Downtown D.C. Rendering — Washington, D.C.
A building with a glass front.

Can existing buildings adapt to stay relevant?

Research Project Name

Office Building of the Future

What We Did

Using the power of speculation, we first researched precedent along with the metrics that led to the office buildings of today. Coupled with observations on the increasing conversion rates of existing office buildings to other uses, we confirmed suspicions that while planimetric logic has driven the market to a predictable, repetitive office building prototype, these forms can be made applicable to a plethora of uses beyond the office function. Recognizing that office space vacancies are on the rise now that companies look to mobility, smaller workspaces, and other efficiencies to accommodate an expanding workforce, we focused our office building research on how those empty spaces might remain viable through reuse.

We submitted our results and concepts to the NAIOP Office Building of the Future design competition and our team was selected as one of four winners to present at NAIOP’s annual conference in Washington, DC, in October 2012.

The Context

The untethering of the contemporary office worker from his or her desk has been realized by the widespread adoption of mobile technology, delivering on the long-standing promise of a mobile, connected workforce. This trend began more than 20 years ago with the pager, evolved to the laptop, and then most recently to the smartphone and tablet. These devices enable knowledge work to occur anywhere at any time and have put our once static workforce into motion.

Mobile technologies and strategies are supporting an increase in workplace density. As companies leverage their mobile workforce to address work/life balance issues and reduce costs, there has been a steady reduction in space devoted to private offices in nearly every industry. The result is best captured by the universally accepted metric of square foot per person, which we believe will continue to shrink as companies and institutions encourage their workers to supplement their provided office workspace with space off a company’s balance sheet. Alternative places such as home offices and neighborhood coffee shops, as well as communal public space including parks and museums within the domain of the city, begin to fill that void.

We also observe a slow but steady growth in office vacancy. The model of the “corporate hive” that operates from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. is less and less relevant as more people work asymmetrically across increasingly remote locations and at varying times. Historically, office vacancy ultimately would be backfilled with expanded office use and emerging new businesses due to economic growth. But this simply isn’t the case as overall demand for office space isn’t keeping up with office vacancy rates. In fact, vacancy rates are predicted to rise with wider adoption of technology and increased densification, creating a void in the commercial office market.

The Results

The existing commercial office building stock of North America is quickly becoming obsolete for current and future work styles. An opportunity exists to rethink these structures and proactively intervene in their evolution. Given workplace mobility trends, broadening employee and corporate interest in sustainability, and growing economic pressure on businesses, our vision for the office building of the future is no longer solely that of a new building, but instead lies in existing structures to be adapted beyond recognition, beyond a use dedicated exclusively to traditional office work.

We refer to these opportunities as hackable buildings. Capable of fully delivering on the universal planning flexibility inherent in their “typical” floor plates and interior design logic, these buildings will evolve culturally and physically through smaller, pioneering interventions. For example, large monolithic office blocks will be transformed over time into hybridized buildings that promote creativity and demonstrate a willingness to respond to the changing work modes of the 21stcentury knowledge worker and the lifestyles of the 21st-century urban dweller. These neutral structures will continue to exhibit both adaptability and specificity, as they serve future generations of workers accustomed to constant motion and an urban lifestyle ever more in flux. To demonstrate the potential of these concepts, we “hacked” two existing buildings—the Union Bank Tower in Los Angeles and the J. Edgar Hoover Building in Washington, DC.

What This Means

“Hackability” can occur at two distinct but interrelated levels. Macrolevel hackability works at the building level, adapting existing buildings through a series of project-based interventions—this is the focus of our research. This macro-hackability supports and aligns with a growing culture around hackable space, while a micro-level approach to the design and provision of space focuses on providing the users the instruments to tailor space to their needs and desires on demand needs and desires.

Our concepts both support and challenge a preservationist agenda, calling into question what is to be preserved and what is open for change. Do we simply seek to restore our buildings to an original state, or do we make a series of performance additions? Preservation must move beyond an agenda dominated by aesthetics and building-skins to allow for the productive evolution of building form and use.

We are exploring uncharted territory. A certain fear factor is to be expected, and the implications for the classic Central Business District (CBD) model are wide, and need to be explored at both a district and a citywide level.

What’s Next?

We find ourselves at a tipping point. We see opportunities in the traditional commercial office building business model that have been overlooked in the past. As office buildings increasingly become obsolete and owners seek to bring these structures back to relevance, we see a need for new uses, forms, tools, metrics, zoning legislation, and financing strategies to ensure their viability beyond the original use.

Our recent analysis focused on the redevelopment of Class A properties. How this approach can be applied to Class B and C properties will continue to be a focus moving forward, as will the identification of interventions that are most valuable as attractors and revenue generators. The application of these concepts to tall buildings also presents specific logistic challenges that we seek to explore.

Learn More


John Adams, Jeff Barber, Shawn Gehle, Rob Jernigan, Li Wen, Christine Barber, Jessica Griese, Heidi Konieczka, Duncan Lyons, Carrie Morrison, Chris Rhoads, Raffael Scasserra, James Schrader, Colette Smith, Ruben Smudde, Darcey Thomson, Tam Tran

Year Completed