Using Technology To Unlock New Rentable Square Feet In Historic Buildings

Scott Delano of Wright Heerema Architects walks us through how applying VR and 3D modeling technologies to a historic Chicago building allowed the design team to unlock rentable square feet for office use.

231 S. LaSalle building Chicago
231 S. LaSalle building Chicago

Tech improves our lives and buildings in all kinds of qualitative ways: productivity, engagement and collaboration to name a few. But what about a technology-infused design approach that quite literally expands the rentable square feet within an existing office building – while uncovering new angles and spaces that activate classic historic features? We call that a win for designers, tenants and owners alike.

In historic buildings, older, bulky mechanical equipment used to require a significant amount of space, and was typically stashed in out-of-the-way, usually dark spaces like basements and attics. Modern mechanical equipment is typically many times smaller – and can be placed on the roof. But the design challenge remains: how to transform dark, oddly-shaped places into modern spaces. Virtual reality and 3D modeling technology can be creatively applied, to play a role not only in the design process, but also by helping prospective tenants envision the space before the build-out is complete.

At the historic 231 S. LaSalle building in Chicago (pictured), we were tasked with designing an amenity lounge and fitness center in concert with a significant revamping of the tenant spaces. The project included an expansive roof deck with an outdoor bar and grilling area, all geared toward creating a tenant-friendly, amenity rich building culture. At the same time, the owners engaged our team to help visualize how they might use an oddly-shaped space previously occupied by outdated mechanical equipment. The space was scheduled to be freed up when new mechanical equipment was installed and moved to the roof; picturing how it might be used while the space was still filled with outdated equipment and furniture was an inherent part of the challenge.

By applying VR and 3D modeling technologies in new ways to the challenge of 231 S. LaSalle’s “mechanical penthouse,” the design team not only was able to establish the feasibility of renovating the space for office use, but it also created renderings and fly-through videos. The videos were then used to demonstrate the viability of the space to potential tenants, including the national coworking company that now occupies the space.

3D Model

As we were researching the space, we fully mapped the area to create a fully updated and accurate 3D model of the space. The 3D model helped our design team to visualize the space and better understand the connections and components across the space, including the more unique features that needed to be creatively incorporated in the design. Our 2D sketches followed, providing easy-to-use graphics for marketing the space. The ceilings were high enough to recommend creating a mezzanine above the entry, further adding even more rentable square feet to the space.

VR Walkthrough

Virtual reality is becoming a true game-changer for presenting designs to clients – particularly when spaces do not yet exist (either because they’re a new development or are significantly shifting in use). The space at 231 S. LaSalle could not be shown or marketed with an in-building tour until the old equipment was removed and the space was thoroughly cleaned and refinished. Once we had a 3D model, we plugged the information into a VR platform that allowed the building owners to view the design through a virtual reality headset.

VR is particularly useful when the “before” is a space completely different in use than the “after.” Particularly in this case, since the former space was so unusual and previously taken up by mechanical equipment, this virtual visualization was essential to illustrating how the space could function as rentable office space. The VR tour allowed the building owners – and then later, potential tenants – to see the potential the way we did.

The VR tour became a powerful marketing advantage, and the building owners were able to get a coworking firm on board early in the leasing process. The marketing of the formerly mechanical space was so successful, that we then partnered with the building owner to purchase and set up a computer and VR headsets so they can continue to market spaces throughout the building to other potential tenants.

Results

By envisioning the potential for the former mechanical attic, 52,000 square feet of rentable space was added to the property. The additional space was then rented at Class A office rates in downtown Chicago before the build-out was completed, so the additional revenue was immediately impactful to the financial performance of the building.

More Marketable, More Square Feet

As a design team, we are increasingly partnering with our clients to envision possibilities using all the technologies at our disposal, particularly when spaces are undergoing extreme transformation. As building owners are upgrading classic office buildings to attract and retain tenants as younger generations enter the workforce, it’s important to think outside the (sometimes oddly shaped) box. When the opportunity arises, an owner can creatively expand the rentable square feet within a building and make it possible to significantly increase sustained revenue over time ­– all while shaping memorable, marketable new spaces.

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