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CBRE Furniture Forum Sparks Launch of Two Industry Disruptors

Husband-and-wife team Jeffrey and Lindsay Braun.

Nearly two years ago, commercial real estate company, CBRE, embarked on a yearlong journey to uncomplicate the process behind furniture buying. The question was simple: What can we do better? In November 2017, the CBRE Furniture Forum released a list of 15 recommendations designed to unravel the complicated web of the furniture-buying process. The high-level, process-improvement ideas include, among others, bringing a dealer designer in as a sub to the A&D firm and increasing process efficiency.

Fast-forward to spring 2018, when the owners of a Los Angeles furniture company read the results and recommendations of the CBRE study with great interest. The report’s results prompted husband-and-wife team Jeffrey and Lindsay Braun to make a dramatic decision: sell their 17-year-old company, Jeffrey Braun Furniture, to pioneer something new.

Enter Platform, an in-house furniture design and manufacturing division of Unisource Solutions, and Emblem, a company that breaks the mold of contract furniture acquisition.

Lindsay Braun, founder and CEO of Emblem, explains what provoked the pivot: “There were problems and inefficiencies in the old model that drove Jeffrey and me nuts. We were frustrated with the multiple layers between our company and the end user. There were so many opportunities for incorrect interpretations and faulty assumptions,” she says. “It felt good to see the problems we were experiencing addressed in black and white by the Furniture Forum. Jeffrey and I were fully worn down by the current sales process, and we thought, Do we still want to do this? Is this solving the end users’ problem? How could we expand on this model?”

Addressing the Need for Enhanced Dealer-Designer Relationships

At the time, Lindsay and Jeffrey thought perhaps they could be a dedicated vendor for one of their strongest dealer clients, Unisource Solutions. But instead, Jeffrey was recruited by Unisource Solutions and now serves as executive vice president of Platform, its new, in-house design and manufacturing division—a direct result of the dealer-designer prediction from the Furniture Forum.

“We approached Unisource’s leadership with an idea and a feeling that we could all be doing a better job servicing customers,” Jeffrey explains. “I had designed furniture for several of Unisource’s clients over the years and worked with their team as a vendor. Rick and I started talking about the possibilities of doing away with the vendor layer altogether.”

Fox Aftershock / Custom seating, Platform by Unisource Solutions.

Rick Bartlett, president of Unisource Solutions, says his team had already been discussing the best way to innovate new solutions and create greater efficiency for their clients. “The timing was perfect,” Bartlett says. “We knew that our clients and the A&D community were actively searching for residential-inspired, ancillary furniture for their workspaces. The demand for this type of furniture was increasing, and we needed a new approach. Jeffrey’s knowledge of furniture design and manufacturing enabled us to innovate an entirely different solution.”

As part of Platform, Jeffrey is now designing custom furniture for clients at Unisource Solutions. In less than a year, Jeffrey and his team have installed furniture for Google, Warner Brothers’ Music, and Aftershock Games, helping each of these companies reflect its brand, culture, and vision in its spaces with bespoke furniture solutions. By integrating the designer into the dealer model earlier in the process, the company can condense the timeline and provide an open line of communication between the designer and the account manager/dealer.

Custom seating for Google Spruce Goose project, Platform by Unisource Solutions.

And Jeffrey’s not stopping there.

“We’ve designed an exclusive line of furniture available only from Unisource Solutions,” he says. “These are workhorse seating designs that every office environment needs, but because I’m working closely with local manufacturers, we also offer easy custom adjustments. Our goal is to give our clients more control, better design, and greater efficiency with every project.”

Streamlining Delivery Time Through Process Integration

While Jeffrey Braun was eliminating frustrations and boosting creativity at the dealership level, Lindsay Braun was working on an entirely different set of pain points. In the past several years, she had noticed more of her designer and dealership clients specifying and buying residential retail furniture instead of contract furniture. She was asking herself, How can I provide a quick and easy commercial-grade solution?

Lindsay acknowledged that Jeffrey Braun Furniture was simply not set up to take on this challenge, so she began working on Emblem: a vertically integrated contract furniture company designed with the lofty goal of delivering commercial-grade construction, fabric, details, and finishes in just three to four weeks.

Simply stated, Emblem is setting out to offer the online retail experience with commercial-grade quality.

Emblem’s Bend Sofa, Bend Chair, and Capital Chair.

Scheduled to launch this month, Emblem initially will offer 17 seating designs with seven fabric offerings and four metal finish options. Each piece is designed and built in California. Dealerships and designers will receive a trade discount, but business owners will also be able to buy online directly from Emblem’s website.

“I wanted to give designers and dealerships a quick furniture solution they would feel confident about,” Lindsay explains. “Emblem is beautifully designed. It’s built for high-use environments. Our textiles are commercial grade with stain resistance and a minimum 100,000 double rubs. Emblem has the same high quality that designers expect in furniture for their commercial projects.”

Responding to concerns about giving businesses a way to buy contract furniture without a dealer, Lindsay says, “Most of these companies are not engaging a dealer. They are buying furniture online because they aren’t being serviced by the contract furniture industry or the dealership model. The more we can help businesses understand the benefit of contract furniture, the more they will find value in a thoughtful, efficient dealership model.

“If a small business needs a sofa and two chairs for a lobby, I want to give them the autonomy to easily find pricing, make a decision, and buy commercial-grade furniture for their own space,” Lindsay continues. “When that same business grows and needs desking systems and other services, they will already see the value in contract furniture versus going the residential retail route.”

Jeffrey Braun, Executive Vice President of Platform and Lindsay Braun, Founder and CEO of Emblem.

When asked why they would sell their furniture business and take on the risks involved with launching two new companies, Lindsay and Jeffrey say the decision was simple. “This all happened in just one year after we heard the results of the CBRE study,” Lindsay states. “The study resonated with us and was a major factor in our decision. Jeffrey and I have always wanted to serve the industry and our clients in the best way we could, and these new ventures are the results. We did this because we believe this is the way the industry should function.”

 Amanda Schneider is President of ThinkLab, the research division of Interior Design magazine. At ThinkLab, we combine Interior Design magazine’s incredible reach within the architecture and design community with proven market research techniques to uncover relevant trends and opportunities that connect back to brand and business goals in a thought-provoking, creative, and actionable way. Join in to know what’s next at https://thinklab.design/join-in/

Continue reading CBRE Furniture Forum Sparks Launch of Two Industry Disruptors

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Today’s offices are taking design cues from hotels—and homes

In-demand amenities tout food, fitness, and community

Amenities can make or break a project for certain clients. Just ask architect Roger Heerema, principal at Wright Heerema Architects. As he envisioned the Shuman, a new building in the upscale Chicago suburb of Naperville being remade by developers at Franklin Partners, he wanted something that had undeniable curb appeal.

The space would eventually include a reworked lobby, a new fitness club, an engaging entrance experience not unlike what you’d experience at a hotel, and an upscale food-and-beverage program with a rotating cast of Chicago-area restauranteurs. It’s a dynamic experience that’s much like high-end hospitality. Or, he says, as close as one can get with suburban office space.

The Shuman, branded as a “socially-activated building,” represents what Heerema deems the “office amenity arms race”: Over the last decade and change, between the embrace of and backlash over open office plans, changing work habits, and the rise of coworking, our workspaces have been reimagined with more appeals to comfort, choice, and luxury. Design trends once relegated to either home, office, retail, or hospitality categories have merged, and today influence a middle ground of activated, amenity-laden space.

But the Shuman, which Heerema designed to be a departure from what’s normally done in the suburbs, shows how what was once exceptional is now commonplace. A strong labor market, increased competition for top tenants, and increased office space means landlords everywhere are doubling down on the latest wellness, fitness, and social features, mirroring the way companies want to use their offices to portray themselves as aspirational and open.

“Ten years ago, it was enough to have something, anything, a check-the-box amenity like a fitness center,” Heerema says. “Today, landlords [are] looking at amenities with much more interest than they did before.”

The game room at 222 Riverside in Chicago. Commercial real estate services and investment firm CBRE predicts 59.7 million square feet of office space will open before next year, which would be the largest annual addition since 2008.
James Steinkamp Photography

Competition breeds commercial changes across the country

This year marks the fourth consecutive year with more than 50 million square feet of new office space finishing construction across the nation, according to commercial brokerage JLL. Commercial real estate services and investment firm CBRE predicts 59.7 million square feet will open before next year, which would be the largest annual addition since 2008. At the same time, the tech sector, where many of the more playful office space trends originated, is taking up more total space, accounting for nearly 27 percent of the 311.9 million square feet of new leases signed last year.

More demand and more new space have led landlords and developers in every market to invest in more inviting office buildings, according to Todd Burns, president of JLL’s project and development services, from renovations to building more plug-and-play spaces, so tenants can customize their offices once they move in.

“It’s not limited to the 40-story high-rise downtown,” he says. “Even the smaller, class-B buildings are doing renovations, adding features, and reworking lobbies so you can sit down and work near the entryway.”

Nearly any aspect of an office can get amenitized, says Heerema. With the commercial real estate sector in many major cities posting single-digit vacancy rates that have recently begun rising, owners looking to make returns on big commercial investments see amenities as a quick way to create value and stand apart. That includes bowling alleys, golf simulators, and, increasingly, more elaborate rooftop decks. A top-floor tenant lounge at 123 North Wacker Drive in Chicago that Heerema designed for Lasalle Investment Management features a two-story, 5,000-foot lounge with a glass wall that opens to the outdoors. Even washrooms have become something to brag about.

Marques Williams, a global broker in the media and technology group at commercial real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield the competition to acquire space ,and therefore talent, is the primary dynamic driving the market.

“The entire spectrum of creative office supply has been impacted by coworking,” he says. “However, it’s happening at a time when industry-specific advances, merger and acquisition activity, and IPOs for media and tech companies are at an all-time high.”

The chase, says Williams, has led landlords to “reverse engineer” architectural and design strategies for specific tenants.

“As companies battle it out in the war for talent, they need to be cognizant of the impact an office environment has on recruitment and retention,” says JLL’s Burns. “Choosing the right office style means real bottom-line impact.”

The golf simulator at 222 Riverside. “It they’re into golf, the building will get a golf simulator, they’ll get dog runs, anything that keeps people happy.”
James Steinkamp Photography

How office amenities are evolving

A good way to measure the increased investment in amenities is to look at tenant improvement (TI) allowances, the sum landlords agree to spend on updating a space during negotiations with tenants. A JLL study found spending on TIs rose 10 percent in 2017 and 13 percent in 2018.

“TIs are clearly going up because there’s more space in the market that’s available,” JLL’s Burns says. “Landlords have to compete more and more for tenants.”

That means tenants get pretty much whatever they want. Take Austin, a poster child for tech-led growth, with new or expanded offices from Apple, Facebook, and many others. According to Troy Holme, the vice president of CBRE’s Austin office, vacancy is in the single digits across the metro area, and under 5 percent in certain areas.

“It they’re into golf, the building will get a golf simulator, they’ll get dog runs, anything that keeps people happy,” he says. “Right now, people are warehousing space in advance. We have a pipeline two to three years out of new space coming online in Austin.”

Landlords can follow numerous routes to better their office assets. Some are going green and banking on the appeal—and health benefits—of cleaner, more sustainable interior space. The market for third-party verification of various green building standards is expected to reach $254 billion by 2020, according to the Green Building Alliance.

Others have banked on tech, including ultra-fast broadband and wireless connections, smart windows, and smart home-style apps that make it easier to book meetings and track space usage. According to a CBRE study quoted in the New York Times, audiovisual costs for new offices have skyrocketed, going from an average of $5 per square foot five years ago to $10 to $20 per square foot today. Newer, high-profile offices, like Bloomberg’s London space and the Edge in Amsterdam, showcase a focus on data-driven design and services.

The burgeoning market for such technology only reinforces that it makes a real difference. Venture capital investment in real estate technologies hit $9.6 billion in 2018, according to CREtech, and, last week, Cushman & Wakefield announced a partnership with Stanford University’s Disruptive Technology and Digital Cities Program to start working on transformative technologies within the commercial space.

Living in a WeWork world

Few companies symbolize changing work styles and amenity-heavy offices more than coworking giant WeWork, which mainstreamed the idea of company beer taps and creative communal workspaces. Originally marketed as a home for entrepreneurs, the company has recently moved up the value chain, with nearly a third of its membership coming from enterprise clients (businesses with 1,000 or more employees) and a growing business managing custom spaces for big businesses. Along with tech office tropes like stadium seating, the company’s design cues and approach have become de rigueur.

Liz Burow, a vice president and the company’s director of workplace strategy, says WeWork’s design success comes as much from strategy as it does from supplemental drinks. Landlords, and the coworking company, can add amenities, but need to think through what they do, why they work together, and most importantly, how they bring people together.

 

As with retail today, commercial space providers are competing with the couch, and need to figure out what they can offer that will get people to leave home. Increasingly, she says, the answer is experiences and community. Amenities alone aren’t the answer.

“I call it the Disneyland effect,” she says. “Sure, Disney looks great, but nobody visits just to look at the environment and walk around. Disney works because the company has activated the space.”

Burow says design needs to be about community and connection, creating spaces and activities that provide a social nudge. Great common space or a cafe can be transformative, but not merely by dint of their existence. They need to be properly programmed. That’s why WeWork has invested so much in ancillary companies and services like MeetUp, the digital community site, and the Flatiron School, the coding academy, as well as various meetings in WeWork locations focused on topics of interest to startups and entrepreneurs.

Burow uses icebergs as a metaphor for the usefulness of new-wave office amenities: The features you see in a modern office are the ice above the waterline. But the culture, programming, and vision that make those spaces work, that’s the part that you don’t see. Amenities can help recruitment and retention to a point, but culture, at the end of the day, is what makes everything click.

“An office should be the physical manifestation of a company saying ‘we want you to feel comfortable and relax,’” Burow says. “It’s about driving to something much deeper, that we trust you to do your work, and be where you need to be. The company needs to solve that, and not just with the way it designs its office.”

Continue reading Today’s offices are taking design cues from hotels—and homes

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