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The Commercial Building: What it is and what it should be

Based mainly on observation...

What the Commercial Building Is

When we discuss buildings, the first question is what kind of buildings we are taking about. A simple division is to separate buildings into structures primarily intended to house animals, inanimate objects and industrial processes, and buildings primarily intended to house people and human activities. The first group would include barns, sheds, warehouses, heavy industrial buildings housing machinery and such, while the second would include houses, apartment buildings, office buildings, shops, institutional buildings and some light industrial buildings, with workers tending relatively light machinery in an indoor environment.

There will of course be some crossover, with workshop sheds and large single storey retail spaces better classified with sheds and warehouses, and industries like newspapers combining offices and heavy machinery, but we will put this aside for now. Here we are concerned with the second group, buildings intended to house people and their activities, and in particular the special case of medium sized to relatively large buildings not primarily intended as single family dwellings, in town and city centres and suburban nodes.

These commercial buildings supply most of our office space and much of our retail space, a little of our apartment space and fill the important role of landmarks. These are the buildings that we spend much of our time in, and which define our urban areas. They are the buildings we must look at every day. These buildings represent a considerable portion of the energy used by our civilisation, and their substance contains much of the material we extract from this earth.

A large and long-lived building forms part of the cognitive map we keep of the places we know. We need landmarks to orient ourselves in any environment, and in an urban setting large, prominent, or arresting buildings will take on this role. The landmark role is especially important for buildings at major intersections, at the edges of open spaces, and in gateway conditions. For many of us the act of passing a building with a particularly strong presence marks the entering or leaving of place, irrespective of formal boundaries. A building intended to recede into the background is unlikely ever to become a landmark, while an especially bold, strong, characterful or striking building may become a landmark in spite of poor siting. As landmarks define the places that are meaningful to us, and especially the places we consider home, these buildings can become part of who we are.

While a building might be designed with a ground floor optimised for retail and the floors above set up as apartments or offices, we can be fairly sure that whatever it started out as, after fifty or so years it will likely be used differently, with a somewhat different set of tenants. After a century or more the occupancy will certainly be different, even if the ostensible activity of the building’s occupants is still the same. While the interior configuration of a house will usually be altered somewhat as lifestyles change, a commercial building will usually be changed more. An office fitout will rarely be kept for much more than ten or fifteen years, and shop interiors will tend to be changed as often. A commercial fitout is usually more than furniture and decor, it will include offices, meeting rooms, a kitchen and other sundry spaces, and when a new tenant moves in these will likely be reconfigured if it is at all economic to do so. Spaces will be amalgamated or subdivided as companies grow and shrink, and the same will go for ground floor shops. A given set of conditions might lead to demand for well presented boutiques and cafes, though the same area thirty years later might get better returns from a large-format retailer.

Apartments might be a little longer lived than office and retail space, but these change too. Not only do lifestyles change, but cities and markets change too, with growing affluence in a given part of town bringing a demand for larger, more luxurious apartments, while the decline of an area will lead to a demand for smaller cheaper spaces there. Good schools and parks might encourage family dwellings, while a university or business incubator nearby might encourage demand for studio apartments instead. A changing environment might see apartments being turned into office space, or a suitable office or industrial building converted into apartments.

A lot of resources go into constructing a large building. It might be twenty or thirty years old by the time it has paid for itself, and maybe a century before it has justified its embodied energy. While a building with wealthy tenants in a prosperous neighbourhood will tend to be well maintained, a building at a low-point in its life will be neglected. While areas do eventually recover, a badly run-down building may become uneconomic to repair, or become so shabby that its potential is no-longer apparent. A building that is durable, able to withstand periods of neglect and straightforward to repair has a much better chance of paying off its embodied energy.

Once we have finished putting energy into a building to construct it, we continue to input energy to operate it. When natural light is insufficient we electrically light our buildings, and where ventilation is insufficient, the air is too cold or too hot, we use fans, air conditioning and heating. There may be energy used to move people around with lifts and escalators. Over the life of a structure this energy use can be considerable, often more than the cost of construction. Good design can minimise energy demands, though approaches to energy efficiency that rely on gadgets installed late in the construction process, items that require user training and machinery of any complexity will tend to be short-lived compared to the rest of the building. Many such things will never get a chance to show their full potential, and will often not survive the building’s first refurbishment.

Then there is the issue of fashion. One of the reasons commercial fitouts get replaced each decade or so is simply that they go out of fashion. The ‘look’ which demonstrates that a space’s owner is aware of the ways of the world at the present moment will eventually cease to convey this meaning. A building fifteen to fifty years out of fashion will rarely be judged objectively on its aesthetic merits, and will usually simply be condemned as being dated or ugly. Consequently, many buildings which should still be considered young become second rate commercial space, losing value and income simply because their styling is no-longer current. A building may end up being modified to try and make it less unfashionable, often by simple expedients like removing architectural features that are not central to the functionality of the building, changing doors and hardware or adding a fashionable porch. More often than not the results are unfortunate, and in some cases spoil things enough that the building is demolished rather than rehabilitated after its original style has eventually begun to be appreciated again. If a building survives the decades of scorned unfashionableness it has a reasonable chance of being maintained indefinitely, but all too often a sound structure is discarded because its styling now repels more lucrative tenants. The waste caused by creating buildings that will go out of fashion is enormous, though it is rarely discussed, perhaps because the architectural profession and fashion conscious magazine editors would find it a challenge to their usual way of thinking and working.

What the Commercial Building Must Be

Clearly then, a good commercial building needs to address all of these issues. A large and long-lived building can become a landmark and even part of who we are. It must therefore be architecture, it must be beautiful and meaningful, at least to those who will occupy and use it. If its position is prominent it should be bold, and maintain a presence in the streetscape.

A good commercial building must be adaptable to whatever uses it will likely encounter, and its form and geometry should be accommodating to the most demanding of its potential uses. The governing factors here are of course good natural light, good natural ventilation, access to the outside air, good access to the street, and sufficient room for services and the means to readily alter them. Good natural light demands generous windows, high ceilings and nowhere in the building  too far from a window. Good natural ventilation can come from windows alone, but can be augmented by wind-scoops and vent stacks, using as much passive solar design as possible. Access to outside air is especially important if there are ever to be apartments in the building. At the very least there should be openable windows, but balconies or windows that can readily be turned into balconies are better. Balconies do not need to be large, especially if there is a shared rooftop or courtyard garden. Good access to the street really refers to the stairwell, lifts and entrance lobby. These must be robust, but they must also be beautiful and dignified if the building is ever to hold tenants who value such things.

Room for services needs to be provided in vertical chases with room to access them, and in plenum space between floor and ceiling. Most commercial buildings in the past sixty or so years have placed these services above a suspended ceiling, which in recent decades has usually been of tiles in a suspended grid. This is convenient for recessed light fixtures and ducted air conditioning systems, but means that plumbing and electrical systems which need to run under the floor where they must be accessed from the tenancy below. This is acceptable in office buildings, but can become very inconvenient when the building contains apartments, or for that matter any occupancy that may require plumbing fixtures at various locations on each floor. A raised floor system can be a little more expensive, but affords much greater flexibility in use through a building, with far less inconvenience to the occupants of other stories.

To be durable the architecture must be such that it continues to function well and remains beautiful even when neglected. The fittings and finishes subject to wear must be robust, and must be able to wear in a dignified manner. The building should be able to remain beautiful even when the paint is peeling and it is streaked with dirt. The building must be able to remain safe, weathertight and reasonably comfortable even when its systems have been poorly maintained for an extended period. It must be able to function well enough without its gadgets. The building must be such that the cost of returning it to health after a period of neglect is not prohibitive. As the recent earthquakes in Christchurch have illustrated, a building must be capable of resisting any natural disaster that it is likely to face in its lifetime. Most building codes are concerned primarily with life safety, and while compliance with seismic codes will ensure that a building doesn't collapse in the event of an earthquake, it may not be enough that the building is repairable after an earthquake. A considerably stronger than standard structure will cost a little more, but rarely a vast amount more, and it will likely pay for itself in cheaper insurance and appeal to nervous tenants. Earthquakes are unpredictable, and even a small earthquake can be extremely violent if close by. In Christchurch very few buildings collapsed under the enormous loads they were subjected to, but maybe half of the central city buildings were deemed too severely damaged to be economically repairable.

To be energy efficient in a robust fashion the primary energy efficiency systems have to be incorporated into the building’s architecture and primary structure. Most important is natural light, as described above in the form of adequate windows and nowhere too far from them, with sufficiently high ceilings to allow the windows to be tall enough. Most modern office buildings have ceilings that are far too low, being optimised for ducted air conditioning and florescent lighting. The ceilings in pre-war commercial buildings were never less than 2.7 metres high (and then only in small spaces), and were usually 3.0 to 3.6 metres high. Some better quality buildings had ceilings considerably higher than this, allowing for bigger, taller windows casting light deeper into the space. Lettable space was rarely more than 8.5 metres from a window, as this was considered to be the practical limit for sufficient daylight to work by. Natural ventilation must also be provided for, using passive solar principles (such as wind scoops and solar stacks) wherever practicable. It is not especially complicated to use the stairwell as an outlet duct. The stairway must be presented as a viable and pleasant alternative to the lifts, and should have natural light if at all possible. A roof may be optimised for water recycling, and if the roof is not to be steeply pitched a green roof is highly desirable. These items are probably the most significant factors in the energy efficiency of a building, and have the added bonus of not wearing out or breaking down and risking being replaced with something less efficient. These items are generally very difficult, very expensive or even impossible to retrofit into an existing structure.

In order that it not go out of fashion, a building must be timeless. That does not mean that new forms and motifs cannot be invented, but it does mean that we should be certain that our designs are beautiful and meaningful on their own terms, and not simply a pastiche of currently fashionable forms. Design magazines are an especially dangerous source of design ideas, as it is all too easy to be seduced by the novelty of an idea, or the ‘cutting edge’ sensibility lent by its context. Traditional architecture has at least stood the test of time, and generally having undergone at least one historical revival already, most architecture that can be ascribed a ‘style’ has already proven its adaptability to new circumstances. If a nameable style is not wanted, the general principles of traditional architecture can still be applied. Maintaining a human scale is essential. Even if the building is composed on a gargantuan scale with architectural elements several stories high, there must still be elements in that composition that visibly relate to the humans that will occupy it, especially in the parts that people will come directly into contact with.
James Carr - June 2012