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Obsolescence - Tempus Fugit?

Byline: GVA's Charles Toogood

close vicinity to public transport links and large column-free floor plates amongst the features that have attracted occupiers seeking corporate offices and the latest technology. On Broad Street, the former Cumberland House recently underwent a PS30,000,000 refit to prepare its alternative use as a 285 room Hampton by Hilton hotel. A suitable and viable alternative use was found for an obsolescent office building that was simply out of touch with contemporary requirements.

So that's the immediate past, but what about the present and immediate future? Well, obsolescence is very likely to increase as ageing stock no longer meets the demands of modern companies wishing to adapt to new technology and working practises or environmental Way back in the 14th century, Geoffrey Chaucer supposedly wrote, "Time and tide wait for no man" while, some 1300 years earlier, Roman poet Virgil apparently coined the phrase "Tempus fugit" - time flees.

You can't really argue with these sentiments - we all get older and some of us (ok then, some of you) may even get wiser! Some lucky people improve with age like good single malt, while others appear to shrivel up like a wrinkled old potato (you know which one you are!). But looks aren't always everything - as a glance at my photo proves - it's what's inside that's really important.

It could be said that property is similar - some buildings definitely age far better than others. But if there is a functional and efficient interior behind what might be perceived as a dated exterior, there will still be a practical use for it. On the other hand, even if the facade is well-loved - and some of our most admired buildings are well past their expected sell-by date - very few companies will want to move in to them if the property is impractical or uneconomical to run.

So, despite time being an element in both, there is a distinct difference between a building that has deteriorated and one that is becoming obsolete.

Deterioration is the physical decline in a building's fabric due to: Extensive use The effect of the elements The ravages of time Obsolescence however is down to: A change in user requirements (functional obsolescence) A building's competitive usefulness and value (economic obsolescence), or The impact of nearby development and accessibility (external obsolescence).

So although Father Time may well play a part in making a building obsolete, he is by no means the principal protagonist. Changing social, technological, legislative and economic pressures will have varying degrees of impact on the usefulness or, more specifically, the non-usefulness of commercial properties. And it is these elements that will decide what ultimately happens to a property in our city.

Floor plate size and configuration, the number and layout of structural columns, floor to ceiling heights, the number and size of lifts, type and efficiency of heating and air conditioning, the uses of surrounding buildings, transport links, accessibility, availability and type of workforce, the nature of the occupiers' business, changes in working practices, projected rental income, property values, land values, occupancy rates, legislation, sustainability and maintenance costs - these are all factors that impinge on a property's fitness for use, its practical and economic viability and whether it's a fully functional workspace.

So, to continue the 'time' theme, although the appearance of the 'clock face' continues to be important, it's the efficiency of the internal workings and how well-oiled the cogs and wheels are that really matters. After all, you would be unlikely to continue wearing a watch if it no longer kept correct time, however nice it looked.

But, once designated as obsolescent, what is the destiny of these properties? Well, it really comes down to three options: Refurbishment Alternative ||Demolition Obviously, commercial viability will have a major say in which one of these is the preferred option but, over the past few years, we have seen some prime examples of obsolescence driven development in Birmingham: The Landmark Rotunda building was built in the 60s as a high rise office block and later granted a Grade 2 listing.

Having become obsolescent as a commercial office development, the building was refurbished and enjoyed a new lease of life after being partially converted to luxury apartments by Urban Splash.

Colmore Plaza, meanwhile, grew out of the demolition of the former Post and Mail House. The Carlyle Group's office building has seen its double height reception area, state of the art lifts, Wi-Fi, legislation. With little new build and the supply of grade 'A' space diminishing, we are likely to see even more refurbishment to upgrade existing offices and, when allowed by market forces, more conversions to residential use, hotels and student accommodation.

Obsolescence has been a driving element of the present proposals for Paradise Circus. The John Madin designed library will be obsolete when the new Library for Birmingham opens in Centenary Square. The original building was designed for a specific use and the physical layout of the floorplates, limited floor to ceiling heights and concrete construction make it unsuitable for conversion to alternative uses. A current planning application to completely rebuild the site will therefore lead to its demolition if approved.

But what can be done to stop the pendulum of obsolescence swinging like the Sword of Damocles over existing properties - or indeed new buildings? How can they be future-proofed? In many cases it's the fitness for use rather than the building itself that becomes obsolete. So, in addition to being well designed and good to look at, new builds and refurbishments will need to have increased flexibility to enable quick and relatively inexpensive revisions to workspaces in order to meet changing occupier requirements.

BREEAM ratings and energy efficiency levels will need to be high priorities while floorplate size and configuration need to be as adaptable as possible and access to the latest technology is a must.

Obsolescence is difficult to define and even harder to monitor as it is far more subjective than physical deterioration and can vary depending on whether you are approaching it from an investor's viewpoint or an occupier's. However, it is vital in today's market to make time to identify the symptoms, make an accurate diagnosis and treat the problem before it becomes terminal.

Now, as someone who despite being considered by some to be deteriorating but definitely does not feel obsolescent, where did I put my anti-ageing cream?....

If there is a functional and efficient interior behind what might be perceived as a dated exterior, there will '' still be a practical use for it.


Charles Toogood, director at GVA
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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Oct 11, 2012
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