Starboard Commercial Real Estate

Hans Hansson | September 1, 2011

Office tenant improvements are a specialized niche that require specialized expertise. The architect must often negotiate between the tenant's goals and the landlord's. With a typical 5-year lease, most landlords want a space designed so it is generic enough to accommodate the next tenant with as little rework as possible, while most tenants want a space that is unique to their needs.

A large landlord that owns many buildings will usually have building standards for each building, developed with the assistance of an architect, which determine the products and system requirements that should be utilized within the space, such as the type of the suspended acoustical ceiling system, light fixtures, doors, door hardware, interior window frames, window treatments, etc. In most cases, the landlord must maintain the tenant space, and it would be inefficient to stock 20 different types of replacement light fixtures for 20 different tenants.

In most large, multi-tenant office buildings, interior partitions or walls generally stop at the ceiling so that the suspended ceiling grid is not broken. If walls penetrate the ceiling thus breaking the grid, the ceiling grid in the entire suite would need to be replaced when the wall layout is changed for the next tenant. Even the direction of the ceiling grid in different suites is pre-determined so that as suite demising walls are moved, the ceilings still align. This approach means that acoustical privacy between rooms must be addressed with batt insulation or vertical sound blankets above the walls in the plenum space. Moreover, light fixtures, which lay in the ceiling grid system, will not be centered in each room as is aesthetically ideal, because the ceiling grids are not centered in each room. Yet, this approach reduces the cost of relocating walls for the needs of different tenants. Still, when walls are demolished and relocated, HVAC vents and sprinkler heads within the ceiling must be relocated, the carpet must be replaced, and adjacent wall surfaces must be patched as demolished walls leave scars in the flooring material and adjacent walls, even if not in the ceiling.

Architects unfamiliar with the need for flexibility might design interior partitions to penetrate the ceiling, centering ceiling grids and light fixtures in each room. They may likely specify specialized light fixtures, vary the ceiling heights for specialty areas, design drywall ceilings and soffits, clerestory windows in interior partitions, floor tile, and more. These are typical features in many stand-alone projects, yet not in office buildings where consistency is key. Yet even with these restrictions, a good architect can design a space that is visually interesting, attracts customers, and promotes productivity.

Tenants will usually have a choice in carpet and paint colors. Since most carpets will only last the length of the lease, and paint is inexpensive, landlords expect to change these items between tenants anyway. Most important, however, the tenants, with the help of an architect, typically drive the space layout so that it meets their functional needs. An understanding of exiting codes is important when space planning. Most office buildings have a number of suites along the outside perimeter of the building off a fire-rated corridor that leads to two-fire rated stairwells on each floor. The corridor and stairwells are part of the building "core" which also includes the elevator shafts, elevator lobby restrooms, and mechanical and electrical rooms on each floor. Most corridors are a Z-shape, but many make a complete loop around the core. On floors that have only one tenant, a corridor may not be needed at all. The boundaries of the corridor are usually pre-determined, however, if the corridor must be shortened or lengthened to accommodate a new suite entry or exit door, there are a few considerations. The corridor must, at a minimum, connect the two stairwell doors which will be on opposite sides of the building core, and, in general, cannot extend further than 50 feet past the stairwell door on either end, a condition called a "dead-end corridor," unless it makes a complete loop.

The boundaries of a tenant space are also, more times than not, pre-determined. Yet it is also common to change the demising wall locations between separate suites or eliminate walls and combine two or three suites into one. When doing so, it is important that the "leftover" suite is marketable and code-compliant, and is a space the landlord will be able to lease as well as the one currently in lease negotiations. A suite over 50 occupants requires two exits. Calculating the occupancy of a suite is beyond the scope of this article, but this generally equates to a suite that is about 4,000 useable square feet assuming there are no extra-large conference rooms within the suite. When two exits are required, they must be a certain distance apart from one another, so that all of the occupants of a suite do not rush towards the same area in the event of an emergency. The distance between exits must be at least half of the longest dimension within the suite. For example, if a suite's dimension from corner to corner is 104 feet, then the exits must be at least 52 feet apart. This requirement is sometimes difficult to achieve based on the configuration of the corridor. If the corridor cannot be modified, and the distance between exits is impossible to achieve, then the size of the suite must be reduced. Alternatively, a suite can be divided into two suites with a fire-rated wall between them and "communicating" doors connecting them so that they can be occupied by the same tenant. However, this is usually not conducive to a tenant’s space needs. Fortunately, due to proper corridor design, it is rare that the exiting requirement cannot be met. When it does occur, it is usually at suites located at the ends of the corridor where only one suite entry door is possible.

In general, a 44 inch pathway must be provided from all points within a suite to the exit door or doors. In some cases, the pathway can be 36 inches where only a small number of people would utilize the pathway. If there are file cabinets along a pathway, the required width cannot be encumbered by the open file drawers, so pathways must be designed much wider to accommodate file cabinets. Occupants are only allowed to pass through one intervening room before getting to the fire-rated corridor. This eliminates the possibility of having a maze-like space that is difficult to escape in the case of an emergency. Finding an exit must be easy to accomplish.

A few more miscellaneous considerations: The materials used must be designed for commercial use so that they are fire-rated and UL-tested. Light fixtures should be located so that they provide adequate light for each area based on the use – this usually equals about one 2×4 light fixture for every 80 square feet – while also meeting California's strict Title 24 energy efficiency constraints. Doors must be 36 inches wide, because a 32 inch clear space is required when the door is open which the width of the door and door handle cannot protrude into. Reception desk transaction counters must have a portion that is no higher than 32 inches high. Break Room countertops shall also be no higher than 32 inches high. Break Room sinks must have ADA-compliant sinks and base cabinets that allow a person in a wheelchair to pull up under the sink. Power outlets must be at least 18 inches high off the floor. In older office buildings, it is common to see power outlets at different heights, because of the changing codes. When the budget allows, I recommend raising them all to 18 inches high for visual consistency.

Those are the basics, and will hopefully serve a new designer, a layperson, or a commercial real estate broker well when first considering how a space could be designed. Having designed nearly 1,000 office tenant improvements for large landlords such as The Irvine Company, Equity Office, and Bank of America, I can share this general overview for designing tenant improvements in office buildings in California where I am a licensed architect. Not every possible situation or exception to the rule is covered, but this article covers the basic technical and process-oriented issues to consider. For more information on design with a capital "D", please see our other articles at

Starboard TCN is posting this article on its website and blog with the approval of Garcia Architects.

Garcia Architects specializes in commercial interiors & construction management.
Posted 1 week, 6 days ago on September 1, 2011
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