Often when people talk about the future for commercial property, it is either a slight tinkering with business as usual, or it’s a vision of highly technological habitats with self-driving flying cars and all the bells and whistles.
But what is more likely is we will find ourselves somewhere between those two poles, particularly as most of the buildings we will have in the future are those we already have.
What will – and needs to – change is how we retrofit, operate, occupy and value those buildings.
For a start, there is a growing recognition that new commercial office towers are unlikely to be on the drawing board in coming years. The reasons are financial, social and environmental. The demand for large new office floorplates has ebbed since hybrid working became normalised, and many commercial building owners are finding their tenants are struggling to justify the current scale of their floorspace. Less people every day simply means less space is necessary and means the cost of space per person, per day has increased, which undermines the business case for tenants considerably.
While this has many asset owners and asset managers concerned, because the financial implications are bleak, if we apply some clever thinking this can be seen as an opportunity to rewrite the script.
We know, for example, that there is undersupply of residential housing in our commercial districts. There is also an undersupply of childcare, healthcare and education opportunities for people who do live in the CBDs.
The logical leap then, is to look at mixed use retrofits that take the idea of mixed use beyond the typical segmentation of retail/hospitality ground floor, commercial office floors for the majority or all of the higher elevations and perhaps some serviced apartments at the very top.
If clever engineering design is applied to building services, thermal performance, energy supply and the internal structure to support flexible and adaptive use through time, whole floors of office towers could be more easily segued to new purposes not only once, but many times.
It just takes will, capital and imagination – including the imagination to look at periods of decades rather than the next quarter or financial year in terms of return on investment and payback periods.
From a social perspective, there is another emerging factor shaping how people relate to our CBDs. One of the features of the pandemic was the discovery of how important generosity and kindness are to our experience of life. The small acts of moral support, the outpouring of creativity and helpfulness and the building of links between people through the virtual world could have laid the groundwork for a new way of relating.
How we can mirror that in our approach to buildings is considering how to design in the physical features that support acts of kindness, connection and generosity. Not so much the big staircase in the atrium that encourages people to have casual encounters, but the finer grained elements of sharing economy.
Shared second hand book libraries and reading nooks. Common gardens that provide fresh herbs and greens as an alternative to the more typical green wall of inedible exotics. Renewable energy and battery storage that supplies e-bike charging. A commercial kitchen that can be booked by occupants for acts of culinary kindness or for preparing fresh meals for children in the creche (because a creche will never go to waste if we want people with children to be part of our cities).
These small, human-scale features that speak to the heart of our needs as human beings are a recipe for bringing people back into the city as citizens, not just headcount in NLA.
Ultimately, people are why we create buildings and why we invest in them, so making them work for people is also a financial imperative.
Environmentally there are also good reasons to rethink existing buildings. One-use products are just not necessarily a responsible use of our resources. It’s another example of siloed thinking, where we don’t necessarily put different types of uses together in creative and practical ways.
Currently, for example, most build-to-rent residential is separate from hotel and serviced apartment developments. But it makes sense to potentially co-locate the two, so there is a core of long-term residents who give the property a sense of genuine community and provide a reliable year-round customer base for the kind of value-add services that many hotels offer such as personal services, a fashion tenancy, café, bar and basic convenience items.
This matches the investment model for many hotels also, which focuses on making profits from the value-adds, rather than the rooms.
Plus, these developments are often located near to transport – reducing transport-associated emissions – and if there is on-site food production, the carbon footprint for food and beverage also reduces.
From an engineering perspective, heat recovery from refrigeration for the hotel catering can be used to supplement heating for residential heating and /or pre-heating domestic hot water, reducing energy costs. Also, if the BTR element is at the higher levels, natural ventilation is easier to leverage.
Another co-location could be combining a small data centre – which generates heat – with a heat-consuming building use such a greenhouse, or an aquatic centre. There is no engineering reason this isn’t possible – it is just a different way of thinking about how we allocate space in our cities and also changing thinking around energy and how it used and for what.
If the future of the property sector is circular economy – this thinking also needs to extend to energy, and to the purposes of the built forms we invest our time, money and resources in.
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