In Defense of "B" and "C" Class Office Buildings
Many of our cities are seeing a glut of “B” and “C” Class office buildings, office buildings that lack the amenities or spatial qualities of an “A” Class Office Building. Throughout the 20th century, there was a mindset to demolish and rebuild to current standards. While the standards surrounding usage and desire-abilities of office space may have evolved, the integral format of an office building now in the 21st century hasn’t changed fundamentally since the office building’s inception in the late 19th century. Further, the nature of how this part of our economy works: how we network, how we conduct meetings, how we produce office billables, has changed with the virtual office. While the standards that define an “A” Class building continually evolve, what of the “B’ and “C” class buildings?
The study of history holds a great many answers, architecture and real estate practices not being immune. For this, I’ll draw on the example of one of the world’s first office buildings, Chicago’s Monadnock Building. The Monadnock (where I had my office for a time) was built in 1891 with a subsequent addition in 1893. The original 1891 wing is a sixteen storey building built of load bearing masonry. For the time, it was an inexpensive method of construction. Building with brick was simple: one increases the wall thickness by a brick at each floor to carry the weight of the building above. For a sixteen floor building, the walls at the ground floor became six feet thick. The 1893 wing was built of structural steel clad with terra cotta to look like masonry. By the nature of steel frame construction, it contained far more usable floor area. Both 1891 and 1893 wings were all of 68 feet (not quite 21 metres) wide to allow for natural sunlight, as commercially available electric lighting was only available by tungsten filament light bulbs at the time; and to allow for natural ventilation, as commercially available air conditioning systems weren’t available until sometime after WW2. Still, both sides of the building contained vintage mechanical, plumbing and electrical services .
By today’s standards
From a leasing standpoint, the Monadnock Building would seem to be a dinosaur of sorts. By the 1970’s, the real estate market in Chicago’s Loop was changing. There was an effort to bring the Monadnock “up to date” and make its configuration as compatible as possible to “A” Class standards. Try as one may, on a city block this narrow, and without onsite parking, this was a daunting challenge. A solution was proposed that “eviscerated” the Monadnock: gutting interior features and inserting a modern steel structure within the exterior walls, which would be retained. Financing was unavailable for this scheme, so the building owner chose to “restore in phases”. Capital programs intended to modernize the building - in force since 1938 – were reversed with this strategy. In that the modernizations over the previous forty years aspired to bring the Monadnock in line with what was then considered “modern” and “up to date”, the modernizations presented whatever had been deemed current at the time they were constructed during that forty year period. They were dated.
From this point onwards, a system of restoration took place. It took an awful lot of brick pointing, but it was much less expensive than replacing the building’s structure. The Monadnock restoration scheme saw to return various parts of the building to their original condition, namely frosted glass walls at public corridors on the office floors for lighting, and transom windows over doors for ventilation. An updated electrical and communication system was necessary. This tact took not only a lot of masonry pointing, but finesse in working the building code. While the Monadnock remained as a solid “B” class office building, the restoration was inexpensive enough where economically it made a lot of sense.
I’m sure that one could make many arguments against retaining “B” and “C” class buildings, yet we seem not to listen to the answers:
- The leasing efficiency of any given floor must be horrible and is probably very uneconomical to justify.
- Yet, since “B” and “C” class buildings already exist and only require maintenance, the construction costs are substantially less than demolishing existing and building new.
An older building must be an energy hog.
While there are many energy efficient retrofits available for an existing building, the most compelling argument is that of carbon embedded in an existing building: it takes energy to build a building. Some call it “embedded carbon”. If a building is to be demolished to build a new building, the energy embedded in the existing building is wasted, and energy is expended not only to demolish the existing building, but to build the replacement. From a purely economic cost / benefit argument, that’s a lot of energy a new building needs to save to justify demolition and new construction.
Class “B” and “C” office buildings don’t provide up to date amenities.
Perhaps, but we seem to go through those amenities very quickly, it’s a continual game of catch up. Could we simply live with somewhat outdated amenities? Many, but not all, business could. Just today, I discussed a proposal with a consultant in a coffee shop, and we will both work on this from distant offices, not physically meeting but collaborating online. Do we need “A” Class office space for that? Further, “A” Class office buildings simply become “B” class buildings at some point in their lives. To continually keep building buildings just to tear them down is exceptionally wasteful.
The kinds of businesses that work best in “B” and “C” class space are growth businesses for Edmonton.
As evidence – using the Monadnock Building again as example - the major tenant that first moved back into the restored Monadnock was a start up company that became the investment trading giant, Morningstar. They needed cheap office space to start up, and with more and more office functions happening outside of traditional office configurations, start up businesses are in need of “B” and “C” class space. The types of businesses that look for “B” and “C” class space tend to support those businesses in “A” class space, and these “B” and “C” class spaces offer lower overhead and capitalization costs that make them very attractive.
Here's a video from the Chicago Architecture Foundation about tenants in the Monadnock, and how they represent a growth market for Chicago:
I for one, crave “B” and “C” class space for my office.
As a “B” Class office building, the Monadnock provided space to a strong and growing market of upstart companies. As example – my practice could never work in a Class A office tower. It doesn’t require the large amount of space necessary to make a deep floor plate work. My space needs work best in a shallow floorplate configuration, like the kind one finds in a “B” or “C” class building.
As I write from Edmonton, Alberta, and even considering office space available in Calgary: those “B’ and “C” class buildings can present highly desirable spaces. Office buildings built during the post war oil boom present absolutely incredible mid century modern design opportunities. I can think of a couple buildings that still have 1960’s vintage office suites. Buildings built prior to WW2 have a certain classical charm. With a bit of help – reusing embedded energy by supplementation and renovation rather than replacement – “B” and “C” class buildings are highly desirable for many, but not all businesses.
This, just as “A” Class buildings are highly desirable for many, but not all businesses, “B” and “C” class buildings represent a healthy mix of space, necessary for any city to attract business. Destroy the “B” and “C” class buildings, and an entire host of opportunities necessary to sustain a city’s business have disappeared. How does a city like that survive?
Written by Darrel G. Babuk, Architect AAA, NCARB, MRAIC is Principal of Boreas Architecture & Civic Design, Inc, an Alberta based architectural practice that does projects like renovate and restore “B” and “C” Class buildings, among many other projects with existing buildings and heritage sites.