Warehouse-to-office conversion projects are all the rage right now. Why? As with everything else in commercial real estate, because it sells. Lots of tenants really want the brick-and-timber (or brick-and-whatever your building is) look. There is an authenticity to the style that people really like, and they want to connect back to whatever era that building is from. So if you’re considering remodeling an old industrial property into a creative office or retail space, what steps do you need to take?
It all starts with surveying the existing building and trying to understand what you have on your hands. Manufacturing comes in all shapes and sizes, and the buildings do as well. Some older industrial buildings have relatively compact floor plates in multistory buildings — for example, a 10,000 square foot floor plate that goes up three, four, or five stories. Others are expansive, 80K–100K square feet single-story buildings. Obviously, you have to approach those two buildings much differently. They will have different potential tenants and a much different design within the space.
Once you know what kind of building you’re dealing with, you have to figure out what changes need to be made for a successful warehouse-to-office conversion. Generally speaking, we tend to take a light hand with updates, in order to preserve the historical character that makes the buildings so attractive to tenants. That said, there are four major areas that have to be addressed in any warehouse-to-office conversion.
1. Designing an Attractive Entrance
The first thing to look at in a warehouse-to-office conversion is how to get people into the building. We’ve found this to be a major concern, as well as an opportunity to make the building shine. There’s a big difference from how a warehouse functions to what an office building needs. Historically, manufacturing companies didn’t often care about any sort of outside presence. They just needed the guts of the building to work. Some companies had a business office in one corner with a small entry for guests, but the vast majority of the building was used for manufacturing or shipping.
That’s obviously not the case with an office building. An office deals in people, and in a warehouse-to-office conversion, we need to make a building more personable. That starts from the exterior. How do you get people from wherever transportation is — parking, transit, or something else — to your front door? Because warehouses are usually in a sea of asphalt, this involves reimagining what that entryway can be. Typically, we end up ripping out a lot of asphalt and “greening” the entry way to make it much more attractive to guests and employees.
That said, if you’re looking for a good site for an office, you need sufficient parking or public transportation. If the site you’re looking at is near public transportation, that’s fantastic. You should also be looking for something that can serve as a parking field, especially if transit isn’t convenient. That may mean doing some partial demolition, depending on the layout of the building or campus. If there are more than one building on the property, there could be a building that is less than desirable and is more valuable as parking. This was the case at what’s now Vandalia Tower over in Saint Paul. This demolition can help get your parking ratios to a point where tenants will be interested in your building. Depending on your tenants’ use, they’ll want parking ratios between 1:4 and 1:10.
2. Navigating the Building
Once you get inside the building, how do you make a logical circulation path that will make sense for tenants? No tenant wants to be in an internal-only space, where they don’t have a view of the outside. In large, flat buildings like the old Case tractor factory, you’re going to be limited in how you block this out. You will really only be able to accommodate larger tenants with 15K SF or more.
In a building that has a smaller floor plate but more stories, you can create small, 3K SF boutique office building layouts. That’s what we did with 811 Glenwood. With smaller floor plates, you have a lot of options to divide the space up into different sizes. Figuring out the circulation path, however, can be even more of an issue in multistory buildings.
An office deals in people, and in a warehouse-to-office conversion, we need to make a building more personable.
Ryan Schroeder, Architect + Partner, PlanForce Group
Many, if not most, old, multistory industrial buildings have only a couple of small staircases to get people to the upper levels. This makes those upper levels feel claustrophobic and makes them very difficult to lease. The ground floor often leases up just fine, but everything above it will be vacant. That was a problem we had at 811 Glenwood. To improve the vertical transportation within the space, we cut out a big section of the floor plate, making a two-story space out of it. Now, you can stand back and see more of a view, which makes the upper floors more mentally comfortable for people. With the changes, the space doesn’t feel like a dark, enclosed maze anymore.
3. Bringing Light In
Things really start to get exciting when you bring more light into an old industrial property. What’s that space look like once we start to open it up with more glass? That additional light lets tenants see the outside and the architectural character that makes the interior so attractive. With warehouses, you usually start with small windows that provided a little bit of ventilation. They give a little bit of natural light, but nothing that makes for a nice view.
A lot of times these old industrial spaces will have very high windows. They did that because they usually had equipment or storage from the ground up to eight or ten feet high. Above that equipment, they sometimes had clerestory windows to let natural light in or provide ventilation. That worked great for what they were doing. In a warehouse-to-office conversion, though, we’re focused on making the space right for people, rather than for “stuff.” To make that shift, we have to figure out how to open up the building. By adding new, larger windows, you get the space opened up and make it much more pleasant.
Hopefully, you can also get some nice views as well. Sometimes you get lucky, and the building is sited in a really good spot. When that happens, you can frame beautiful scenes with some strategically-placed new windows.
4. Keeping Tenants Comfortable
One other thing you need to plan for in a warehouse-to-office conversion is how your building utilities will happen. This applies to everything from electrical to plumbing, but it’s especially noticeable with mechanical utilities. How will you heat and cool the building? Typically, these older buildings didn’t have any cooling and just had minimal radiant heating. That won’t cut it for today’s office users, so you need to plan how you will provide heating and cooling to your tenants. Tall buildings are different than wide, single-story buildings. For tall buildings, you’ll need chases running up and down through the building, or you’ll need to add horizontally fired units on each floor. Either way, those probably aren’t already there.
You also need to figure out how to vent your building. In general, you have to be much more planful about your utilities if you’re converting a tall, multistory building than if you are working with a wide, single-story one. Finally, depending on the project, you can address energy efficiency issues, as older buildings use more energy than those built today.
Let’s face it: you won’t find most older industrial buildings on the historic register. This kind of adaptive reuse architecture is not the same as historical preservation. These are not historically significant buildings, in architectural-speak. That being said, they can be very historically interesting and sought-after. If you take into consideration the elements that make for a successful office or mixed-use building, converting an old warehouse can give you a unique, high-value commercial property.
Ryan Schroeder, AIA
Ryan has more than 18 years of professional experience and is president of PlanForce. He holds degrees in architecture and environmental science from North Dakota State University, as well as certifications from NCARB and AIA.