The Innovators: Sasaki Principal Victor Vizgaitis
In this series, Bisnow highlights people and companies pushing the commercial real estate industry forward in myriad ways. Click here to read Q&As with all the innovators Bisnow has interviewed so far.
How do you rescue an office project threatened by the coronavirus pandemic? You pivot.
Office markets were devastated as employees were sent home in March with no return in sight. Vacancy rates and negative absorption soared, while companies increasingly put their spaces on the sublease market. Even as vaccinations become more widespread and back-to-work plans brew, researchers believe the gut-punch will be slow to subside.
The crisis was good to life sciences developers as record private and public funding poured into the field, skyrocketing demand in an already tight market. Evidence of the hot market is all over Boston’s Seaport, where rising developments and planned office conversions are expected to deliver millions of square feet for lab users.
The markets moving in opposite directions met at 401 Congress St., or 10 World Trade Boston, a 600K SF, 17-story office and lab tower in Boston’s Seaport. Originally tapped by lead developer Boston Global Investors as a full office project, investors pulled out last summer as developers were securing municipal approvals. In a move to attract investors, the developers decided to pivot to accommodate life sciences tenants.
“When Covid hit, our capital partner could no longer stomach a 600K SF speculative office building,” BGI Vice President John Hynes IV said. “We looked at it very intelligently, though we didn't want to completely start over and scrap the design that we had fallen in love with. And we were already so far along in the permits and approvals process as well.”
Building architect and Sasaki principal Victor Vizgaitis, a 27-year veteran of the industry, had his fair share of projects die in the past. Pivoting 10 World Trade Boston proved challenging in redesigning the building with the team during the pandemic. Keeping new healthy building technology in mind for the building itself, the typically hands-on Sasaki team had to learn how to design the project remotely.
“Before the pandemic, we always used to say, 'We’re doing architecture. It’s really important, but it’s not life or death,'” Vizgaitis said. “Now, everything you do becomes potentially a question of life or death. How are we meeting? How are we thinking of redesigning?”
Vizgaitis and his team redesigned the building to remove a floor from the interior, in response to lab tenants’ needs for taller ceilings and federal regulations limiting building heights near Boston’s Logan International Airport. Column-free, 42K SF floor plates in the original design made for flexible use, and the project’s ground floor touted by developers as a 40K SF public realm for passersby was kept intact.
The new plans, including 200K SF of lab space, 255K SF of office, 8K SF for cultural uses and 6,500 SF for retail, were quickly approved by the Boston Planning and Development Agency last fall, just months after the project was seemingly on its deathbed.
Hynes said a new potential investor for the $500M project is on the horizon, and he credits Vizgaitis and his team for putting the project back on track. That makes Sasaki and Vizgaitis a Bisnow innovator.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Bisnow: What were some of the unique aspects of 401 Congress' original design? What made the office portion of the building unique before the pivot?
Vizgaitis: It's not your typical walk-in office building lobby with a couple of people in blazers sitting behind a desk, and everyone else is meant to stay out, right? The public realm of the Seaport is kind of meant to flow through the entire building so that space becomes the lobby space and it also is public space. There is some of this great mixing of things happening. The idea is that you’re going to create these building for tenants who very much feel like they are in the middle of all the action, right? That they are at this great crossroads, that they are part of the vibrancy of the neighborhood and of Boston, I think is really important, as opposed to just being purely the hermetically sealed box office buildings tend to feel like.
Bisnow: Last year, when the pandemic hit, how far along were you in the development process?
Vizgaitis: When the pandemic hit, we were finishing up on the project. We were also very much in the approvals process with the city, the MBTA, MassPort and MassDOT. We wound up getting through all of our final approval conversations with all the different agencies virtually. Presentations, design presentations to the BPDA, all of those wound up happening over whatever remote platforms you want to use. Which, as you know, it's definitely more of a challenge when you’re trying to appeal to people. But actually, it wound up being incredibly successful.
Bisnow: How did you navigate working remotely with the development team and your own Sasaki team?
Vizgaitis: Honestly, we’re still doing that. It was just a question of how quickly can you adapt to that, what are the technologies we can adopt to ensure we communicate more easily. I think in the past year, I have had one in-person meeting with BGI, but that was just me, not the rest of my team.
Some of the pivot to shifting from an all-office focus to a hybrid life science-office focus, all had to happen virtually and digitally. It has been an interesting process. It certainly, I think, makes things a little less efficient, it takes more communication.
You have to be a little bit more convincing about how you draw, what graphics you use to convey information. You’re not there to just pick up the pencil if you need to. You don’t have the physical models present to use to explain things. It can be done, but is more challenging. Yes, we did get through it actually quite smoothly, all things considered.
Before the pandemic, we always used to say, 'We’re doing architecture, it's really important but it's not life or death.' Now, everything you do becomes potentially a question of life or death. How are we meeting? How are we thinking of redesigning places? All of these different things.
Bisnow: It seems every week or month there’s a new announcement of an office-to-lab pivot. What drove that decision to pivot on this project? I’m curious what challenges come with a pivot.
Vizgaitis: Just the uncertainty we were all going through, particularly in the office market, life sciences is crazy-hot everywhere. That was part of it. Making sure that investment partners wanted to be part of it — that was really the push or at least the initial catalyst. We were fortunate, we weren’t in construction yet. We were fortunate with the phase of the project we were in, we had basically gotten all of our time approvals.
We had managed to put together a design of a project that was intentionally very flexible in how it was, conceived and how it was laid out. Even though the geometry of the building looks very specific, it's actually very flexible in how the floors work.
We really focused on the bottom half of the building. There aren’t really any visible impacts to building, which is great. We were able to sort of rework how the mechanical infrastructure was going to happen at the top of the building to put a little bit more space up there than we had originally, while still keeping some of the tenant amenity space that had been there, to the top floor.
I think, just looking at the underside of the building where the public space is, you would never know that any of this had changed.
For me, one of the great attributes about life sciences and lab space in this building, when it was conceived of as an office building, the whole thing I said at the beginning about trying to create a piece that was tied into the public realm. When lab buildings are designed, people tend to think of them as 'this is a place for chemicals.' We forget that there are people working there. These are also places for people.
Bisnow: When the pandemic hit, what were some of the specific Covid or health-conscious implementations that maybe wouldn’t have happened in the initial design?
Vizgaitis: We’re still working on some of those details. There are going to be things that are a little bit more focused on easily cleanable materials. We’ve significantly increased the fresh air intake into the building to maximize ventilation, I think that’s been a real net positive impact.
Over the course of the past year, so much of it in the past year has been talked out in a series of Band-Aids, or minor measures that you are going to make. How are we going to keep all the desks 6 feet apart? Circulation? Nobody’s talking about these things anymore.
Bisnow: How has the pandemic changed your design process going forward? From the origin of this project, there was already a ‘Covid-friendly’ design. How is this going to shape your work going forward?
Vizgaitis: I am just thinking of other development projects we’re beginning to work on now, the push toward more connection to the outdoors. It was always a thing before, but I think now in the post-pandemic era, it is going to get so much more attention. Just the ability to have a connection to fresh air. These are the conversations that are going to be happening more and more.