Back To The Factory: Cities Bet Big On The Return Of The Office

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Posted: Jan 11, 2023

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Back to the Factory: Cities Bet Big on the Return of the Office

By Angela O’Byrne, FAIA 

Facing an uncertain economy and a cracked-open labor market, employers are reaching for whatever competitive edge they can find in the battle for talent. And, while pay and perks remain the most obvious tactics for winning the hearts of prospective employees, there’s a third p-word that can tip the balance amongst the most discerning candidates: PLACE. 

Investing in flashy work environments might seem counter-intuitive while many organizations’ back-to-the-office strategies are still being met with grumbling resistance. However, some companies are doubling down on a new class of statement office. Forget corporate complexes, conventional office towers, or even custom-built headquarters. The next era of development may be remembered for workplaces that feel more like leisure destinations than office parks. After all, if you can’t mandate attendance, you might as well inspire it.

Plenty of cities have seen the emergence of buzzy neighborhoods anchored around crowd-pleasing historic reclamation projects. But two massive projects in development—one in Brooklyn, one in London—may yet define the genre. Both reimagine iconic, monumental brick buildings as trendy mixed-use destinations. Both take advantage of incredible riverside sites. And both, in their sheer scope and ambition, are sure to become textbook examples of post-pandemic prestige planning. 

Perched over the East River, the Domino Sugar factory has long felt like a relic in thoroughly-gentrified Williamsburg. Surrounded by high-rises, the red brick building is squat by comparison—more in conversation with the Williamsburg Bridge than its hyper-contemporary neighbors. However, a long-gestating attempt to salvage the site is now well underway. In fact, this past December the building got its signature yellow rooftop sign back—or at least a completely refurbished LED version. 

SHoP Architects’ plans for the Domino site will ultimately offer 600,000 square feet of office space, 2,800 apartments, and six acres of parkland along the river—all coming in at a price tag approximately $3 billion. The complex is targeting high-end retail tenants, buzzy restaurants, and the kind of companies that would usually office in the heart of Manhattan.

Central to the site is the refinery, a cluster of interconnected brick buildings that were once some of the tallest in the borough. As dedicated landmarks, their facades have been encased in glass, while a brand-new building-within-a-building will offer up generous slabs of Class-A office space. Atop the refinery will sit a breathtaking barrel-shaped vaulted rooftop, which will create 27,000 square feet of desirable penthouse office space. Boasting uninterrupted views over the river, the dramatic space is sure to become a new crown jewel of status New York real estate. 

However, the Domino Sugar factory has significant competition across the pond. Britain’s Battersea Power Station boasts an even more iconic silhouette. Dominated by four enormous smokestacks, the imposing art deco giant is album-cover famous thanks to Pink Floyd. Encompassing 42 acres, the rehabilitation of Battersea power plant and the construction of adjoining buildings will ultimately be an $11 billion endeavor, stewarded by a group of Malaysian investors.  

Re-opening in 2022, the monumental, ten-year redevelopment effort has transformed the long-dormant coal power plant into a giant leisure complex. In all, the renovation required the creation of 1.75 million replacement bricks, a new roof, and a total replacement of the factory’s famous chimneys. 

The resulting development feels like something a team of imagineers might conjure up. Luxury brands sell their wares in former turbine halls. In Control Room B, a kitschy (and thoroughly themed) cocktail bar, mixologists toil alongside 1950’s-era control modules and synchroscopes. And tourists can pay 15 dollars to take an elevator (marketed as the Lift 109 experience) to an observation deck that atop one of the smokestacks. 

By repurposing and reimagining massive industrial environments, both Battersea and the Domino Sugar Factory imagine a vision of work that dispenses with drudgery. They are art-directed environments that propose productivity and leisure aren’t opposites but instead two sides of a well-balanced lifestyle. 

Will replacing the smells of burnt sugar and fired coal with designer scents convince pandemic-weary workers to come back to the office? Only time will tell. This year Apple is set to open their Foster + Partners-designed corporate office at Battersea, encompassing nearly 500,000 square feet of airy retro-futurist workspace clad in warm brickwork. If Apple’s hunch is right, more and more of us might find ourselves working in a factory. Who could have predicted that? 

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