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Sunday, 10 November 2013 22:00

Renovation projects worth the effort despite common challenges

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The 99 Monroe renovation transformed a tired office building in downtown Grand Rapids into a modern office facility. The 99 Monroe renovation transformed a tired office building in downtown Grand Rapids into a modern office facility. COURTESY PHOTO

Businesses looking for new space shouldn’t discount renovation projects involving tired, old buildings.

That’s according to contractors and architects who say crews today are much better at working with clients and preparing for the unexpected challenges that arise when opening up old facilities.

With thousands of square feet of space currently being rehabbed or recently renovated in downtown Grand Rapids, many of the city’s prominent historic buildings are getting an upgrade. Those renovations are likely to continue as building owners look to attract new tenants and firm up rental rates, industry sources said.

Building owners don’t expect to just put vacant space on the market and have it move. Rather, they’re paying more attention to the workplace trends that have an impact on companies’ decisions and accommodating them in renovation projects.

“Companies are asking how do we do more with less,” said Arnie Mikon, president and CEO of architecture firm TowerPinkster. “We have more output per person because of technology.”

That means most tenants are being more judicious with space and want to maximize efficiency, he said. Mikon’s own architecture and engineering firm recently cut down on space when it renovated its new offices at 4 East Fulton Street in Grand Rapids.

“Business output is up 20 percent and companies are doing it with 20 percent less space per employee,” Mikon said. “At our own office, we have downsized stations and added more places for collaboration.”

Following the trends

These days, most firms are downsizing their overall space, asking for more open floor  plans and the inclusion of more collaborative workspaces as they look for new offices.

For building owners and property managers, this means renovations need to increase functionality. The trends suggest it’s imperative that facility owners have a better understanding of a tenant’s business, sources said.

While a decade ago, the average space per employee in the U.S. was 250 square feet, that’s shrunk to 190 square feet today, according to a 2012 report on office innovations in Steelcase’s 360 magazine. In five years, the average space per employee is forecasted to drop to 150 square feet.

While it might seem like employees are sacrificing personal space, much of the downsizing is due to increasing implementation of technology and more remote workers, Mikon said.

Oftentimes, workers will sacrifice square footage for other improvements in their workplace. In many instances, they look to add more natural lighting and “breathing room” to common spaces via renovation projects, said Adam Tweedy, estimator and project manager for Owen-Ames-Kimball Co.

Tweedy was the lead for the contractor on Franklin Partners LLC’s 99 Monroe renovation project in downtown Grand Rapids. The project transformed the dated facility into modern office space. Tweedy said lighting was a key focus for the team as it worked to modernize the facility.

“In the main lobby at 99 Monroe, the ceilings were raised to take advantage of all available space, and the entrances were enlarged to allow as much light as possible in,” he said. “In addition to natural light, the lighting of the space is a key factor. A focus was placed on adding a large quantity of high-efficiency LED lighting with light-colored acrylic lenses to provide a very bright atmosphere. The addition of light and taking advantage of previously unused space makes the space feel much less cramped and dated.”

The project also typified the trend toward more use of reclaimed materials such as walnut paneling on the walls, Tweedy said. 

“Developers, such as Franklin Partners, and the architects we work with are driving the search for local and reclaimed products,” he said. “These efforts not only minimize the environmental impact of the construction process, but add some local pride and ownership to the facilities.”

Typical challenges

Renovation projects often run into issues involving the original floor plan. Old designs can make opening up the space difficult, so it takes some creativity and good engineering to get around any potential issues, Mikon said. Common challenges in older buildings include asbestos, structural deficiencies or constraints and inadequate heating and cooling systems. 

“Most buildings that have not been touched for awhile have one or two of these issues,” Tweedy said. “The best way to remedy this is to rely on the expertise of the architects and engineers that we partner with, and in our own experience, to think ahead and identify the issues before we start construction in someone’s workplace. This helps to identify solutions before the issues even arise.”

However, more difficult than any one of the aforementioned issues is trying to get work done in a clean, efficient manner while existing tenants continue working in the facility. In addition to the obvious congestion challenges of putting elevators out of commission, crews have to focus on moving materials and coordinating deliveries throughout the building to minimize stress on occupants, Tweedy said.

“One of the most challenging aspects of working on a project like 99 Monroe and other occupied office projects is trying to minimize all the impact on the current tenants,” Tweedy said.

A significant challenge to the building occupants is the disruption of the elevators, either for transporting construction materials or upgrading the elevators themselves, he said. Going the extra mile to do additional cleanup and using atypical schedules can help mitigate the impact, he added.

Beyond that, simply being courteous and smiling goes a long way, Tweedy said.

“No matter how smooth a construction project is, it can still be seen as a nuisance to the people that work in the building,” he said. “It’s something we work very hard to stay mindful of.” 

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