Use Owner-Architect Partnerships To Help Bring Tenants Back To Buildings

While conditions in tenant spaces are key to returning occupants, improved shared spaces for comfort and convenience are also important.

By Stephen Wright, AIA, LEED AP and Dan Elkins, AIA

Companies and their people want to be back at work. To bring them back on-site, feeling safe in the space is just the beginning; employees are now used to working remotely, so an office building needs to draw tenants in with amenities and features that can’t be replicated at home. A strong ongoing partnership between a building owner and their architect can help create a socially activated yet socially distant environment that offers a true separation between work and home life. While tenant spaces are key, shared spaces in the building matter, too.

Partnering with an owner’s architect that takes a holistic approach to updating all aspects of a building can allow landlords and building owners to steward their buildings more effectively, use design to create real value and ensure that employees will want to come back when they can.

Photo provided by authors

In the most iconic buildings, owners typically work with their architects to make minor refreshes on a regular basis to shared and public spaces, keeping the building appealing to potential new tenants in between major redevelopments — and when companies are looking for new leases following the pandemic. As tenants contemplate a return of their workforce, now is a time when partnering with an architect for ongoing services could help support that return to work as needs arise — indirectly supporting tenant retention and attraction goals.

For many buildings with challenging leasing scenarios, it’s tempting to think that a major renovation may be needed. In some cases, it is. But in others, everyday design solutions can make all the difference in the leasing process. A thoughtful partnership between a landlord and their architect can address these needs and deliver a productive environment for occupants, a pleasant experience for visitors, and a profitable tenant mix for the owners. And when business owners are weighing how and when to bring back their workers, knowing the building will be safe and refreshed can take some weight off their shoulders.

Provide an exceptional experience: Keep building interiors fresh throughout the building life cycle

The owner-architect partnership can improve new leasing outcomes as well as keep existing tenants happy, retaining their revenue for the building. There is a continual long list of design needs that crop up throughout the life cycle of the building: spaces that need to be leased, common elements that need to be refreshed, or spec suites that need better curb appeal. While a landlord could hire different architects for each need, there’s a lot of ramp-up time involved for each project, cutting into time better spent improving the building.

Consider the services that can be provided more effectively with a holistic design approach, particularly from an architect with experience working in your building:

  1. Supporting leasing updates. Leasing requests for floorplans and test fits are time-sensitive, often including urgent requests for customized marketing-ready plans. Speed matters when potential tenants are interested in the space, so rapid response from an owner’s architect is critical when potential rent-paying prospects are waiting to be delighted by your building.
  2. Curating spec suites to delight a particular set of prospective tenants. Some spec suites are less “destination” and more “Dilbert.” Spec suites should match the standards of the building and continue the experience from the high-quality lobby and common areas. Updating spec suites can improve the broker tour experience and help attract top tenants.
  3. Updating non-glamorous common spaces. In between repositioning projects, some landlords choose to focus the budget on spaces that provide a wow factor for future tenants: the lobby, tenant lounge, game room, fitness center or cafeteria. But in that process, some of the less glamorous common elements go untouched, like restrooms and corridors. A strong partnership on an ongoing basis can allow these “forgotten elements” to be refreshed over time as budgets allow.
  4. Creating value by making previously unrentable space available for leasing. Sometimes an architect who knows a building well can help a landlord actually expand the rentable square feet of the property through creative design solutions. For example, at 231 S. LaSalle, our team transformed an entire floor previously used to store outdated mechanical equipment into a light-filled space, now fully leased.
  5. Continuing the building’s narrative with each tenant’s space. Tenants will likely want to make changes that require a careful review of the building’s floor plans and systems or call for new amenities that were not in the original repositioning budget. A strong partnership with an architect who knows the building inside and out can go a long way to avoiding mishaps — and maintaining the integrity of the overall space.
Curating long-lasting, attractive office buildings

Ultimately, it takes consistent ownership vision to continually cultivate a destination-worthy tenant experience throughout the entire life cycle of a building — especially now, when a positive building experience could make all the difference in enticing new and existing tenants back to the office.

Wright, AIA, LEED AP, is Principal at Wright Heerema Architects and has more than 40 years of experience designing corporate and investment office properties across the U.S. As Principal-in-Charge, he provides leadership to the WHA team and takes an active role in upfront strategic discussions to ensure clients’ business and design goals are met.


Elkins, AIA, is Principal at Wright Heerema Architects and has 35 years of experience as an architect and project manager. He has led some of the largest commercial office projects WHA has completed, and oversees WHA’s IT department to ensure the firm stays at the leading edge of technology.


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