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Lessons from King’s Cross?

More property tech, and much more interventionist landlords, will mean big changes for the way office floorspace works post-COVID, says an office developer active in one of the most cutting-edge of London’s office markets.

25/11/2020 3 min read
30 Lighterman, King's Cross

Words: David Thame

London is a network of villages, some of them funkier than others. NorthHill Capital’s parish extends from King’s Cross, through Clerkenwell and Islington and, in their opinion, it’s a few square miles of hyper-contemporary real estate paradise. Today,  it is the location where new ideas in office floorspace are being trialled.

Yet, with a second lockdown ending 2020, and no guarantee there won’t be more lockdowns in 2021, the King’s Cross office economy feels fragile. Google, whose arrival at a 1 million sq ft ‘landscraper’ (a horizontal skyscraper), caused ripples earlier this autumn when it briefly seemed like the deal was off. An air of unreality still hangs over the plan thanks to Google’s insistence that staff can work from home, and its busy investment in other London real estate, not least an £800 million office campus around Holborn.

The pandemic has plainly hurt this London village, as it has hurt so many others, but can it heal those markets too?

That is the claim from NorthHill Capital’s Zac Goodman. NorthHill have just put the finishing touches to their refurbishment of 14,000 sq ft at 30 Lighterman, King’s Cross. It is the latest element in a 70,000 sq ft portfolio of upscale refurbs.

Zac’s gamble is that small suites will be in demand, post-coronavirus, and that well-located small suites will be super-fashionable. It goes without saying that this analysis is very comfortable to someone with four floors of roughly 3,000 sq ft each.

‘We won’t just let floors on standard five year leases. We’re happy if someone just wants a year, though obviously that’s a little more expensive,’ he says.

Demand for small suites will come from businesses who might have gone into shared flexible workspace but, in changed times, want to control their own environment.

‘They want to be behind their own front door, they want their own identity and culture. So we’re offering the same benefits as serviced floorspace – furnishing, cleaning and so on – but behind their own door,’ Zac explains.

This sounds like an appeal for the kind of agile international tech businesses that have started to migrate to King’s Cross ahead of the Google move – but Zac insists it isn’t. ‘Once, we might have said that 3,000 sq ft suites appealed to businesses with 40-50 staff. But today I think we’re appealing to companies with 150-ish staff, but who don’t all come into the office at once,’ he says.

The calculation is that big corporates and professionals will opt for an office pied a terre to help new recruits, younger team members and those who need to touch down in town to meet and share. ‘It is about soaking up the company culture,’ Zac says.

What makes this interesting is that Zac is determined to offer tenants flexibility (at a price) and to rethink his role as landlord. NorthHill will not be a distant figure, piling up the money, but a partner helping make business work. That, rather than the idea of city centre offices, will be the real victim of the pandemic.

‘The idea of landlord and tenant will be the real casualty of 2020,’ Zac insists. ‘Many landlords have learned for the first time about the importance of being attuned to the needs of their customers. They have to be less about lettings, and more about being responsible corporate citizens who deliver a compelling product.’

This matters to the world of office design because it means a more constant, more integrated conversation between landlords and tenants about the way their floorspace works. NorthHill are, for instance, borrowing an idea from the serviced office sector by creating community managers to help keep tenants happy, and by investing in smart technology to monitor air quality, power use and occupancy.

‘We need to develop listening buildings, and I think some landlords are in denial about this and the challenges we face, thanks to coronavirus. Which doesn’t mean just problems, there could be some surprises that propel the property business forward,’ considers Zac.

This might involve using buildings in different ways at different times of the day to ensure floorspace is delivering the best results for occupiers. ‘Obviously, an office building works differently at 3pm on a Monday than it does at 10am on a Thursday. Data analysis will show that, and clever people are already adjusting how they use floorspace based on occupancy,’ says Zac.

These trends – ‘incubated during a crisis’ – will make huge differences to the way office space works, regardless of the impact on the volume of floorspace occupied.

‘It is the way we work that will change,’ Zac concludes.

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