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TREND: Office Building Owners Leaning on Spec Suites as Strategy for Leasing Up (Dyer Brown) 

With vacancies in Class-A office buildings still higher than normal, many owners have been scrambling to try to lease up. Recently, the commercial real estate experts at national design firm Dyer Brown noticed they were handling nearly twice as many requests as usual for build-outs of spec suites — finished turnkey office spaces with staged furniture that also serve as model units and marketing assets. So, they decided it was time to find out why.
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The Boston- and Atlanta-based firm combed over its years of experience in delivering upgrades for office properties and helping owners strategize for full occupancy. Heather Stanley and Kara Hanson, both interior designers and studio leaders with Dyer Brown, had a deep bench of friendly clients who would take their calls and answer probing questions. They soon learned that there was consensus forming around how the market had changed since the pandemic, what potential tenant firms were now looking for, and why landlords choose certain building spaces for creating spec suites over others.For example, a seasoned property manager at Cushman & Wakefield, James Russell, told them, “Some vacant areas need it more than others. When we get back third-generation space originally rented in the 1990s, we find less marketability, especially with so much desirable sublease space currently on the market.” Russell also notes that some office building floors or spaces show well without a spec-suite buildout if they are on the “good side of the building, with nice views and natural light.”
The most difficult areas to lease get the full spec-suite installations, he says, while more attractive suites may just get “white-boxed” — stripped back and painted a light neutral color.

These insights drive consulting and design decisions for Dyer Brown, too. “Our team values client engagement and research highly, and we consider them elemental to good architecture and interior design,” says Heather Stanley, NCIDQ, a senior associate with Dyer Brown and a leader in the firm’s Asset Design + Support studio, known as AD+S among real estate insiders. "Most important, on the demand side there are more choices for leasing than ever in recent memory, so leasing up means thinking and acting strategically to anticipate renter needs,” Stanley adds, adding a few other key points that have emerged from Dyer Brown’s own surveys and informal focus groups on best-practice property marketing and spec suites:
  • Location is still the key. For assets in neighborhoods where prospective tenant firms are more likely to have deep pockets, white-boxing will often be wiser than investing in spec suite build-outs.
  • Invest in design strategically. As the property manager noted above, old or tired spaces don’t show well, especially on lower floors that don’t get as much sunlight, so they may need the spec-suite treatment.
  • Aim for broad appeal. Contemporary finish and material palettes show best and have widest appreciation among potential lessees.
  • Less is more. “Since adding a wall or a feature is easier than demolishing one, designs for spec suites should be as open as possible,” says Kara J. Hanson, IIDA, who works alongside Stanley as an associate with Dyer Brown.
“We learn a lot from our interviews with landlords and managers that helps us to serve them better, and it also reinforces what we’ve learned for work for tenant firms,” Stanley observes.
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