As the stock market and economic confidence plummeted in 2008 and companies — uncertain about the future — retrenched, new building construction largely came to a halt. However, despite this pessimistic environment, some successful companies continued to thrive and grow; leases expired and some creative property owners took advantage of the opportunity of time and remaining market demand and shifted their focus from new ground-up construction to investments improving the underperforming existing assets in their real estate portfolios. At the same time, companies looking for a competitive edge realized that their workspaces must appeal to a new generation of knowledge workers who will create the groundbreaking new innovations that will fuel the new economy.
In the currently challenging commercial real estate market, the economics of repurposing an older structure are enticing for any company, be it a small startup or a large established international corporation. What may have begun as a scrappy response to a distressed real estate market — renovating and repurposing older, underutilized buildings — has turned out to deliver remarkably creative results, in some cases culminating in unexpectedly exciting new work environments that would not have arisen from conventional new ground-up construction. Two examples demonstrate how different companies realized their new headquarters buildings by uniquely repurposing existing buildings.
Repurposing a Warehouse into a “New Age” Biotech Theater
Many advances in new, innovative biological, pharmaceutical, and medical technology emerge from small startup ventures, which, by their nature, attract particular creative talents and a fresher employee demographic. To successfully attract those talents, the new workplace must exude creativity and innovation. Ironically, the unique architectural character resulting from repurposing an existing historical building can greatly enhance a space designed for a cutting-edge research organization.
For example, Aileron Therapeutics, a Cambridge, Mass.-based startup, was established in 2005 to conduct research on stapled peptides — complex molecular structures that allow medications to attach to specific sections of human cells. By 2008 Aileron had acquired significant funding and was poised to expand its staff. Therefore, a new facility, including office and laboratory space, was necessary.
The discovery and development of innovative new products are the lifeblood of a life sciences company. Observing that the sterility of the high-tech environment and focus on process efficiency at many “big pharma” research laboratories are failing to result in real innovation, Aileron’s leadership instead sought a creative work environment, inspired by a romantic vision of a SoHo artist’s loft, that was the embodiment of their startup culture. After touring a series of uninspiring and unfulfilling conventional real estate options, they turned their eyes instead to an unlikely and nondescript warehouse in downtown Cambridge that essentially provided a blank palette.
To ensure the transformation from a rough, raw, concrete industrial shell of a building into a modern biotech space that reflected their vision, Aileron management retained the KlingStubbins design team to craft their renovation. Because the nature of the lab’s research required collaboration, the workspace had to facilitate teamwork, allowing different scientific disciplines to overlap and interact. In addition, potential investors and licensing partners would be frequent visitors to Aileron, so a “wow-factor” had to resonate throughout the environment with the excitement of fast-paced research, scientific equipment, and robotic devices — employing a sort of biotech “theater.”
Crafting the Dream Lab
Working with the bones of the building’s exterior, and stripping away a few layers of unfortunate later renovations, the design team reconfigured the building entrance to face an adjacent vacant lot that was then converted to parking. A new steel entry canopy clearly identifies the new entrance, complete with stair and ramp providing a new, accessible entrance. Large new exterior windows were cut into the bricks and mortar of the existing exterior, allowing natural daylight to penetrate deeply into the building.
Inside, a new wood, plaster, and glass entry lobby replaced the existing bare concrete block walls. The theme of transparent views through glass walls is then repeated throughout all the office and laboratory spaces. Circulation pathways connecting nearly every lab, workspace, office, and meeting room throughout the building are bordered by transparent glass views, fostering a culture of communication, transparency, and serendipitous interaction. A visitor en route to a conference room, or an employee arriving for work, is immersed in the culture and activity of many of the company’s operations just by walking these pathways.
Although the open laboratory spaces are centrally located, and thus away from the exterior windows, large interior windows allow views and daylight to penetrate into those interior spaces. As if taking a cue from this adaptive reuse, the laboratories were designed with mobile casework that can be easily moved and reconfigured as needed. This flexibility enables reorganization of research teams and repurposing of spaces without requiring even more renovation or downtime from major moves. Throughout, the high bays remain unfinished — there are no suspended ceilings here. Not only do the tall, open volumes permit daylight to penetrate far into the building, but they also create an open, spacious character that is anything but confining.
Many of these design features could have been attempted in a conventional new building, but there is something intangibly authentic about an historic building that is essential in casting the raw creativity expressed by the space. Furthermore, unique architectural features, e.g., the unusually tall ceiling, would not be viewed as practical or affordable in new construction. In the end, this renovation was a win for both the tenant, who realized a unique result on a tight budget, and the building owner, who now realizes a greatly improved return on a previously underperforming investment.
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