Do you know why blueprints are called blueprints? In 1842, an astronomer/mathematician turned chemist discovered a way to copy a drawing photographically. The process was called cyanotype because the chemicals used in the solution would turn a copy cyan-blue. Engineers quickly adopted this process to replicate complex mechanical drawings and the blueprint was born.
For over a century, drafters would physically draw on often enormous pieces of paper to create and edit building floor plans. Eventually, these plans would transition to a digital format. While this helped improve the revision process during construction, these digital versions share a common problem with their blue paper predecessors: they still live tucked away in corners of a property management office of older buildings. The problem is that floor plans, digital or not, aren’t easy to find and are even harder to confirm their validity.
Floor plans are often dropped batons in a relay race, falling when building ownership changes, new property managers are hired, or new renovations render current versions obsolete. Building owners and managers feel the impact more than you might think because of how often they are needed in day-to-day operations, especially given what’s happening in commercial real estate today.
Blueprinting a building’s future, not just its current state
Without knowing what lies in the bones of the building, it’s hard to know what changes will cost, whether those changes are capital improvements or use conversions. Abby Caldwell, Director of Operations at Floorwire, explains, “It costs real estate companies 17 cents per square foot to redraw lost plans, update rentable space calculations, and answer basic questions like where the HVAC is or how a floor is divided into suites.”
Building changes and improvements happen all the time, but that rarely means a floor plan has been updated with it. A tenant may move a wall or add a new internal door to separate their square footage into smaller spaces. These undocumented changes introduce problems for both the management of the asset and the tenant experience. For example, tenant improvement allowances are hard if not impossible to calculate without knowing important details about electrical or HVAC systems. Given this constant state of change for commercial floor plans and the important architectural data they hold, floor plans should be treated as living documents, revised, and updated as changes to the physical space are made.
Another consideration: the rise of adaptive reuse and conversions
As landlords and developers look at expanding their portfolios in 2022 and beyond, they are setting their eyes on potential acquisitions with redevelopment and conversion in mind. Not only does this mean that many buildings’ floor plans will change, but their product type and purpose will also shift as well.
According to data from Yardi, 20,100 residential units were created in the U.S. from multifamily adaptive reuse last year, nearly double the number converted in 2020 and 2019 combined. Office to lab conversions is also at a record high, spurred by all-time high investments in life sciences and the cost per square footage for lab space, especially in core markets like Boston and San Francisco.
Real estate companies doing adaptive reuse and conversions face one of three scenarios when it comes to floor plans. Best case, but also the least likely: They have current, digital floor plans for the entire building. Worst case: there are no digital plans and paper blueprints are the originals only found at a city’s building or inspectional department. The third scenario is the most likely: There is some version of floor plans available, but the team doesn’t know if they’re accurate.
Landlords and developers can choose to go in blindly, but they’ll just uncover unexpected challenges and eat away at contingency budgets faster than anticipated. Angela Aeschliman, Senior Vice President, Property and Asset Management at the Missner Group, a vertically integrated real estate company based just outside Chicago, highlights the cross-functional importance of having up-to-date, digital versions of floor plans at every stage of the real estate lifecycle. “As an owner-developer, natural silos can exist between construction, development, property, and asset management, but we all need current, digital versions of our floor plans to collaborate internally across our departments and externally with ownership teams, joint venture partners, and external project team members like our architects and construction partners,” she said.
The Missner Group owns, manages, and develops various property types, from office and industrial to retail and healthcare. This diversification means that asset managers and property teams like them have to understand how these building types vary and what that means for daily operations. Aeschliman points out that digital floor plans can be a helpful training tool for property managers. “I want my property management team to understand and learn our buildings at the plan level, so they can be as knowledgeable as an ownership team is about that asset. In turn, they provide more value by identifying ways to breathe more new life into the building for the future.”
A helpful comparison for digital floor plans is to think about the impact that digital twins are now having on building modeling. Both technologies empower real estate companies to understand how a building and its interconnected systems work, so teams can make better decisions about the asset’s future. We have come a long way on the journey from draftsman hunched over giant hand-drawn building plans. But getting floor plans in a digital format is still just the beginning. For floor plans to achieve their full potential, they will need to become living documents that are able to mimic the complexity of their real-world counterparts.