From eyesore to icon: Converted workspaces get bigger and better

 —  Article by Natasha Stokes
Office space in a former industrial shed
Image credit: Rich Gilligan, Marvel Architecture

Refurbished industrial sheds are increasingly in demand as companies across technology and creative sectors seek out the versatility offered by these ultra-large, adaptable workspaces.

Built in the former media hub for the London Olympics, the 105,000 square foot Here East building houses dozens of technology companies in a mostly open-plan space beneath a triple-high ceiling. The mezzanine is built into a line of studios overlooking an open reception, above which dangles a pod designated for small groups.

“Industrial sheds offer great robustness and flexibility as workspaces,” says Michael Davis, director at JLL’s London Unlimited. “The critical metric is volume. Tall spaces with a high cubic capacity of usable area deliver constant stimulation and visual impact, and the potential for impressive design.”

Research has shown that high ceilings contribute to more creative thinking, while smaller, more constricted areas facilitate focused work. In the workplace, varied spatial arrangements that place pod rooms or reduced ceiling heights alongside tall spaces magnify both these effects, enabling various styles of working.

“Technology and creative companies whose business models rely on constant innovation have pioneered the demand for this type of space, but technology has sped up growth in many sectors. The whole business world is evolving to seek out more flexible spaces,” Davis says.

Versatile with design

The versatility offered by converted industrial sheds is particularly attractive to technology companies that want their workplaces to embody their company culture and fast-growing businesses that may not be able to predict more than a few years ahead, according to Industrial Rehab: A new space of opportunity from JLL and Hawkins/Brown.

Characteristics that were once suited for heavy-duty industrial processes make these buildings robust for adaption – sturdy frames with repeating units can support the addition or removal of large sections, while expanses of unobstructed floor allow for activity-based design of workspace, be it desk-based or production-based.

Station F is the world’s largest tech incubator, housed in a converted Paris train station that accommodates over 3,000 desks for young startups along with numerous configurations for larger startups, and public restaurants, shops and bars. Mezzanines comprise a varied range of open spaces and private pods, while the central atrium is open to a three-storey ceiling, maintaining the sense of height and ambience of the original building.

“Employees increasingly expect personalisation and individuality where they work, and in a competitive jobs market, a spectacular workplace is a crucial point of difference for attracting and retaining talent,” Davis says.

The value of going industrial

Companies, meanwhile, are finding converted industrial spaces are not only offering value for money but they’re also delivering financial benefits. One of the first conversion projects of its kind, the TBWA\Chiat\Day headquarters in Los Angeles exemplifies what makes industrial sheds desirable as workplaces with its innovative use of volume and inherent adaptability. Set in an industrial estate, the building was designed with large communal spaces, private workspaces, collaborative spaces and leisure areas arranged around open mezzanines that offer a sense of the vast space while remaining activity-specific.

“The workforce has doubled in that same building and revenues have increased – and the space is cited as the main facilitator,” Davis says.

While industrial conversions typically cost 11 percent above the cost of refurbishing an office building, these projects tend to create unique spaces that can lead to greater employee satisfaction – and at 35 percent below the cost of a new build. Free-standing internal structures such as mezzanines and pods reduce the average construction cost per cubic foot, by increasing the usable floor space and occupational efficiency.

Industrial conversions can also be a catalyst for regenerating urban areas. “Bringing new employment to an area obviously encourages people to spend their money locally, but we see instances of people moving their homes to cluster in new emerging neighbourhoods,” Davis says.

Looking to the future

With a rapidly expanding technology sector and a new generation of decision-makers across all sectors, the demand for refurbished warehouses will continue to rise, Davis predicts – yet there is a limited supply of such buildings to convert, while the need for an original approach to each conversion puts a time constraint on how fast these projects make it to market.

One future model could involve the building of industrial shells that can be adapted as companies and commercial developers require. “This model would be cheaper than building a typical conventional office as we currently know it, yet offer the flexibility that will be increasingly required by the next generation of businesses,” Davis says.

Down the line, a building’s cubic meters of usable area could literally speak volumes – higher ratios of volume to floor area could help drive productivity within the creative industries, and in general, enable flexible workplaces that facilitate business growth.

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