Future Forward Full Interview: Transform Vacant Singular-Use Buildings for Year-Round Occupancy
Nicole Keeler is the director of sustainability at NELSON Worldwide.
V1 Media: Please provide a brief background of your education and career before NELSON Worldwide.
Keeler: I studied interior and environmental design in college, so I have a Bachelor’s degree as an interior designer, mainly focused on the architectural side of interiors. And then I interned with a company right out of college at Griswold Heckle & Kelly and worked with them on their workplace services, which just meant that I sat onsite with a number of our corporate clients and helped them facilitate their day-to-day planning needs as well as longer-term facilities management, facilities planning, reorganization, renovations, retrofits, you name it. We touched every building for those clients.
And then from that I evolved over to the retail side for industrial retail, what was known as W. W. Grainger Industrial Supply, and supported a 400-store market expansion in one year where we created a prototype. We went through the due-diligence and site-selection process with that client and then it ultimately helped them move their prototype design into a sustainable design that could meet USGBC’s LEED requirements if they wanted to certify the branches. And that was very exciting and interesting.
I also helped them design their headquarters in Mexico, so a little bit of international work and a bunch of work in Canada. And then from there I ultimately moved directly into sustainability, supporting it for NELSON for a number of years and again, at a national level, supporting all our client types, all our different project teams. Then I broke away for a few years, about five years. Ran my own business consulting, mainly back to NELSON, and just a couple of years ago came back.
V1 Media: At NELSON, can you describe what your current role is? And what you do on a day-to-day basis?
Keeler: On a daily basis, I am mainly talking with our clients from any practice area to help them understand what their opportunities are to either reconcile their performance concerns or look at opportunities to improve the building performance or operational performance or the occupant experience. And in that, of course, looking at some of the financials behind that and what are the risks, the give and the take of being more environmentally sound and being a better steward for the greater population, not just the population that exists within their building, as well as really how to make these strategies worth it to them. In other words, how to create strategies that are more sustainable that actually last longer for their entire portfolio. And then I support the teammates throughout the company to help them facilitate those conversations. I also provide the support for any of the green building certifications as requested.
V1 Media: Can you describe the problems with singular-use buildings?
Keeler: The problem with singular-use buildings has been highlighted at an extraordinary level this year in the wake of the pandemic. But we have seen that before, like in the Great Recession, where a good deal of singular-use buildings suddenly lost their occupants, and revenue could not be recouped before recovering from the recession. People couldn’t visualize a different purpose for that building, so they sat vacant for the better part of 10 years.
Now we’re seeing another wave of that, where a very abrupt loss of business and need for a particular space and trying to understand how to bring people back to the building and without responding emotionally to the desire to have everybody come back to the building and therefore overspending on that effort. How do we really look at what we have in building stock and utilize our greatest resource, which is existing buildings, to repurpose them? So really the biggest misfortune of a singular-use building is that if it really can’t easily be retrofitted, if it really isn’t designed to be agile and flexible in its existing conditions, then it is probably the most likely to suffer the worst by not being reoccupied and becoming a lost and aging asset and an eyesore to the community.
V1 Media: Can you describe the process of how single-use buildings can be transformed for year-round use?
Keeler: I think the best process is to go back to our old-school, best practices of due diligence. When we look at how we determine where we want our business to exist, if I’m a client and I have a business model and I’m getting ready to start up my new business or a franchise of it or a branch of it in a new location, how am I choosing my site? And am I really being diligent in examining all the factors around that site? So again, looking at the demographics, who’s the audience, who’s the customer, looking at traffic studies, crime studies, all the things that really have been in place for decades. But sometimes in the rush or hurriedness of trying to get back to an operational state, some of those steps might be skipped, so the best way to then find a place that can stay operational even through volatile times is to allow yourself that time to look at those sites and then run through your test fit and look at the whole project and the process of designing your new space through an integrative lens.
You bring all the players to the table at the front end. Even a GC who can help you estimate different variations of the test fit and really have a collaborative conversation to examine what it can look like today. How is it going to fulfill the owner’s desires and needs? How will the business prosper? And then if that demand changes, how can that building be repurposed? Can it be divided into different spaces? Can it be leased out to others if we don’t end up needing all the space we occupied to begin with? Can it have a duplicate? Sometimes I call them buildings with multiple personalities. Can you facilitate two totally different uses, because the infrastructure of the building meets the same demands for that purpose, then you have a greater opportunity of sustaining the life of that building.
V1 Media: Let’s say you have an existing single-purpose building. It’s not an eyesore yet, but it’s been abandoned and not used for at least months and not likely to change without it being repurposed. How do you typically go about repurposing that structure for something else?
Keeler: Typically you would be hand-in-hand with a developer who has either an investor or maybe their own interests, so they may be looking at what they think that community has an interest in or what’s in demand in that area. Some specific examples we’ve seen are repurposing some of these anchor malls into clinical settings, because there are so many spaces that you can break out different healthcare practices within the building. And you can also provide a lot of wellness services among the clinical services without having to completely tear down the space. Again, that infrastructure is there. The individual spaces have been designed already, so they already have plumbing and electrical and everything drawn to all these smaller units. And then you have good, open areas for traffic.
You can look at ways to move an inward-facing mall to an exterior-facing architecture type, enabling better pedestrian traffic and social distancing if that comes into play again. We have some clients who have looked at taking hotels that are presently sitting at 60% or more vacancy and repurposing them into temporary workspace. So that folks like us–commercial organizations, professional service organizations, people who are able to work remotely but not necessarily wanting to work from home–are enabled to go to an office in these hotel rooms. And as you well know, many hotel rooms are already set up to support office work. But you can facilitate even smaller clusters of people or individuals within these spaces. Again, the rooms are designed, they’re separated, they have their own air conditioning and units and lighting. They have all their own individual controls.
You can operate an entire business in a single hotel room, so there’s a great marriage of where that hotel then can move back to hospitality if that demand comes back. And those folks go back to regular office buildings fairly readily without a lot of–and maybe even any–retrofit work, more just negotiations.
V1 Media: How would you create new designs of an existing building? Do you get the original drawings and models and then take them to the seller? Or do you create new design plans through reality capture or things like that? What’s the process there?
Keeler: We are seeing a little more of the surveying by drones and robots and whatnot. A little more of that. We’re seeing that more on the construction side, too, where we have a more-difficult time getting access to a building because of the pandemic or the building is not open or maybe the building owner is not enabling people to come into the space. So we are using more of that technology to survey space if we need to.
But generally, you’re going to try to grab onto some historical drawings, and always send someone to the site to field-verify what’s existing, because inevitably–unless you have some very, very strong previous facilities manager who maintained those drawings that well–you’re going to find things don’t actually match. Sometimes the architecture doesn’t even match, so it’s absolutely a best practice to verify all that.
Field visits also allow the person who will ultimately be designing or running tests to get a better sense of the structure. What’s the condition of that structure? They can actually look at it from a maintenance lens, go in and do an inspection. Is the structure itself aging? How does the HPAC look? Is this reusable? Are we going to have to retrofit and upgrade all this? Is this space operating on 20- to 40-year-old fluorescent lighting or, even worse, metal-halide or something like that, or incandescent, or have they already upgraded to LED lighting and there just weren’t good records of that?
Generally, you’re going to want to go out and field verify. See if anything is reusable, possibly even available to be repurposed. So even if it can’t be used at that site, we are seeing some contractors who can go in and actually harvest goods from the site that have been used but are not totally antiquated or outdated. And so even if the new user of the space wants to purchase all new, not all of the old building is lost to landfill if you will. It can be diverted other ways.
V1 Media: Could you estimate how much time would be devoted to remodeling these older buildings vs. construction? And then how much prep time does it take to get the old building ready for construction?
Keeler: I don’t actually have a percent, but maybe 90% of our clients are trying to reoccupy an existing space. Often, we already have relationships with the broker, the real estate company that’s taking the client around to find these sites or we already have a relationship with the person who owns the building and so we already maintain those drawings for them. And they have somebody who wants to come in and lease part of the space or retrofit or remodel the entire space or building. So it’s a matter of acquiring the existing drawings, going out and field-verifying the drawings, and coming back and running through those tests. Of course, everything depends on the client: how much time they have, how familiar they are with the process.
But if we were ‘cut loose’ to do all of that, you could have existing drawings up to date easily even within a couple of weeks if you have it planned out properly–certainly within a month. You could even be done with test fits within two to four weeks, depending on the appetite of the client, depending how well they know what their business model is supposed to look like for them in that space, how quickly they can make decisions. You certainly could have clients who will go on and on and on, and have you change the variations of those tests that’s forever. And then once those test fits are complete, then they move into lease negotiations if they haven’t purchased the old building themselves. And if they have, there’s still all the ‘legaleze’ that has to go through.
So maybe it’ll be quiet between the design teams and the owner for a little bit while they work out some of those contractual agreements. Often the owners will communicate back with the architect and our engineers to help them facilitate and really make sure they thought of everything in their contract. And at that point, then there’s a couple of different ways this can be done, but a lot of what we see is if the building is owned and they’re going to lease the space, the landlord will generally still own part of that renovation work, because they are happy to A) see their building being updated, but B), they still own the building and they have to maintain it. So again, some of that infrastructure and the lighting and maybe things related to the core and shell or the envelope or the roof of the building, or the entryways of the building, the landlord will pay for all of that renovation work even if it’s going to be branded for the new tenants. And then the tenant would only pay out of their pocket for what happens within their specific interior space. So those details get negotiated. That all has to be worked out.
And then you move into actual design development and then construction documents, permitting GC contractor bidding and then construction administration when we go to construction. And then the inspections, of course, and occupancy. We’ve seen projects move as quickly as 12 weeks from site selection to occupancy, but we’ve seen them last as long as two years, depending on the business type that’s moving into the space and how much renovation work was needed and how decisive the owner is about what they want from that space.
V1 Media: Could you describe some of the benefits of these types of transformations, including environmental and financial, and please include the somewhat obvious as well as some of those things that most people wouldn’t have thought of.
Keeler: Obviously, to have your already existing buildings occupied is the most ideal scenario; therefore they’re maintained and become less of an eyesore to a community. A building sitting vacant too long can become dilapidated if it’s not well-maintained. And in some cases, which we have seen a lot in the last few years, you’ll even discover squatters within the space. So then you have the larger considerations of what needs to be cleaned up for someone to come in and take that space on again.
The idea of reusing existing building stock is absolutely the greenest approach. And this is simply because we want to avoid breaking into virgin ground as best we can. We want to try to maintain as much green space and previous space, meaning ground and planted areas, open areas, grassy areas, waterways, all of that. We want to maintain that and keep it as protected as we can so it can continue to absorb water and not be all hardscape. Believe it or not, there’s a direct correlation to hardscape and how clean the air is, how clean the water is as well as the heat-island effect, how well buildings operate among each other.
By utilizing what we already have, we’re not taking away more of this open space that helps create or simulate some kind of balance between a healthy environment and the built environment. And therefore the built environment is less offensive to the natural environment. By spreading out the buildings a little more and having green space integrated throughout, we keep the air cooler and cleaner between the buildings, which improves the air quality, which is better for occupants, humans out on the street, and all the natural life around it.
The long-term benefit, of course, is that you gain more years out of that building from when it was just an idea and erected as a building to begin with, to add more years to its existence–look at these retrofits as an opportunity to improve performance. You breathe new life into them. You give them a new purpose. You do facilitate new aesthetics, and studies show that an aesthetically pleasing building is generally going to be a more well-maintained building and also a more frequently occupied building. So the more-beautiful the building is, the more likely it is to be occupied, to be in use and to be well-maintained and not falling apart or neglected or have a loss of interest associated with it. So now you’ve added another generation or another wave of business to be able to operate in that space for a longer period of time.
Every time we break new ground, you take away a footprint. If you imagine looking down at the ground and you imagine looking at a building, that cut out, that black box for that building has now taken away that open space. So you’ve now affected all the natural biosystems, you affect the biodiversity, you strip it down so it’s not as diverse. And all of our biosystems are completely codependent on each other. And then you wreak havoc and perpetuate the problems of hardscapes compounding onto hardscapes. If we can reuse what we have and even improve it and reduce the negative impacts from the built environment to begin with, then we start to take back our offenses on that environment.
V1 Media: How about a couple of the financial advantages from repurposing?
Keeler: If it’s a singular owner who has seen businesses come and go from that building, he or she will absolutely be thrilled to be able to draw in new occupants and reduce vacancy rates. We see vacancy rates for green buildings improve by over 60%. We’re getting studies showing that the generations coming out of college right now, up to 80% of respondents say they’re not just looking for an employer who is sensitive to the environment and social justices, but also that the company they’re interviewing to work for occupies space in a LEED-certified building.
And yet LEED has trending waves of interest. It’s globally the most-accepted standard of green building best practices, but you can have a building that’s far more green than one that’s LEED certified. There’s no doubt about that. But how you advertise that and what these young adults come out of school understand; when they see that logo or insignia that says this building was certified, it’s also telling them that there was a third-party verification of all of those green practices, and it’s easy for them to grasp onto that. And that tells them the people operating the building haven’t just designed the space to be green, but they’re also operating that building to be greener. And that’s a win-win for everybody.
So you’ve got the building owner, who’s operating a building that’s essentially performing more efficiently, paying less on operating expenses and utility bills, and improving leasing rates. And now there’s a bigger draw for it, because the owner can say: ‘my building operates more efficiently. My air quality is cleaner. This building is safer to operate your business within, therefore more folks want to come and stay in my building.’
And then there’s the net operating side. Not just the return on investment on the front-end construction, moving from the old fluorescent lights to LED lighting. That pays for itself almost overnight now. We see a net operating index where you actually harness things like vacancy-rate improvement, perceived wellness, perceived safety.
Again, trying to get people to come back to these buildings after a pandemic. Those buildings that can actually communicate to users that they’re in a safe place and that the air quality has been cleaned up or remediated or it’s maintained at a cleaner level and all these other practices going into place for hand sanitization and touchless doors and fixtures in the washroom and everything else, they’re going to have a bigger draw. They’re going to have a bigger population of people return to their building sooner than the buildings that tried to maintain older practices or antiquated practices. Unfortunately, there’s going to be a gap. We’re definitely going to see some people leaving their leases of these older buildings that can’t or aren’t making the move to meet these upgrades.
And to bring that together, wellness is considered part of green buildings. It’s not just about energy performance and environmental impacts anymore. It absolutely adopts human wellness and occupant wellness and the total occupant experience as part of the whole ‘green building movement.’ And now add the social justices, too, looking at how the buildings may have an impact or effect on their local communities is also on the table.
And again, these building owners can actually talk about that and communicate that outward, whether it’s through signage or actual communications or measurable data. They’re going to see not just people wanting to live in their space or operate in their space. The people who host and operate businesses within them see higher productivity rates from their employees for both green-performance buildings and buildings that adopt wellness strategies. For example, if they have access to daylight throughout the day, you’re going to have a lower rate of absenteeism, meaning fewer sick days. In hospitals, people spend fewer days in recovery for those patients who sit in a recovery room with a window vs. those who don’t. And then there are alternatives to that; if we don’t have access to actual windows, then we can look at other ways to simulate that through circadian lighting. And if you have a very old building, it’s very expansive and you have folks that are sitting in the interior of that building and they don’t see daylight or have access to windows all day, you can install lighting that mimics the hues of natural daylight from the morning, warm hues to the evenings, cool hues, etc. And it has a direct impact on everything from our mental health to our metabolism to how well we sleep at night and, therefore, how well we operate while we’re in the space.
So consequently, the net operating gain is that folks are actually happier, healthier, want to be at work longer, work harder, work more efficiently for more hours. It’s kind of incredible.
V1 Media: What about a developer or a future occupant, how much they save as opposed to building new. Are there quantifiable savings on repurposing as opposed to building from scratch?
Keeler: Yes, especially where you don’t have existing infrastructure. So now you have more time working with the local municipality or village. Say you pick a new site. Okay, finally they approve it. They zone the site to be appropriate for your business model. But now you have to bring in the utilities, you have to bring in the electrical, you have to bring in the sewer, you have to bring in everything. So now you’re adding time to your project schedule on the front end before you even break ground on the building. You’re looking at access, roadways, driveways, how to get in and out, turnarounds for whatever particular demands you have. If it’s a distribution center, for example, then you have semis, so you need to consider how much land you need for them to be able to come in, turn around, manipulate around each other, etc.
And then you get into the building itself and go through different reviews of what that looks like. And depending on the building type, this is actually interesting. If we look at retail, you’re going to do a lot better moving into an existing space and utilizing what’s there, presuming that it’s up to snuff and you don’t have to completely do a renovation of everything. But even if you do, you’re moving into an existing space, you have the municipal utilities in place, you also already have the traffic, right? Because you’re already integrating into an existing community. If you’re on the outskirts or you break new ground, there’s other challenges that could happen there depending on traffic or what future development looks like. So again, it could be two years of studies that lead up to you finalizing which site you choose.
But if it were an industrial building, like a distribution center, for example, they may want to break ground. The way they construct those buildings is extraordinarily efficient. They’re working with tilt-up concrete forms, so they’re not even bringing concrete trucks to the site. There’s a lot less hands-on and tactile construction that takes place. They can put up large facilities in a very, very short amount of time; so they often find that to be more economical, believe it or not, than moving into an old facility and having to retrofit it all.
V1 Media: How should engineers, designers and developers think about creating new buildings and structures that could have future multi-purposes? And if they’re looking at a redevelopment, what are some key ideas they should have in mind as they’re doing that work?
Keeler: It is my opinion that we should absolutely be looking at every space not just for what its immediate demand is but what potentially could come. That’s not to say we should have the wherewithal to know what trends are coming or going.
As an example, an industrial company I worked with decided to add 400 additional retail locations in less than a year. And then not two, three, four years later, Amazon came out. Some of the other big-box stores more at the residential level weren’t appealing to contractors in commercial-type demand for what they were selling. So all of a sudden, they’ve got some added competition out there, and now their 400 stores are not seeing as much foot traffic. They don’t have as many people coming, and they’re starting to dwindle, dwindle, dwindle. And as e-commerce picks up, like the Amazons and whomever else, now they’re seeing even less foot traffic, and now they’ve got this brand-new building that they built five years ago, six years ago, seven years ago. It still totally serves a purpose, but it’s not in demand anymore because everything can be ordered online or grabbed at The Home Depot. People have quicker, easier access to these things.
So now they own all this real estate, they have all these new buildings, they invested all that money in building them. What do you do with them? Do you start closing them? Do you sell them? Is there somebody else even interested in buying them because your business model was so distinct and the building was designed so specifically to your business model, now you can’t even get rid of that real estate? Maybe that takes a year, maybe it takes 10 years. You could be holding building stock that you have to maintain to some minimal level. You’re still losing money on the space; it’s not being used to sell your product anymore.
Retail is always the easy example. But in my mind, every space should have some thought around what it could look like in a couple of years. So the hotels that were sitting unoccupied–I think the max they reached is 30%–now they’ve got an opportunity where they can join hands with retailers and organizations that want to help put offices in those spaces.
So when you’re designing, are you thinking about only what it looks like for the hotel? We’ve seen some research on how hotels and the hospitality industry can also turn their hoteling into bed towers. In the case of this pandemic, where a city or an area or a region turns into a hotspot, and they don’t have enough beds in their existing hospitals, they now can convert a hotel into hospital bedrooms, so to speak, patient rooms, and those can hold anywhere between one to four patients depending on the size. So there’s opportunity there that we’ve discovered because humans are creative, they’re very resilient, and we’re stubborn. We want to get back to work. We want to get back to our built environment. We want to use our buildings, and the people who own those buildings want their buildings used.
So here they are being innovative, thinking outside the box and finding that their building can serve purposes they wouldn’t have even bothered thinking of before. Look at Orlando. Disney is being used to create a bubble for the NBA, where they initially only were trying to get back to that amusement park, to entertain the public. But they figured out it was far more safe, sustainable and lucrative–and brought great joy to a lot of people–to be able to bring back any professional sport for the whole world and have only them occupying that space vs. trying to accommodate something that seems almost impossible to open an amusement park right now; and then have it perhaps shut down again and delayed over and over.
In any case, some of those models are more meaningful now. Look at these schools where you’ve got parents outside picketing. They want to see their kids go back to school. Well, we can try to put our kids back in the schools, but how do we maintain social distancing? We have to reduce our class sizes. We can hire more teachers, maybe. But where are we going to come up with these extra classrooms? The district I live in, they’re looking at all of their maintenance buildings that are well-built buildings, but they have always only been used for maintenance, either shops or storage. They’re looking at retrofitting those on a quick turn to enable them to become classrooms or administrative offices, so administrative offices within the school buildings can be turned into classrooms so they can enable more children and more teachers to come back to the building.
Let’s use lighting as another example. In a mixed-use setting where you have retail on the first floor and then you have residential units above and then maybe you even have commercial office spaces above, too. If you set up your column lines while you’re designing the building with walls between the spaces, then you also want to try to enable those spaces to host the plumbing and electrical that would be needed for the next tenant. Let’s say you have a commercial office space; and this company when they moved in, they have 1,000 employees and were expanding; and then a recession hits, and now they have to downsize and they have all this empty space. Can they sublease it? Can they put up a new wall and enable somebody else to move in quickly and have access to the plumbing and the electrical conduit so they can light the space? Have all their own controls and not have to necessarily share or build from scratch at a high cost, rather have all the lines ready for the next tenants to come in or the next user to come in?
Flexible walls are popular in office spaces. We see a lot more ceiling-hung walls, demountable walls. That’s why we moved to a modular system for workstations and officing, too. If the headcount changes or the demand of the desk size changes, we can reconfigure all the furniture on the interior to accommodate a different user of the space, move from the engineer who has a very large workstation with all kinds of work surfaces and drafting tables to roll out those drawings or down to the customer-service desk that’s much smaller, because all they’re doing is picking up a phone and answering questions or taking intake orders or whatever. How you can quickly shift that kind of modular furniture or agile flexible furniture to a different model.
Again, you start to consider what’s happening behind the walls, underneath the floor, above the ceiling and how quickly can you then bring data lines down to 10 customer-service people sitting at what was once a singular engineer’s desk, right? How easily can that be done?
If you have prepared for that, then you might only be lifting some carpet tile and bringing up some new data lines vs. having to clear out all the furniture and rip up the floor and run new conduit. I think interior commercial office spaces have probably been one of the first sectors to adopt that flexibility within commercial office buildings and certainly healthcare, too. There are plenty of hospitals that can move from shifting their bed towers to surgical centers, surgery centers or outpatient day centers, etc. But also looking at changing laboratory space into pharmaceutical or changing clinical settings into more patient/inpatient type settings. All retrofits come with costs, no matter how large or small, but typically, unless the building is really suffering poorly, it is going to be a little more economical to stay in an existing facility and retrofit it vs. trying to break ground on a new site.