When flexibility just isn’t enough. How developers are gearing up to deliver more to a new breed of occupier

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For some time now, the key to future-proofing space has been flexibility. And for good reason. After decades of rigid, unmalleable structures pigeonholing buildings into silos dictated by asset class and occupier requirements, flexible space became the neat, silver bullet everyone was looking for.

Spaces that can ebb and flow, shrink and grow in step with an ever-evolving string of occupiers have, quite literally proven their worth. Flexibility fosters both longevity and value. A space or a building that is designed to stand the test of time without the need for a continuous stream of major overhauls will be more attractive to tenants and investors alike and should result in fewer carbon emissions.

But what happens when flexibility isn’t enough? I should rephrase that. What happens now that flexibility isn’t enough?

Developers all over the world, particularly those delivering large-scale projects with long lead-in times, are facing the daunting prospect of ensuring their schemes are fit for purpose for a new breed of occupier down the line. A breed so complex it will likely be one of the most demanding the real estate sector has ever had to cater for. Why? Because it doesn’t exist yet. 

We are going through a period of rapid change, seismic technological shifts, and an exponentially fast-moving landscape in terms of how we live and work. This will result in a swathe of new, as yet unknown tenants - maybe an asset class or two. The problem is that no one knows for sure who they will be or what they will need from their space.

In this scenario, flexibility can no longer cut it. That’s not to say it doesn’t matter. It does. But truly future-proofed space will require something altogether more complex. Adaptability.

Flexibility is short term, says Peter Runacres, Head of Urban Futures at The Earls Court Development Company (and CREtech London 2024 speaker) which is currently gearing up to submit planning for a 40-acre mixed use scheme in the heart of London. Adaptability, he adds, requires shifting focus from the interiors and inner workings of a space and focusing rather on the permanent structure and surrounding infrastructure. Given ECDC hopes to get the first spade in the ground by 2026 at the earliest - and that's just for phase one - adaptability is where the scheme’s long-term resilience lies.  “We need to make sure the buildings themselves, the built environment elements of it, are truly adaptable,” says Runacres. “Not flexible, which is more for the short-term. Although they need to be that as well. But what you want is good bones to the buildings. That's how we can start to protect the built environment before we know what is coming.

“It's also about getting the right infrastructure in place to start off with. One of the reasons we went for the ambient loop over any other district heating system was because it is completely additive. So any new technology, any form of waste energy, any new ways of creating energy - we can use it on this system. We are future-proofing the energy security of the site and the site's ability to deliver and use new forms of energy or low carbon energy.”

Resilience on this scale has been done before. Think back to the emergence of Big Tech and the redevelopment of King’s Cross becomes a prime example. Now a hub for tech companies including Google, Meta and DeepMind, 75% of the occupiers currently on site didn’t exist before 1998 when early plans were being formulated. The key to attracting them despite this? Adaptability, says another CREtech London 2024 speaker, Roger Madelin who led the project at Argent where he was chief executive from 1997. He joined British Land in 2016 to head up the developer’s 53-acre Canada Water regeneration and, once again, adaptable space is right at the top of his agenda.

“At Canada Water we envisage ‘warehouses for the 21st Century’ that can be adapted and changed over time but, from day one, make brilliant workspaces,” he says. “All of the office buildings that we are bringing forward go through an adaptation test for workspace, higher education, labs, health care, hotels.”

Then there is The Universal Building, an AHMM-designed structure on the site that Madelin says can be used for “pretty much any of those uses, or a mix” and The Grand Press – a workspace and cultural venue planned as part of a reinvention of the old Printworks building. The latter, to reiterate Runacres’ comment, has good bones. 35-year-old bones, adds Madelin. Proof that adaptability really does stand the test of time. “The office extension to the Printworks is very adaptable. The concrete frame attached to the press halls could not have been designed better for adaptabiliy… Proper planning and preparation does pay off in the long term.”

For many, delivering adaptability on this scale won’t be within their power or control. Then, by the same token, there aren’t many people developing sites spanning 53 acres in the centre of a global metropolis.

That’s not to say Runacres’ thoughts on ensuring spaces are fit for purpose whoever your future tenants might be are not applicable beyond the realms of large-scale development across the wider sector.

“We're still not going to get everything right,” he says. “But how can you make things as mixed-use as possible? That’s the question.”

What will unfold over the coming years will follow the same pattern as any big shift or evolution. Particularly in real estate. There will be leaders, learners and laggards. And those left behind will suffer.

As the saying goes, adapt or… well, you know the rest. 

Don’t miss Peter, Roger and many other C-Suite stars on our Main Stage at CREtech London 2024. Use my discount code EMILY20 to save on your All-Access pass. Register here

- Emily

Emily Wright

Head of Content

CREtech

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