements must be balanced with building and fire code requirements.

    Acknowledging discrepancies early allows for clear definition of the conflicts to identify an appropriate solution in alignment with the goals of both imperatives.

    Small jurisdictions are not always staffed to accommodate projects of this size and complexity of scope. Not only does this stretch their resources, but it may also push their technical expertise, driving the need for third-party reviews.

    A code consultancy brings a broad range of experts — from licensed architects and fire protection engineers to contractors, structural engineers, plans examiners and accessibility experts — to facilitate these collaborative conversations. We speak the same language; clearly communicating and negotiating with jurisdictions, we meet them where they are at. We learn their concerns and find creative ways to address them. This is the key to moving a project forward.

    For example, Code Unlimited has managed incorporation of cross-laminated timber (CLT), atrium smoke control, structural fire engineering and future code changes. We have done this by:

    • Providing engineering judgment letters to address detailing at CLT connections.

    • Reducing the cost of smoke control mechanical systems with targeted fan placement derived from smoke modeling.

    • Eliminating fireproofing based on increased steel member size.

    • Referencing future code changes to provide a documented pathway for less restrictive podium buildings and roof decks.

    • Applying more realistic techniques for classifying occupancies and calculating occupant load that address occupant awareness and combustible loading in alignment with the new ways people are working in office spaces.

    Growing pains are inevitable in the development of the relationship between these trendsetting companies and jurisdictions. However, there are benefits to both through a sustained relationship.

    Retaining an expert to guide the discussion on code issues can save time, money and headache. This choice allows jurisdictions to sleep at night and designers to spend more time in creative design development. Perhaps most importantly, it allows owners to achieve the buildings they envision to meet the ever-changing needs of their business and employees.

    Tanya Wuertz is a senior code analyst at Code Unlimited, a building and fire code consultant to architects, engineers and developers. Wuertz has over 20 years of experience in architecture, design and project management, with a focus on large-scale campuses and tech industry projects.

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