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Will 2021 Bring a Return to The Office?


With the pandemic upending where and how we work, developers are preparing for the eventual return to the office with designs that cater to the new demands and expectations of tenants and their employees. Look for boutique buildings, hospital-grade air- and surface-sanitization systems, touchless tech, and biophilic elements to be in high demand as companies large and small consider how their space will be used, and perceived, by current and prospective employees.

At the recently completed Fulton East in Chicago's Fulton Market District, developer Parkside Realty, Inc. pivoted at the beginning of the pandemic to reposition the 12-story, 90,000-square-foot building as the nation's first office property designed for the post-COVID-19 era, with hands-free elevators and a state-of-the-art air- and surface-cleaning system. Biophilic design elements intended to promote health and wellness include floor-to-ceiling windows that allow light to filter into open floor plates, private terraces on every floor and an 8,000-square-foot rooftop garden and meeting space for shared tenant use.

"We know people will want to get back to the office for in-person, face-to-face connection and collaboration, so our development team quickly reinvented Fulton East to be a first-class model of the health-and-wellness environment tenants now desire so their employees feel safe and comfortable," says Bob Wislow, chairman and CEO of Parkside Realty, Inc. "Fulton East combines biophilic design elements with high-tech health features and private parking — all in a small-building footprint that is easy for employees to access and has significantly less foot traffic than a high-rise."

In Chicago's Loop, developer Moceri + Roszak retrofitted 145 S. Wells, a 20-story, 210,000-square-foot office building completed in 2019, with a state-of-the-art HVAC system to help prevent the transmission of COVID-19 in individual office suites and common areas. Prospective tenants also appreciate their ability to customize each floor of the building, which was built on a speculative basis.

"We have been working with employers looking to build out a space with proper social distancing, extra meeting rooms and multiple café areas, which they may not have previously considered," says Tom Roszak, FAIA, principal of Moceri + Roszak and founder and principal of Thomas Roszak Architecture, which designed the building. "145 S. Wells also offers touchless entry from the lobby to tenant floors, as well as private balconies on select floors and outdoor amenity spaces like the Terrace Lounge, which features numerous tables and seating areas."

Technologies and amenities that were nice-to-haves before the pandemic have quickly become must-haves in the eyes of today's office users. As such, they're featured prominently in marketing materials for developments like 2017 N. Mendell, a 62,000-square-foot loft office redevelopment near the 55-acre Lincoln Yards development on Chicago's North Side. "While 2017 N. Mendell offers an outdoor art gallery and rooftop deck overlooking the Chicago River, tenants care just as much, if not more, about features they can't see, such as the plasma and blue light technology we are using to sanitize the spaces of airborne and surface pathogens, whether bacterial or viral," says Dan Slack, principal at Baker Development Corp., which developed 2017 N. Mendell in 2018. "The building's boutique size and location outside of the downtown core, with ample parking and proximity to The 606 trail, were always selling points but resonate especially now as companies look to de-densify their work environments."

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