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Community Matters More Than Ever, So Is It Time To Rethink Birmingham Offices?

A sense of place is easy to spot: You know it when you see it. Green oases like Birmingham's St Phillips Cathedral in the midst of the Colmore Row office district have plenty of it. Yet creating a sense of place is the most difficult task in property, and faking it never works.

Ahead of the Birmingham State of the Market event on 26 April, we asked city landlords if amenity in Birmingham now means more than a coffee machine or a cycle rack.

Birmingham Cathedral: a green oasis at the heart of the Colmore Row office district

Residential developers have long struggled with creating community and neighbourhood — but now Birmingham office landlords are grappling with the issue.

The result has been a rash of what Knight Frank call "life-style focused" office developments. The Lewis Building, Snowhill and Paradise Circus are all aiming to create a sense of place that goes beyond break-out spaces and an in-house gym. It is costly and time-consuming, but is it working?

Brocton Capital co-founder David Marks is not sure it always is. Brockton, owners of the Mailbox since 2011, recently scored a 47K SF letting to engineering consultants WSP, and said amenity now extends well beyond the familiar check-list of facilities.

“Office workers want experiences in the way standalone office developments struggle to provide. A Starbucks outlet on the ground floor really doesn’t cut it anymore,” Marks said.

A Sense of Place = Not Dreary

Virgile + Partners' rethink of the Harvey Nichols department store, Mailbox, Birmingham

"[Occupiers want] community and to see things happening,” Marks said. “This is the same spirit as motivates the co-working trend — people want to cluster with others who have like minds, not just with people from their own firm, certainly not just with people they see on the other side of the office five days a week.”

The answer is a radically mixed environment of the kind the Mailbox offers: shops, hotels, film, food and beverage, and including high-gloss names like Harvey Nichols.

“The test is to see what somewhere looks like at 6.30pm on a cold, wet November evening. Some popular Birmingham office locations are deserted — maybe a few stand-up boozers on the corner, but it's dark and depressing,” Marks said. “What occupiers increasingly want is a place which doesn’t make you want to hurry off home.”

A Sense of Place = Places People Want To Be

Interior at the Colmore Building

There is still plenty of work to do inside buildings to foster a sense of community. The 1K SF ground floor shared space in Ashby Capital's 307K SF Colmore Building is about to be doubled, and it is a sign of the times, Ashby Capital Chief Executive Peter Ferrari said.

“The aim has to be to create buildings that are places people want to be. So we launched the café at Colmore Building, taking lettable office space, space we could have let at £30/SF, so we’re giving away £30K a year because we can see the benefit of that, so much so we’re now doubling its size. And we certainly aren’t the only landlord now looking at their Birmingham office buildings in a totally different way," Ferrari said.

A Sense of Place = Co-Working, Scaled Up

Focus: The gym at Colmore Building

Ferarri said mainstream landlords are learning the lessons of co-working.

“Increasingly we have to focus on our buildings as communities — a community of tenants which includes workspace but also includes spaces to meet, to get away from the desk, into all kinds of environments whether it’s the gym or the café or other informal spaces after work.”

There is also a hectic round of social and networking events, from table tennis to wellness week.

“For this co-work approach to work you need scale — we have 10 tenants, 300K SF, and that gives you the scale you need to make everything from treatment rooms to events, workable,” Ferrari said. “The fact is that younger people want more — they have more fluid lives, they want to have fun.”

The reinvention of community in office space has not stopped yet: co-working trends, employment demographics and the remorseless changes wrought by new technology could still turn the office world upside down.

Even so, one thing is clear from both the Ashby and Brockton experiences: in the future, the more landlords focus on what human beings like best, the more successful their office buildings will be.

Join Bisnow 26 April for the Birmingham State of the Market event by registering here.