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Graham Shaw, Willmott Dixon Interiors, shares his view on a solution to combat the lack of Grade A office space

The spotlight remains on what impact a shortage of Grade A office space is having in the market. However, by focusing on the lack of ‘new’ stock, we are considerably limiting our scope for solutions.

12/09/2019 3 min read
Willmott Dixon Interiors
London, Birmingham

The Grade A office space is out there – if we do more to reinvigorate the buildings that could contain it. When you consider just how well older buildings can be adapted, the solution is literally staring us in the face every time we look at a town or city skyline.

A growing number of landlords are reassessing their stock, motivated by how much more the asset can work for them with a structural refurbishment, such as adding a floor or cutting and carving the space to enlarge the floorplate.

What’s more interesting is the trend by landlords to invest far beyond a Cat A fit-out so that the office space is extremely attractive to tenants. Higher capital investment is translating into higher yields and strong asset value. Yet this does not apply every time. Instead we see too much faith placed in a short-term fix, mend and make approach, which restricts the creation of new Grade A space that tenants want.

It’s not just in popular central locations where more imagination with older, sometimes unloved buildings can unlock Grade A space. The notion of ‘fringe’ areas in cities has disappeared, with office space feasible anywhere.

It wasn’t that long ago that London’s King’s Cross and Shoreditch areas were considered on the ‘fringe’ and demand was low. That has completely reversed. The tenants of today are happy to be somewhere a bit different, and with working from home a very normal part of the week, proximity to train or underground stations is no longer top of the must-have list.

Older and existing buildings can be hugely appealing; they are individual, they lend themselves to the less traditional, more industrial look and feel that tenants want. They can have fantastic character features. And they frequently have a story to tell.

Walking in Paddington recently, I saw some lovely art-deco buildings that now serve as thriving homes for many blue-chip creative agencies. Another example is our renewal of the 1895-built Bridge House on 181 Queen Victoria Street to provide 2,339 sq m of open plan Grade A office space. This complex refit of the six-storey building also saw a full repair and repaint to the existing façade, rejuvenating the building back to its former glory.

Birmingham’s need for new space was answered recently by refurbishing the 1920s Lewis Building, originally a department store before becoming an office that needed updating to be viable in the 21st century. Owner LGIM Real Assets, in conjunction with Ediston Real Estate, invested in a full makeover across seven floors – including a new top floor extension – to provide Grade A offices.

Office owners must be brave – investing to create a sense of place by upgrading can reap rewards; tenant demand is there and the return will be higher yields. Partnerships between owner, consultants, contractors and supply chain also play a pivotal role in getting the most out of a building’s potential.

But what does Grade A mean to tenants? Well, different things compared to five years ago. Yes, a stylish, high quality fit-out, good air quality, natural light, a coffee shop in reception, showers and cycle racks remain attractive features. But for a newer generation of tenants, the priorities are flexible, less formal spaces that have a coworking feel and drive wellbeing. And where connectivity is excellent to allow agile working, so Grade A offices must be compatible with 5G communication.

We need to think beyond the ‘new’ box. The physical Grade A office space is out there but much is hidden behind grey facades and in buildings that are not necessarily in city centres. Giving these buildings some heavy-duty TLC, recognising that cities are now ‘fringeless’, with nowhere considered to be off the beaten track, plus making space fit for the needs of today’s workforce is part of the equator.

Demand is high and supply is limited, so solving this offers huge commercial opportunities.

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