‘Generation tech’ opting for retrofit buildings with character

Thursday 21 April 2016

Image: BuckleyGrayYeoman_Henry Wood House_Hufton+Crow Photography

In the ongoing war for talent, potential employees from ‘generation tech’ are becoming more demanding about their choice of office space, preferring older, retrofitted buildings with character, in interesting areas of the capital which have a sense of ‘place’.

And for developers, reusing existing buildings often represents a cost-effective, speedy and sustainable solution when compared to its new build counterpart. Those were some of the key messages to emerge from an NLA conference on London’s commercial retrofit market this morning aimed at assessing how the city can accommodate the predicted 6.3 million people working in the city by 2026.

Keynote speaker Sarah Cary, head of sustainable places at British Land, said that increasingly, investors were asking developers to focus just as much on how people use their buildings as on the quantum. They are also increasingly trying to differentiate their workspaces, with two important trends being the ability to cater for multigenerational workers and issues of wellbeing – how buildings affect us. ‘Retrofit is really big in London these days’, said Cary, citing British Land research which involved quizzing 1000 office workers across the UK. Of those questioned, 84% said that communal areas were important, 72% wanted an eco-friendly building, and 39% wanted bike storage, 50% when it was millennials who were asked. British Land is working on adding more social spaces to its buildings, both new and existing, including ‘an enormous number of terraces’ at the listed, Arup Associates-designed 1 Finsbury Avenue. It is also ‘walking the talk’ by measuring the qualitative aspects of a refurbishment it has completed on its headquarters building, York House.

While head of commercial policy and partnerships at the UK Green Building Council Richard Griffitths looked at the legislative and policy background, with ‘some pretty serious effort’ needing to be made into non-domestic retrofit in coming years. Arup Asssociates’ wellbeing and sustainability specialist Victoria Lockhart showed the moves being made towards a WELL building standard and more insights available about people’s own situations with the rise of the FitBit. ‘The future is about transparency’, she said.

The listing of post-war buildings need not be a hindrance to their re-use or retrofitting, said Historic England’s head of designation, Emily Gee, with many office interiors not being as ‘special’ or protected as their envelopes. This is being proven by work on buildings like Seifert’s Centre Point, or, further back, the Sanderson building. But retrofitting can also be ‘a lifestyle choice’, said CallisonRTKL senior associate director David Hurst, with the lines between work and leisure breaking down and the office being ever more a ‘second home.’ Workers are seeking environments which help their wellbeing – only one in 10 employees defines success at work as high performance, whilst 46% list work/life balance as the top career aspiration.

AKTII director Rob Partridge showed how at projects like the Angel in Islington the engineer helped almost double the building’s net internal area whilst opening up the atrium more to public access. But were the new buildings of today as adaptable, he asked. Are we leaving ourselves a problem for future generations?

The conference also heard from speakers including Willmott Dixon Interiors’ Simon Tranter, whose firm is revitalizing a 1960s building in Blackfriars with an ‘F’ EPC rating for speculative letting for client Network Rail, and Ramboll Associate Jackie Heath, who showed how the firm’s work allowed the Lighthouse building in Kings Cross to re-emerge as a retrofitted office without affecting the tunnels below.

Finally, Oliver Bayliss, associate director at BuckleyGrayYeoman said the C-Space project for Helical Bar epitomized much of its retrofitting work, transforming a 1960s building with a new courtyard and entrance, bringing new light into the ground floor and creating an extra storey ‘top hat worthy of its area’. But it is not just creative tenants who are desiring these kinds of spaces, said Bayliss. It is financiers and insurance brokers as well as architects and creative or media companies. ‘It is the new band of workforce that demands more from the buildings they’re moving into’, he said. ‘And they are playing quite a key role in the world of recruitment.’

These people no longer want ‘trophy’ buildings, and, in a reversal of recent years, big companies are seeking to locate next to small in a bid to help their brands. ‘What better way to do that than to move into a retrofitted building?’ said Bayliss. ‘It oozes character and style.’

By David Taylor, Editor, NLQ

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London’s commercial retrofit market


London’s competitiveness as a leading world city depends on the need to accommodate the predicted 6.3 million workers that will be in the capital by 2026. Unlocking more commercial space is vital. What are the opportunities within London’s commercial retrofit market?