Real estate enters the era of ‘hackable’ buildings

As companies depart suburban office parks and antiquated buildings for more urban digs, there sometimes isn’t much use for the properties they leave behind.

Enter “hackable” buildings.

Embraced by the architecture firm Gensler, the term applies to buildings that were built for one use but – because of changing market demands or preferences – need to be reworked for another.

Gensler architects used the moniker when submitting a radical concept for redeveloping the J. Edgar Hoover Building to a 2012 design competition. The Brutalist-style FBI headquarters was built to include a firing range and massive storage area for fingerprint records, neither of which is still needed on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Their idea to chop the building into interesting spaces that could accommodate a series of new uses (among them big-box retail and a rooftop soccer field) was intentionally outlandish, and it had the desired effect of prompting more realistic ideas for re-imagining buildings. Here’s what Gensler submitted: 

Gensler recently began a research project focused on Los Angeles and D.C., “Hackable Buildings – Hackable Cities,” exploring how building owners can adapt their properties to meet changing demand.

“It really started with some research that we were doing on the evolution of office buildings,” said Raffael Scasserra, a Gensler principal. “What we were looking at is what is that evolution like? What is it transforming to and what are buildings going to be?”

Developers have been rehabbing dated office buildings for as long as they have been building them; Gensler’s new effort is aimed at more dramatic rethinking of structures.

“Hackable is really taking something that was intended for one use and using it for another,” said Brad King, Gensler senior associate. “And we viewed that as a positive thing.”

With the recent turmoil in real estate markets, there are some examples beginning to happen locally. In Tysons Corner, JBG Rosenfeld built a Wal-Mart into the bottom levels of what was previously a parking garage. In Alexandria, developer EYA took a tiered office complex and turned it into a luxury condominium building, the Oronoco.

Below is a promotional video of the finished project. If you fast forward to the 1:20 mark you can see EYA president Bob Youngentob talk about some of the advantages that the building’s former use for offices gave him in building the condos, among them the large glass windows and landscaped space outside. (Forgive the flowery music.)

Part of what’s driving the hackable movement is the difficulty of tearing down buildings and building news ones in a flat office market, Scasserra said. But the environment is another factor.

“Today financing a brand new building is relatively hard. Its not that easy. And if you think about transforming a building you can actually put it back on the market much quicker. You can be back generating revenue again more quicker. And I think sustainability is a big factor. People look at these big structures and think about tearing them down and throwing them away and don’t necessarily think  it’s the best thing to do,” he said.

It’s not just old buildings that are being hacked up. In designing Tysons Tower, the 524,000-square-foot office building being built by Macerich and Hines, Gensler designed floor plates that could easily have holes punched in the middle to create multi-level lobbies or staircases. The feature helped attract the satellite firm Intelsat, which decided to cut a rectangular hole in five stories to create a vertical central core.


(Jonathan O’Connell/Capital Business)

In its own D.C. office, Gensler punched a hole in the bottom of its original office and expanded into a former restaurant on the ground floor.

“The trend is kind of early in its beginnings, so there aren’t a lot of those examples right now, but there are going to be more and more,” Scasserra said.

Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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