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Avoiding the wrecking ball: Restoring purpose in aging commercial properties

June 08, 2022

By Christopher Keller

Invigorating office buildings can save them from demolition and give them a new life. They need flexibility and a new way of working.

This article first appeared as “Escaping the wrecking ball” in Stantec Design Quarterly, Issue 15.

Commercial property owners in North American central business districts face a conundrum: they must stand out from the competition and secure tenants in a competitive marketplace where vacancies are often abundant without undertaking the risk of complete renovations. To succeed, these commercial buildings need to foster a new way of working, which requires more flexibility, inspiration, a sense of community, and user choice. Buildings need to adapt to changing uses and expectations.

Owners may want to take a second look at their public spaces. Often, these spaces were designed in an era when volume and prodigious marble surfaces made a professional, formal impression. Today, these communal spaces may simply be areas to pass through. Or they are dated and uncomfortable public-facing ground floors. Era-specific design and materials are just symptoms of a larger complication: how can we improve the performance of something perceived as so dated and permanent?

We believe we can turn around these oft-neglected spaces through thoughtful design interventions that create a specific personality for the building. It’s important to take a holistic approach that recognizes the quality of the entire asset relative to its communal spaces. 

Before renovation, the Capital Center in Indianapolis, Indiana, looked like a throwback to the 1980s. After, it has an energetic, sophisticated series of professional and social spaces.

Today’s user of commercial buildings is savvy with high expectations. To meet these expectations and create successful places, we need to dig deep so that asset repositioning does more than tick off boxes of program requirements. In reimagining the public spaces and amenities in the recent projects below, we looked to strategies grounded in storytelling such as creating an identity for the building, designing for authentic user experience, finding useful purposes for existing space, and enhancing wellness of occupants.

Capital Center in Indianapolis, Indiana

The challenge: era-specific pink granite dominated this late 1980s lobby space giving it a heavy, inaccessible feel. A large concourse with a glass roof and façade connects the building’s two towers. The building had no identity and too much space with no programmed use. Users had no choice in how to experience and use spaces. We had to find a way to distinguish this property from the competition, while activating and updating its public-facing spaces within a modest budget.

Give the building a unique identity

We strove to find a balance in the building between fitting into the downtown area and standing out on its own while avoiding an ostentatious repositioning that felt out of place. This space needed to say something relevant.

As always, we focused on concept and storytelling in our design process. We also engaged Stantec’s branding studio to focus on creating an identity for the building itself. We arrived at an urban conservatory concept, which led us to a palette of lighter woods, organic patterns, and biophilia to update the lobby, concourse, and outdoor terrace. We gave the user an organic and natural way of moving through the spaces, with curated experiences along the way. And we made a concerted effort to bring a big-city-urban feel to the property.

We looked for opportunities to activate the space by harnessing existing assets.

Create symbiosis between user and space

We thought about creating an experience, not just a look. We considered the downtown worker and the progression of their day. This led us to recognize the potential for an energetic, sophisticated series of professional and social spaces that reflect the hardworking Midwest and satisfy a contemporary desire for comfortable third places between the office and home.

The symbiotic relationship means that the building itself benefits from the user’s presence—they activate it and become a beacon to fellow tenants and guests for social and professional functions alike.

Redefine or create useful purpose for existing spaces

We looked for opportunities to activate the space by harnessing existing assets. At the Capital Center, we saw an opportunity to embrace many existing elements: scale, the abundance of glass and daylight, high volumes, and lines of sight, while layering new functions on the otherwise transient concourse. 

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At the Capital Center, the design team focused on concept and storytelling.

To activate the space, we added a handsome café/bar and social hub with unused space we discovered during design. We gave the public areas a rugged urban aesthetic—a balance of sophistication and grit—by layering materials such as cold-rolled steel, natural white oak, and custom tubular brass lighting elements. This approach didn’t require extensive demolition, which saved our client money and time.

Choose interventions

Harnessing the best of the building’s existing assets presented its own design challenges, which we used as opportunities to express this new building identity.

For example, where a series of trusses and beams met in the café, we designed a feature portal to hide the structure, fit the urban conservatory design language, and highlight the entry to the new café/bar. The conference center doesn’t have access to natural light, so within that space we introduced more color to brighten the mood. We designed a curved feature wall with custom millwork louvers of changing hues that guide users’ experience through the space, taking them through the new lounge and amenity pre-function areas we designed outside the training and conference rooms.

Promote social connection and engage the community

With before- and after-work experience in mind, we created new spaces for social connection and respite. The open atrium and outdoor courtyard with a fireplace offer the downtown professional additional space for mingling.

70 West Madison in Chicago, Illinois

The challenge: located in the financial district of Chicago’s Loop, 70 West Madison is no ordinary property. Its sawtooth floorplate and nine-story atrium lobby are distinctive.

The space itself was grand in scale but felt fragmented. Stylistically, it was heavy with monolithic brown metal panels and matching granite tiles, and a façade dominated by a white structural tube truss system. It needed attention that would quiet the visual noise, clarify circulation, and modernize the look and experience. To increase leasing velocity, the owner looked for a differentiator, a transformation of the public spaces and amenities that could attract a broader range of tenants beyond what was historically professional services.

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Anish Kapoor’s artwork gives the public space at 70 West Madison in Chicago, Illinois, a unique gallerylike feel.

Break down the experience

The concept creates connectivity between the spaces on the lobby and mezzanine levels by inserting installations in the voluminous space that break the experience down to the human scale, modernize it, and make it more accessible along major pathways.

Refocus the eye

Interventions need to tell a story. And at 70 West Madison, we were lucky to have access to an extensive collection of paintings and prints by Anish Kapoor. Inspired, we designed gallerylike wall features to showcase the artwork and lighten the overall feel of the spaces.

Perhaps the most dramatic intervention was our use of six custom color-changing vertical light blades on the atrium wall to rationalize the visual noise in the lobby. This simple and distinct architectural gesture acts as a focal point, calms the eye, and prepares one to move from the first floor to the amenity mezzanine level.

Create visual connections

By removing a glass enclosure on the mezzanine lounge in favor of a clear railing, we connected the previously hidden space to the public atrium it overlooks. Now known as The Loft, the double-height lounge welcomes visitors with a bar and fireplace as a warm, and much-needed third place.

Curated furniture, finishes, decorative lighting, and artwork combine to evoke a comfortable residential feel. The Loft opens wide to the gallerylike circulation and reception areas, providing continuity and clarity of experience. The new design offers both visual relief and a variety of comfortable settings within a vast space.

Enhance comfort, safety, and wellness

We created warm and softly residential nooks out of areas that were once vestigial and cold. Redesigned reception and circulation areas make them easily identifiable and modern. The new and enlarged fitness center, relocated from the fifth floor to the mezzanine, helps bring all the building amenities together for convenient access.

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The fitness center at 70 West Madison, now dubbed The Lift, gets a gritty, industrial, and moody look with dark metal, exposed concrete, and charred wood that connects to the urban lifestyle of today’s downtown professionals

Vary the rhythm

At 70 West Madison, we took a tight a budget and applied it selectively in high-traffic areas, creating moments that change the overall rhythm of the space, encouraging users to appreciate the continuity of experience while moving through it. We used existing conditions to our advantage, layering design elements over the architecture, minimizing complexity, and avoiding extensive demolition, while creating an elevated, modern experience.

What the changes mean for property owners

These deliberate and selective interventions transformed these properties. Both have seen significant increases in leasing interest and velocity. There’s no better indicator of success, however, than the presence of people. 

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  • Christopher Keller

    As a principal and design leader, Christopher is passionate about concept-based experiential design. He’s designed large-scale and high-end corporate, legal, residential, and hospitality projects.

    Contact Christopher
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