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Commercial Real Estate Investors Hear The Call Of The Great Outdoors
With the pandemic molding our home and working lives into something different than our familiar places and routines of the past, commercial real estate investors and developers are poised to entice people back into the workplace with new outdoor features.
Quoting Arleen Jacobius of Pensions & Investments, “Office properties with an outdoor feel and access are gaining popularity with tenants as the industry rethinks office space use and design in the wake of the pandemic.
Real estate managers aren’t taking a crowbar to all hermetically sealed windows in their buildings, but they are starting to include open spaces in their projects, such as patios on each floor, rooftop conference areas and outdoor parks.
While the trend toward “healthier buildings” predates the COVID-19 crisis, the pandemic put it top of mind with tenants and their employees. Professors at Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology are currently doing research on what constitutes a so-called healthy building in a COVID-19 world.
“There will be a process of discovery” on what types of filters, open-air access and other features are needed to give the workforce comfort that the building owner and their employers are providing a healthy environment, said Jacques Gordon, Chicago-based global head of research and strategy at real estate manager LaSalle Investment Management Inc. LaSalle Investment Management has $73 billion in assets under management.
In the meantime, some tenants are viewing outdoor access as an amenity that they would pay more for, Mr. Gordon said.
“The ability to go to an outdoor space is often highly valued by tenants,” he said.
The existing trend toward open office design, envisioned as a way to bolster employee collaboration, also lends itself to incorporating outdoor areas, he said.
In the U.S., office prices are coming back from the depths of 2020, with the RCA Commercial Property Price index for the office sector up 6% in the year ended June 30, according to an August report by real estate firm CBRE Group Inc. However, not all markets are faring the same. Manhattan prices dipped 1% in the second quarter from a year earlier, CBRE reported.
Meanwhile, global investment in commercial real estate across all sectors grew by 15% year over year to $459 billion in the first half of 2021, with the office sector accounting for the largest share, at 26% of total worldwide investment in the six months ended June 30, another CBRE report shows.
Office returns were up to 1.44% for the second quarter ended June 30, from 0.99% at the end of the first quarter and -0.50% at the end of the year-earlier quarter, according to the NCREIF Property Index.
In one project completed in 2018, LaSalle introduced outdoor features at one of its buildings in Chicago. LaSalle executives made windows on one floor openable, created an indoor/outdoor tenant lounge with 20-foot ceilings on the top floor and added a private tenant roof deck on the 28th floor.
In doing so, they created a common area for tenants to have access to outdoor air at “times in Chicago when you would want that, which is six months of the year,” Mr. Gordon said.
In another project across the pond, LaSalle’s 60 London Wall project, which was acquired on behalf of the $308.6 billion California State Teachers’ Retirement System, West Sacramento, features terraces on five upper floors of a 10-floor building designed around a single atrium. Completed in November, the mixed-use building in downtown London also has a green roof with abundant plant life.
“The outdoor space is everyone’s favorite space,” Mr. Gordon said.
Some preference for open spaces is cultural, he said. In Germany, buildings are required to have windows that can be opened, Mr. Gordon said. In other parts of the world, such as the U.S. and Japan, buildings are not required to have windows that can be opened, he said. Instead, developers and real estate owners are choosing to apply for healthy-building certifications such as a BREEAM rating in the U.K. or a LEED rating in the U.S., and awards to highlight their approach and lure tenants.
Offices are being more “experiential,” said Niall Gaffney, Dublin-based chief executive of real estate, Irish Property Unit Trust PLC, with a portfolio valued at €2.9 billion ($3.4 billion) as of June 30.
“The pandemic has forced the office sector, including occupiers and their employees, into a period of reflection on how workspace is used,” Mr. Gaffney said. “Our view is that offices’ environments must be recalibrated for many reasons, not least to ensure the long-term resilience of commercial property values.”
At the end of 2020, IPUT released its Making Place research report, with testimony from various stakeholders across the industry, Mr. Gaffney said. The report said that ”while offices continue to play a critical role — not least in work culture, innovation, and career development — they cannot continue in their current form as monofunctional buildings,” he said.
One innovation in the report are “mind labs,” or spaces on the outside edges of buildings for employees and non-tenants to share, develop and incubate ideas that could lead to new discoveries and innovation. The so-called labs can have group tables, writing surfaces, Wi-Fi and electricity on the perimeter of the building connected to the indoors.
One example in the paper is the Melbourne office of multinational professional services firm Arup Group Ltd. that includes a Sky Park, an outdoor space accessible to employees and non-tenants of the office tower that appears to float nearly 40 feet above a busy central business district street.
Another example is a 600,000-square-foot office ”neighborhood” that IPUT is developing for LinkedIn at its Wilton Park Dublin project in downtown Dublin, Mr. Gaffney said. That development includes four office buildings, the redevelopment of an existing park and the creation of a new, quarter-acre public square named after Irish writer Mary Lavin adjacent to one building.”
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