Office N Illinois

How spec suites have become the most powerful component in the office marketing toolbox

Eastlake Studio designed this spec suite to aid the repositioning of Chicago’s iconic Willis Tower. (Credit: Steve Hall) Eastlake Studio designed this spec suite to aid the repositioning of Chicago’s iconic Willis Tower. (Credit: Steve Hall)
A West Loop building, 550 W. Jackson, sought to woo tenants with this flexible spec suite. (Credit: Kendal McCaugherty) A West Loop building, 550 W. Jackson, sought to woo tenants with this flexible spec suite. (Credit: Kendal McCaugherty)
A former spec suite in 222 N. LaSalle was converted into office space for Origami Risk. (Credit: Kendal McCaugherty) A former spec suite in 222 N. LaSalle was converted into office space for Origami Risk. (Credit: Kendal McCaugherty)

Attracting office tenants to Class A space is almost too easy; you just let the spiffy new building promote itself. For older buildings, getting a good, long look from a prospective tenant can be a bit more difficult.

The Chicago CBD absorbed nearly 460,000 square feet of office space last quarter, according to a recent report by CBRE. More than three quarters of that was in Class A space. So what can be done to draw users to older buildings?

One tool that owners and leasing teams have turned to over the past few years is the spec suite. By spending some money up front to design and build out a model space that prospects can tour, the thinking goes, the space will lease up quicker and the new rent will quickly offset the capital expenditure.

Recently, the spec suite has evolved, becoming more of a “marketing suite.” Instead of building out a space with the expectation of moving people in immediately, the leasing team can use it like a model home—a modern, high-tech space designed to increase foot traffic and get people excited about the whole building.

This strategy works particularly well for buildings undergoing a major repositioning. At Chicago’s Old Post Office, for example, 601W Companies and The Telos Group decided to install an approximately 40,000-square-foot spec suite that has helped the highway-straddling behemoth lease out more than 540,000 of its 2.8 million square feet.

One go-to firm in Chicago that teams seek out to design these spaces is Eastlake Studio. “If you had told me 10 years ago that we would have done over 50 spec suites last year, I would have thought we failed as a firm,” said Tom Zurowski, AIA, Eastlake’s founding principal.

Spec suites of the past were vanilla boxes, built out with as little funds and infused with as little personality as possible. This strategy, designed to attract everybody, often had the opposite reaction and instead enticed nobody. The new generation of spec suites have much more character, artfully designed to catch the eyes of the tech-forward tenants that every building owner wants to land.

“Culture and values are a much bigger thing for tenants these days, for both small and large businesses. Everybody is starting to realize that your workplace is something that you have to pitch when you’re trying to retain staff or recruit new people,” Zurowski said. “It’s not just about impressing clients anymore; it’s as much about recruiting as it is anything.”

To facilitate the redevelopment of the iconic Willis Tower, Blackstone hired three firms—Perkins+Will, Wright Heerema Architects and Eastlake—to design separate portions of the 57th floor as a marketing tool for prospective tenants.

“The design firms were directed to be a little different,” said Christina Brown, NCIDQ, LEED AP ID+C, principal at Eastlake. “One of them was more upscale with white finishes, the other more corporate feeling and ours had a little more rustic feel, more hospitality-focused.”

The Eastlake design at Willis Tower is meant to impress prospects right as they exit the elevator, even before they see the sweeping views. Reclaimed walnut, leather rugs and plush furniture create a warm aesthetic while the large cafe creates an atmosphere of collaboration and hospitality—traits that modern employers are always looking for to attract and retain their workforce.

“What’s really important with spec suites is engaging with people emotionally. We’ve been on tours with a tenant looking at five different sites in one day,” Zurowski said. “At the end of the day, it’s kind of like visiting a museum—by the time you get to hour three, you start to lose people.”

For a tenant visiting a series of white-walled offices, or even a raw space with no finishes beyond the building’s own infrastructure, entering a chic, thoughtfully designed spec suite will certainly stand out.

“The spaces that have the higher designs of spec suites, where the building owners are clearly investing money, those are the ones that stand out to the tenants,” Brown said. “It sets the tone that the building is willing to take that risk, to spend money on design and furniture.”

While the goal is to awe tenants during a walkthrough, there has to be a balance. If a space is infused with too much personality, prospects might not be able to look past those and see how the space might work for them. One project, a spec suite at 550 W. Jackson, is representative of finding this equilibrium.

“This building has been kind of zombie for a long time. We looked at this building 10 times with different tenants, but the building owner could never quite close the deal because of their limited resources,” said Zurowski. “So it changed hands and Telos picked up the marketing and they brought us in to do a full-floor marketing suite.”

Located in the West Loop, the goal for the design was to marry the industrial look of Fulton Market with the polished patina of a Loop high-rise. The defining feature is the use of breeze blocks—a material typically used for exterior construction—to create half-walls that help define the space.

“Flexibility is the biggest part of the design challenge,” said Brown. “You are going to design the suite with a specific color palate, but let’s say a company comes in with a complete opposite branding. Those elements have to be easy to pull out and replace.”

A red room that needs to be blue, for example, is easily converted after popping out carpet tiles, swapping furniture and painting walls. Like the breeze blocks in this space, the permanent, more architectural and more expensive features are meant to be neutral in tone to appeal to a larger crowd.

This need for flexibility is evident at another project within 222 N. LaSalle. The building was constructed in 1927 but underwent a major overhaul in 1987 that saw the addition of a four-story, postmodern penthouse. Inside, what had been a lightwell running down the center of the building was filled in with multi-story atriums adding rentable square footage.

Since the late ‘80s, these atrium spaces were popular with law firms as a location for their massive law libraries. Law firms have changed since then, however, ditching the books and slimming down their office footprints. The building’s owner brought Eastlake in to design a new vision for the unique, double-height space.

The redesign created a town hall, combining existing light fixtures, molding and screens with modern finishes. In the spec suite vision, the space was infused with greens and gold and with Art Deco flourishes.

A client that Eastlake had previously designed space for inside the Merchandise Mart, Origami Risk, saw the space and decided that it could accommodate their quickly expanding operations. Because of the way that the spec suite was initially completed, it didn’t take a massive undertaking to convert the space to fit Origami Risk’s branding, which was more blue and white, modern and clean.

“We’ve gotten so smart about how to approach these things that I almost feel a little bit cocky when we come into these opportunities,” said Zurowski. “We know what works and what doesn’t.”