By Meghan Hall
Across the commercial real estate industry, developers, landlords and AEC professionals alike have been discussing ways to ensure offices are safe and healthy as employees slowly return to their places of work. While many are trying to pivot projects or retrofit existing buildings to accommodate new safety measures, one project team believes their development is already designed and well-positioned to accommodate tenants through all phases of reopening. ProspectHill Group, SKS Partners and Invesco Real Estate, along with global architecture firm Gensler, put current thought leadership surrounding office spaces and coronavirus to the test in a study of Assembly at North First in San Jose. Ultimately the team found that with minor adjustments or tenant improvements, the development’s structure and layout already catered to social distance and health protocols now required in work spaces.
The idea to use Assembly as a case study came about on behalf of both Gensler and the development team, who wanted to evaluate how the development could respond to current workplace conditions.
“We came to this idea that it would be great if we were able to test these ideas and these notions out on a real project,” explained Gensler Principal and Co-Managing Director, Manan Shah. “I think there has been a lot written, but can we see the physical manifestation of these ideas? We thought there were some really unique qualities in the Assembly at North First project that lent themselves to illustrating a lot of what we’re looking for that meets a day one, day two, day three kind of COVID-19 landscape.”
Phase I of the 27-acre campus, which included the renovation of four buildings totaling about 300,000 square feet of space, was completed in 2018. ProspectHill, SKS Partners and Invesco revealed their plans for Phase II of the project in February of this year. If the development team elects to max out its approved entitlements, the three buildings part of the remaining phase will range in size from 198,000 to 290,000 square feet. Clear heights of more than 17 feet, glass walls, large porches and indoor-outdoor accessibility were all key components incorporated into both phases of development.
Gensler’s study of Assembly covers three separate stages of impact and found that the project excels through all stages in several different ways. Overall, because of the acreage that the project sits on, Assembly operates as a horizontal campus that already accommodates for multiple points of entry, generous circulation and dispersed parking. Gensler notes that because the property was built out, rather than up with multiple access points, an indoor-outdoor environment was already innately part of the project’s design.
Assembly, for example, has an abundance of outdoor gathering spaces reserved for work porches, food trucks and mobile catering, outdoor kitchens and gathering spaces. The Grove, a full-acre outdoor living space with wood-fired pizza ovens, seating areas and games, sits at the heart of the campus. Buildings themselves have options for roll-up doors, for more light and air, while building 3960 is single-story, meaning no elevators are required.
“When you look at a campus like the Assembly and some of the design ideas that were already embedded in this campus like indoor-outdoor connectivity and the ability for people to socialize, recreate outdoors, those sorts of amenities with a little supercharging are even more relevant in today’s day one return to work scenario,” stated Shah.
Additionally, but also importantly, Assembly is built to accommodate changing workplace realities as phased re-openings occur. Workplaces must be able to accommodate new types of spaces, such as collaborative corridors—defined as generous circulation paths with programmed areas—and “officles”—open variations on closed offices—to be formed. Other new types of spaces include neighborhoods, or small team zones, and mudrooms, where employees can sanitize and check-ins can occur before employees and guests enter the building.
The goal is to not only help tenants allow for ample social distancing, but aid in addressing changing space requirements over the next several years. In the near-term, Gensler estimates companies may need 260 square feet per person; that number will shift to 230 square feet in the mid-term and 170 square feet per person long-term as vaccines are introduced and the population—hopefully—reaches herd immunity. Assembly, according to Gensler and its development team, has the space to accommodate these spaces thanks to its layout. One-way circulation, intended to prevent congestion and close contact with others, is feasible at Assembly, as are office configurations due to its large floorplates.
“That horizontality is a real asset,” said Shah.
Experts are closely watching how companies are evaluating their space needs, with some predicting that those in the most urban locations will begin to look elsewhere for space. Satellite campuses and headquarters could become increasingly common as major companies look to be within close proximity of their employee bases, a trend which could serve developing submarkets like North San Jose well in the long-run. Additionally, added ProspectHill Group Partner Gambhir Kaushek, Assembly already features many of the items companies are looking for, even with its original design.
“COVID-19 has already accelerated a lot of trends that were already gradually happening, and many of these design features we have been speaking about for years,” said Kaushek. “I think one thing that will become increasingly re-appreciated is this suburban, large-site environment…I think companies in San Francisco already, perhaps elsewhere, are starting to rethink their commitments about urban locations.”
Assembly’s project team attributes its readiness to an early decision to play off the acreage of the property, maximizing not just indoor clear heights, but views and access to the outdoors in an effort to create a connected, walkable campus. The result is a development, according to the project team, that is largely ready for tenancy moving forward.
“All of that thought, it was on purpose rather than in reaction,” said SKS Managing Partner Dan Kingsley. “It really drove the overall design effort that Gensler led, and I think all of that comes back to benefit the project now.”