Architects looking at plans.

Steve Jobs famously said that design is “not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” I was reminded of that quote recently when faced with a sticky tenant improvement challenge in an office build-out. The big challenge was that the current classification of the building would make it prohibitively expensive to add a new second floor mezzanine that the prospective tenant needed for storage space.

Instead of trying to just “value engineer” a cheaper solution or killing the deal by telling the tenant they would have to find a different space, we worked with the building owner and the city to reclassify the building. That way we could meet the tenant’s program requirements, within their budget, without a negative impact to the building owner.

The Case for Reclassification

The building was classified as a type IIB building, which requires both the exterior and interior of the building to be constructed of noncombustible materials. This means that wood can’t be used, except for a few limited exceptions. Our recommendation was to change the classification from IIB to the more flexible IIIB classification. The major difference between the two is that type IIIB allows combustible material (i.e., wood) to be used within the building.

So in a type IIIB building, all exterior walls have to be built out of noncombustible materials and have a fire rating of two-hours. The remainder of the building, however, can be built out of any material permitted by code. By switching the building classification to type IIIB, we would be able to use wood for the interior build-out, which offers much more flexibility. The price of making the required changes out of noncombustible materials — especially adding a mezzanine and stairs — would have been cost prohibitive on a project of this size.

Flexibility for the Building’s Future

To make this change, the building owner obviously wanted to make sure we would not be limiting future use of the structure. We were able to help out here as well. The building code allows very similar-sized buildings with both IIB and IIIB types of construction classifications. In this case, the existing building was roughly 8,000 square feet. The type IIB classification allows the building to be up to 23,000 square feet, while type IIIB allows for the building to be 19,000 square feet. In either case, future additions could more than double the current size of the building, if the owner ever needed the additional space.

Moreover, either construction type gives the building owner flexibility, should the use of the building change in the future. For example, if, down the line, the owner wanted to switch the building from office to storage, it could be expanded to 26,000 square feet, with either type of classification. Likewise, if the owner ever wanted to use the building for manufacturing, it could still be increased by 50% to at least 12,000 square feet.

The fact that this particular building has a sprinkler system and is set back from the property line also means that all of the numbers above can be increased by more than 300%. So reclassifying this building would in no way limit future flexibility for the building owner.

Solving Problems in Three Dimensions

This kind of classification change is something that can happen to a building throughout its lifespan to best fit the space planning needs of the owner and tenants. With this analysis complete, both the owner and the city were happy to sign off on the reclassification.

The result: the tenant was able to use the space to meet their business requirements, within their budget. And the building owner was able to lease out the space, without sacrificing any flexibility for how the building might be used in the future.

A lot of architectural design and facility management issues are really about solving three-dimensional problems, so the space can work for everyone involved. In this case, our early stage design efforts helped save the deal and ensure a successful result for the building owner, the commercial brokers, and the tenant.

Ryan Schroeder, AIA
Ryan Schroeder, AIA
Architect + President

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.

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