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Build it and they will come” – Tips on designing flexible speculative industrial buildings.

In February of 1849, a contingent of US Army Engineers sailed down the west coast of Florida and surveyed the mouth of Tampa Bay for the feasibility of establishing a coastal defense position there. No fortifications immediately arose from that effort on the pre-Civil War coastline, but a lighthouse was constructed on Egmont Key, an island flanking the bays entrance. A young army Colonel, Robert E. Lee, was one of those surveyors. The Lighthouse still stands today.

The onset of hostilities in Cuba with the Spanish American War in 1898, along with pressure from the citizens of Tampa and big Railroad interests, ultimately persuaded the Secretary of War to order the construction of fortifications at the mouth of Tampa Bay. Construction on the fortifications began in earnest on both sides of the mouth of the bay. Fort Dade was built on Egmont Key to the South of the channel, Fort De Soto on the North Flank, called Mullet Key. Due to its proximity to Cuba and its port facilities, Tampa became the port of embarkation for U.S. troops and supplies going to the Caribbean war zones. Apparently, another reason for deciding to fortify Tampa Bay was the little known fact that Tampa was the shipping point for much of the clandestine weaponry being supplied to the rebels in Cuba, and Spain probably knew it.

The war lasted only ten weeks. A military presence, however, continued to persist at Ft. De Soto. Guns were installed in 1902, and a full blown base continued operations until it was closed in 1922. Consisting of now densely overgrown, sand covered concrete bunkers, the fort maintained batteries of 12” mortars, some of which are still there. The Forts guns were never fired in combat, and no invading Navy ever sailed towards its defenses. But it was built, nonetheless. Ft. De Soto is now a State park, and an interesting place to visit. Ft. Dade is now mostly submerged beneath the Gulf of Mexico, and is also an interesting place to visit.

Generally speaking, developers of speculative Industrial buildings do not run the risk of confronting marauding Navies. But risk is a very real component of the speculative development game, and the building itself can play a part in the minimizing of that risk.

As Architects, we are not typically very involved in the process of analyzing the risk in these projects. We don’t do the analysis that tells a developer what to build and where, but it is helpful to keep a few concepts in mind about what a typical speculative developer is thinking when they commission an Industrial or Office project. I spoke with an experienced Broker/Developer client recently about this process and she had a number of points about how it happens. “I’ll always start by determining the size of a given market, usually by analyzing things like leasing velocity. This goes along with a thorough supply and demand study.” These concepts, along with analysis of things like current lease rates, identifying niches within markets, and looking at projects currently in the pipeline, are some of the ways Developers assess whether or not to build at a specific time and place.

In designing spec buildings for the industrial market(s), it is useful for Architects to start with a few basic parameters that will always be key stats for an Industrial project:

  1. Clear Height
  2. Bay spacing
  3. Building Depth
  4. Loading arrangement
  5. Demising strategy

These five basic parameters will be tweaked from target market to target market, usually with lots of direction from the Developer and or Broker on a spec project .Much “hand wringing” is often undertaken when trying to determine the best depth for a building, or how to set the entries up for flexible demising. Current trends among spec building configurations are all about flexibility and maximum utility for the shell building elements. My Developer friend weighed in on configuring a shell for spec by offering this advice – “No landlord really ever prefers a single bay user, everyone can use a ramp, even if they don’t know it, and there’s never enough parking.” This sentiment provides some strong clues to planning spec industrial buildings and so I’ll offer a few tips:

  1. Plan entry features that work well with a minimum 2 bay user.
  2. Consider using a ramp as the retaining wall on each end of a building to transition down to loading dock height.
  3. Try to get double loaded parking on each end of a building footprint where possible.
  4. Consider electrical conduit stub ups to every other bay for minimizing the impact of future electrical work on existing tenants.
  5. Consider ESFR fire protection for maximum flexibility.
  6. Centralize electrical service location where possible.
  7. Keep these sizes in mind: 3000-4000 sf is a small bay user, 6000-8000 sf is medium sized, and bay sizes 10,000 sf and up are often called “bulk” users.
  8. Tailor building elements to appeal to the most number of users within the target market. (For example, small bay user buildings may not need a big electrical service, but often do need more electrical flexibility).
  9. Plan exit doors in a shell building with an eye towards typical warehouse racking layouts and functionality.
  10. Provide the ability to easily “cut-in” or Knock-out” for future elements where it makes sense, like ventilation openings, larger overhead doors, or future windows.

Utilizing these ideas when building a speculative Industrial project will not guarantee that tenants will come flocking to the building of course. The project still has to be based on strong Market analysis, and, oh, there’s that “location, location, location” thing. If everything aligns properly though, the decision on what, when, and where to build becomes much less risky. Designing the building to appeal to the most potential users within a market, or easily adapt to the most potential users, will play an important role in deciding whether or not to take the risk.

At least we don’t have to rely on the “Secretary of War” to make the decision.

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Published on September 11, 2015

Topics: Industrial

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